Chinese Artist Zeng Fanzhi: “I Don’t Want To Be Pigeonholed”

Zeng Discusses Childhood In Wuhan, Success In Beijing, Future Plans

Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng Fanzhi

Over the past 15 years Chinese contemporary artist Zeng Fanzhi has emerged as one of his country’s most well-known artists, surpassing Zhang Xiaogang in sales last year to become China’s highest-grossing contemporary artist of 2009 and proving exceptionally popular among China’s new breed of super-collectors. Last week, at BAZAAR magazine’s 8th annual charity auction in Shanghai, a new piece by Zeng, “Untitled 10-3-23” sold for 10 million yuan (US$1.46 million), and 100% of works by Zeng up for grabs at the recent Sotheby’s spring auction in Hong Kong sold, pulling in a grand total of US$1.88 million.

Clearly Zeng Fanzhi is one of China’s most important contemporary artists, but what’s behind his artwork? His newer works have largely moved far beyond his early “Mask” series, becoming increasingly abstract and losing any obvious connection to the cynical realist works that were a centerpiece of his early career. Last week, a reporter from the Wuhan Evening News sat down with Zeng to discuss his childhood in Wuhan (the capital city of Hubei province), his career thus far, and the legacy he’s trying to carve out as a Chinese artist with global appeal.

Translation by Jing Daily team:

Reporter: When you were little, you lived in Wuhan’s Liuduqiao Renxiang neighborhood. How have your childhood memories influenced your artwork?

Zeng: Wuhan at that time was relatively simple, quiet. In Jianghan, the difference between the buildings in the concession area and the residential areas was really pronounced, Wuhan at that time had a lot of artists, who lived in pretty crowded conditions in Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang, made art together, went to the park to sketch, etc. That’s the kind of environment it was.

Reporter: Do you think the reputation Wuhan people have for shrewdness, restlessness, and a hot temper has had an impact on your disposition and success?

Zeng: Wuhan people have a unique ability to live independently when they move away. They’re incredibly diligent, they know how to get things done. Even if things get rough and they start to show their bad-tempered side, they still have a sort of thin rational side as well.

Reporter: People in Wuhan are undoubtedly familiar with the titles of [your pieces] “Butcher Shop” (肉联) and “Union Hospital, Triptych” (协和医院三联画). Why are you so concerned with the subjects of death, disease, and suffering?

"Butcher Shop" (肉联) by Zeng Fanzhi

"Butcher Shop" (肉联) by Zeng Fanzhi (1992)

Zeng: My work comes from real life. “Butcher Shop” is a good example. I used to live by a butcher shop, and sometimes a big refrigerated truck would come block the road and they’d unload big hunks of meat from the meat processing factory. One day I saw something that was so “real” — refrigerated meat that was covered with a green oilcloth, with several people lying on top of it taking a mid-day nap. The meat was only halfway covered, so some of it was poking out, and so were some people’s legs, and most people there wouldn’t have known that I was an artist and I can see things from a different angle than most people.

When I saw this, I just thought it was such a perfect scene, I’ve got a lot of experiences and stories like this, because these were my living conditions.

When I went to university I really liked expressionism, because it can depict the decadence, the anxiety, the depression that’s in all of us. When I was about 20 years old I had this kind of rebellious youth (愤青) attitude, which is carved into my mind.

Reporter: Among international art collectors, the wife of Guy Ullens is famous [for “discovering you”]. At that time [in the 1990s], you and Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun and others were still unknown. How’d you feel when Ullens bought the first piece from you?

Zeng: When Ullens bought my piece, I still didn’t know who it was that bought it, because artists’ works are recommended to collectors by galleries. At that time Guy Ullens wasn’t was famous as he is today, we just knew that he was a very good collector, and for him to collect your work was a great thing.

Later Ullens bought a very important piece of mine, “The Last Supper.” He saw it in a newspaper in Europe and wanted it. The canvas was 4 meters wide and 2 meters tall — quite large. At that time no one could really purchase it because it was too big. Only a big collector like Ullens could’ve collected a huge, heavy-weight work like that at that time.

Later, he and I became friends. His promotion of the field of Chinese contemporary art really played a big role [in its popularization].

Reporter: Did you feel happy or sad when your first painting sold?

Zeng: Of course I felt very happy, not sad. In the early ’90s when people actually wanted to start buying my work, it really was a turning point in my life, a huge encouragement! When people who are experts in their field pay for your work, it really makes you think: Oh, my work actually is a work of art, I am an artist. At that time I still hadn’t become a full-time artist, but inside I always felt that I was meant to make art. Even though others didn’t understand, I was always optimistic. So for that reason, the first piece I ever sold, “Union Hospital Triptych,” will always be extremely important to me.

Reporter: Many works of [Chinese] contemporary art incorporate personal symbols. For example, the “Masks” seen in your works, Yue Minjun’s “big white teeth,” Fang Lijun’s “Bald Guy,” and so forth, almost like personal trademarks, very easy to become popular. How’d you choose the symbols we see in your works, such as the “Mask Series”?

Zeng: I didn’t really put that much thought into “choosing” it as a symbol. I just inadvertently drew a portrait of a mask, but then I saw myself in that mask, saw that in my heart there were lots of complexities, and after I made that first [“Mask”] work, I got really excited. I felt that I’d discovered a new road.

But to a certain extent, I feel that change is necessary. If I lock myself into the same feelings I had 10 years ago, my work will seem stale and won’t mature. In my heart I know I don’t want to be pigeonholed. You have to invest a lot of feeling into making art. If it just becomes like a factory assembly line, with the end result always remaining predictable, you’ll feel like you’re wasting your life, wasting your time, no matter how popular it becomes.

Zeng Fanzhi - "Last Supper"

"The Last Supper" (2001)

Reporter: Your “Mask Series” is extremely popular at auction, no matter what you do with them they’ll have no problem selling. Why change that?

Zeng: Once I was at a dinner party with friends, some foreign art collectors, art critics and curators. And someone introduced me as “the artist who paints the masks.” Immediately, someone else said, “Oh!” and started shaking my hand, telling me how much they liked my work, that the masks are iconic, that people will remember me for a long time, etc.

At first I was flattered but it gets old when others keep introducing me this way. How can I carry around this kind of “mask” label? It seems like everyone around me has a label affixed to them. It’s upsetting. I don’t just want to be known as an artist who paints masks, and I’ve put a lot of consideration and thought into this. Of course my choice to stop painting masks isn’t accidental, I still paint what I want to paint, and as such there will be a lot of variety in what I do, but when I finish something new I look back and see what best reflects the road I want to be on.

Reporter: What plans do you have for the future?

Zeng: In June I’ll go to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, where their National Gallery has invited me to do a very large exhibition. It’s really difficult to get into their National Gallery, no matter how much money you have, they choose you for their exhibitions.

I’m also planning to go to Art Basel, where the world’s top collectors, artists and critics will be concentrated. I plan to go there every year and take some of my best works to be shown.

At the Shanghai World Expo, August will be the best time for me to do a solo exhibition. I’m fortunate to get two months for my exhibition, which will take place from August to October. The art gallery has four floors, all of which will display roughly 20 pieces of my work. It’ll mostly be new works, and will be the first time I’ve ever exhibited my sculptures.

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Art & Auction, Culture