Interview With Chinese Contemporary Artist Zhang Xiaogang: Recording the “Relics of Life”


Excerpts Of Chinese Art Blog Artron’s Interview With Zhang Xiaogang Shed Light On His New Exhibition, “The Records”

Zhang Xiaogang feels the art environment in Beijing is worlds away from that of New York

Zhang Xiaogang feels the art environment in Beijing is worlds away from that of New York

We recently profiled Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Xiaogang’s new exhibition in Beijing, which breaks dramatically from his earlier work by incorporating sculpture and mixed media pieces.Last week, China-based art site Artron (Ya Chang Art Network) sat down with Zhang to discuss the new direction his art is taking, and the ways that the rapidly-shifting Chinese culture affects his creative process as well as his views of the American and Chinese art worlds.

Ya Chang Art Network: What’s the basic idea behind this new exhibition?

Zhang Xiaogang: Actually, the idea is basically to “revise” a continuing exhibition. But this idea is one that I’ve paid pretty close attention to for several years, like I have with topics related to “memory.” People’s lives are changing quickly, so now we’re facing our memory and our memory loss, which all results in a number of psychological reactions associated with these and other matters. So it seems that by creating pieces concerned with memory — since our lives are changing so fast, resulting in a constant loss of our memory and nostalgia, which begins at a very young age — it all comes back to how I was always concerned with the idea of memory, an idea that has concerned me even more in recent years.

In the past a series regarding “memory and starting to remember,” then a series about “inside and outside”, later became “amendment” in my new works — the new works are a deeper continuation of the old works. I hope to continue this theme, to a relatively deep degree, to see if there are any other possibilities. This is the basic idea [of this exhibition].

YC: What kind of works make up this exhibition?

Zhang Xiaogang: This exhibition, which was first shown at Pace Gallery in New York last year, was an exhibition focused on “correction” of prior works. The New York exhibition focused on traditional easel painting. For a long time I mostly focused on oil on canvas. Starting in 2005, I used other materials, like photography and the relationship between photography and words. So in this exhibition, I want to combine my painting and words. I thought about this for a long time, then finally decided in the middle of last year, though I don’t remember exactly when it was. I finally decided on a ghost-like material, without photographs, and decided not to do traditional oil on canvas; I wanted to try a kind of ghostlike, phantom material – sort of like a mirror. At the end, since mirrors are so fragile and they would’ve caused transportation problems, I decided to use a mirrored stainless steel plate to do the work. I applied silk screens onto the mirror material, plus added some painting, writing and text and the new flat works came together.
The idea was like a basis for everything.

Additionally, I’ve been experimenting with three-dimensional things, probably for about three years. My progress was really slow, and I didn’t want to show what I’d made to the public. But in this exhibition, I want to combine all these ideas so they totally come together. So to me they’re not really sculptures, but the expression of different materials. Beginning last year, these works began at the same time, but as of this year, we can see that this exhibition is divided into two groups: one group of works is flat, a group is three-dimensional. But the work I do isn’t really the same as other artists. I’m not a conceptual artist. I can’t think of an idea first, then lay everything out and create the finished product. That’s just not how I am. My idea from the beginning is a state of feeling, slowly discover feelings, and after I’ve got a sense of these feelings and the pieces enter public view they’re still changing. I’ve got a few things I feel are pretty good, I feel might be pretty good, and they’re all in a state of metamorphosis. It’s like the flow of life, in the midst of in the process of events, you’ll come across some unexpected things. It’s from these perspectives on “memory” that I began my creative process.

Background and context about the creation of the project

YC: In the process of creating your “memory” did you feel any relationship between pain and nostalgia, a sense of history, and today’s social reality?

Zhang Xiaogang: Actually, for me it’s hard to directly face reality like that. I’m more used to self reflection, and through that I found that I’m the kind of person who tries to avoid things — including my art, which is also this way, I always choose the path of avoidance. For example, when everybody wants to look at fashionable things, real things, I don’t have any interest in those things and I instinctively try to get away, but where to? I run to “the past.” But once someone told me that I’m a “historian artist,” which I think isn’t true at all, I’m not a historian. I want to escape from history and get into the “now”, and in that constant process of trying to leap out of the past, actually some new things seem to appear [in my creative process]. So I feel that I often drift between the state of mind of memory and reality. Maybe I live in the real world, but at the same time I look at life, experience life — it’s that kind of state of mind.

About Pace New York and Pace Beijing

YC: How’s the cooperation with Pace going?

Zhang Xiaogang: It just started. Since I don’t know much about working with this kind of super-gallery, I don’t have any experience with it and no one told me about it. They took the initiative to reach out to me, and they’ve definitely got their own reasons and ideas. The question that concerns me isn’t that with cooperation with them my works can sell for a higher price — I feel that’s not important. What is important is that Pace to me represents a platform — more internationally-oriented and sophisticated, because they represent masters in the field, so it’s a challenge for me. Through cooperation with them I can gain a lot of experience about lots of things, and can also learn a lot about areas I didn’t know about before. But I don’t know. We’ve only really been working together for about two years.

YC: And also we’re in the midst of globalization.

Zhang Xiaogang: Yes. Actually, I can progress along with Pace. A huge reason is because they wanted to open a gallery, so Bing Lin and I had a joke, “I’m cooperating with Pace Beijing, Not with Pace.” Because “Pace Beijing” and “New York Pace” are different. New York Pace represents the past, Pace Beijing represents the future; Pace Beijing represents the relationship between China and the world, New York Pace represents America, the relationship between America and the past. When they decided they wanted to open Pace Beijing, I felt this was a great idea, this is the real Chinese art and here the world of art can converge along the lines of a very close partnership.


Zhang's new exhibition is currently taking place at Pace Beijing

YC: So it kind of acts like a bridge?

Zhang Xiaogang: I don’t think it’s a bridge. I’m in agreement with Bing Lin about that. Bing Lin and I already discussed the question of Pace’s business role. Pace Beijing isn’t an agency, nor is it a transit point, and definitely isn’t a simple bridge — it’s a platform. Of course, the foundation of this platform is built by Pace, but when they exhibit something, it shows today’s China, China since 1949. I feel that this is really significant. If Pace was just opening a kind of art transit hub in Beijing, or just here to collect artwork or collect whatever — and that’s kind of the idea of Pace New York — why would they choose Bing Lin? Because in terms of China, they don’t really understand the country. Pace has Bing Lin and Chinese artists actively working with them, and they’re not the same as 798 [Ed Note: 798 is an art “zone” inside Beijing’s Dashanzi art district]. From my experience exhibiting in New York last fall, exhibiting here is quite different. They’re similar, but the two just feel completely different.

Last night I was chatting with Bing Lin. If you want to want to do an exhibition like this in New York, it’d end early. You count the employees — they pick up a work and carry it to the table and hang it up — and you see a dozen people doing it. I said that in New York, you can arrange two people at the most, and their wages are really expensive. Chinese people are different, they put up the work correctly and they’re done. This just goes to show how a Chinese exhibition and a Western exhibition are two very different places.


YC: The cost of time, etc., is totally different.

Zhang Xiaogang: Yes, the concept is totally different. So I feel that the vitality of China really isn’t something that Western art can’t have. In Western exhibitions, the feeling is the same for people who do the exhibition, but in China the people doing the exhibition feel that the exhibition is like an exhibition of themselves as well, they can continue to experiment, change, have new ideas, shake things up when they’re getting the exhibition ready. In New York things don’t work like that, because time is money. When mounting an exhibition, one or two days is one or two days, a few minutes are no more than that.

YC: So planning and getting everything set up at exhibitions is really strict.
Zhang Xiaogang: Yeah. Easel paintings are easy; When they’re done here you ship them off and they’re hung there and that’s that. But if there’s any type of installation involved it’s different. Now I understand how difficult it is to do installations in foreign countries. You fly over there, live there, don’t eat well, don’t sleep well, and do the installation there. For Chinese artists to do installations abroad really is too much trouble.

YC: So the exhibition in New York had these sculptures, or not?

Zhang Xiaogang: No, they weren’t ready then, I had a few, that kind of needed some work, I let some people take a peek but they weren’t really ready. It just didn’t feel as “solid” as it does now, with flat works and sculptures and so on.

Regarding the Market

YC: The current environment and that of the eighties and early nineties has really changed a lot. How do you deal with making artwork, the market and all these types of issues?
Zhang Xiaogang: I don’t really need to worry about the market. I leave that up to the art galleries – they’re experts. My only relationship with the galleries is that of an artist, I rarely go to openings. So I feel that I’m lucky, I can always run into a good gallery, and they’ll help me keep doing what I do. I think artists need to concentrate their efforts on doing good work, especially for people like me who work slowly. If you worry about other things and distract yourself you’ll go even more slowly. I think there should be a division of labor: 100 bucks, everybody gets 1 penny, and after it’s all divided you feel more relaxed, others feel relaxed, and you can live professionally – it’s good. If you want another 50 bucks, you can do his job.

YC: The social environment in prior years was a lot different than it is today. Have these changes made an impression on you? Are you more relaxed in your work?

Zhang Xiaogang: I don’t think the changes are that dramatic. You say since the economy got better that an artist’s output should be more relaxed, more free. But I found that production costs have skyrocketed, studios have started to get a lot more expensive, the costs of putting on exhibitions like mine are also much higher. Take the cost of doing a painting…a few hundred, a few thousand bucks, now I’m using steel – because the materials are differently priced from ten years ago we might not even think about using them…Like with sculptures you change them and change them — I’ve wasted a lot of material.

I feel that a market economy should be a good thing, artists in a market economy, my personal viewpoint should be the pursuit of a more liberal approach, rather than becoming too much of a burden…After the last meeting, if you wanted to chat, you definitely wouldn’t come here, but now the environment has changed, we’ve had a good change in environment, but the content of the conversation is still just about art, actually it’s just that kind of relationship.


Art & Design, Market Analysis