Zhang Xiaogang: The Aesthetic of Calm Provocation

Zhang Xiaogang (張曉剛) was born in Kunming, Yunnan in 1958. He later studied painting in Sichuan Fine Arts Institute from which he graduated in 1982. Having spent his formative years in the period of Cultural Revolution, Zhang projects the social as well as personal stigmas of the times onto his works.

ImageIn stark contrasts to Zeng Fanzhi’s hugely exaggerated faces in the ‘Mask Series’, Zhang’s works often feature eerily calm and dispassionate visages, big lifeless eyes, soft shadows rendered slightly out of focus, pale colours and smooth strokes, as if the artist is trying his utmost to let his characters blend in rather than stand out.

With these portrayals, the artist makes poignant criticisms to the collective culture that marked his generation. Clad mostly in revolutionary clothes – military uniforms, peasants’ caps and Mao badges – the portrayed characters are emblematic of the time’s forceful demand for uniformity. These apparently calm and detached faces in the pictures have witnessed, or even participated in, the fanatic persecutions and the madness of dehumanisation that characterised the Cultural Revolution. How could they, the artist compels his viewers to ask, maintain their tranquillity in face of such historical and societal turbulence? What magnitude of collective ideological power does it take to justify such heinous destruction of individuality and individuals?

But the artist is probing beyond the question of political fanaticism and ideologies. Nowhere in the paintings can we see the tensions between the calm surface and the tempestuous history; they seem to have dissipated into a timeless background. Such timelessness, particularly emphasised in the Bloodline: A Big Family series, invites the viewer to shift their attention from a political to a societal paradigm of survival and familial continuation.

The notion of bloodline and continuity is so firmly rooted in Chinese culture that Zhang uses it as a tool to counter the forces of the doctrinal political ideology and to point towards another collective ideology already ingrained in the genetic codes of Chinese people. In the Bloodline series, the visages provide an infinite genealogy of imagined forebears and progenitors, each unnervingly similar and distinguished by minute difference and occasional blotches of faint colours.

What is interesting in these portraits is the suggestion that the urge for genetic perpetuation underlies the concession to political ruptures, and that individuals willingly give in to the collective rhetoric for self-preservation – a desire loudly resonated in the infinite replication of self through the institution of matrimony and the proud reproduction of red babies.

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The two recurring themes of stylised wedding photos and red babies evidence a major concern of Zhang’s, namely the delicate interplay between ideological and genetic self-perpetuation. During the Cultural Revolution, marriage between two individuals was subject to approval by the Party, which would base its matchmaking decisions on the political pedigrees of the applicants. The purpose of this practice was to produce a pool of genetically ‘red’ candidates to ensure the Party’s survival. Yet, these red babies are often so conspicuously displayed at the centre of the paintings, and their male genitals so proudly flaunted by the parents, that one will not escape the reference it makes to the Chinese tradition of continuing family lineage. This reference is more pronounced in the yellow babies that appear in some paintings. In his Bloodline Series, Zhang cleverly combines the two themes to bring out the dialectic relationships between ruptures and continuation, revolution and tradition, individuality and uniformity, as well as public and private.

There is palpable influence of Surrealism on Zhang’s aesthetics, reflected in the psychological overtones surrounding the suppressed political allegories. They exert themselves through endless interpretative possibilities opened up by the bland faces juxtaposed with various political symbols. But comprehension of these symbols is suspended when those uncannily blown up visages confront the viewer with their enigmatic tranquillity: Are these people victims of ideologies? Are they as vacant as they seem? Are they strategically defying the ideology with their assumed indifference as a means of subversion? Or, is such indifference a sign of resignation, and therefore symptom of a pervasive sense of political disillusionment? Or is it in fact disillusionment about the new market economy that is going in vigore? Constantly oscillating between signs of self-effacement and self-perpetuation, id and ego, the viewer is challenged with finding the point that settles all into these pictures of calmness.

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Zhang’s aesthetics do not seem to offer any satisfactory answers, but provoke more questions in the viewer regarding the psychological status of these characters and their supposed abstraction from their milieu. It can be said that such uncertainty to a certain extent reflects the mass psychology of contemporary Chinese, who, standing at the crossroads of past tribulations and rosy promises, are trapped between the dreary and the heroic. They are equally ambivalent about the nostalgic bygone era of innocence and its hind-sight failures. On the one hand, they have witnessed post-communist countries’ utopian dream busted; on the other hand, the reforms offer little help in recuperating human solidarity and traditional values lost during the Revolution. Invoked by the shameless display of the red baby’s genitals, will the viewer notice that urge of self-perpetuation hidden in him?

Zhang’s ‘false portraits’ are in all sense unsettled and unsettling, despite their deceptive stillness. Yet, with the characters invariably forward looking; their watery eyes always staring straight ahead, there is an ounce of consolation to be extracted amidst all the tensions and uncertainties. Whether they are anticipating the future or replaying scenes of the past we know not. But this rigid forwardness, at least in the true sense of ‘false portraits’, give the viewer a focus point and a sense of direction for their reflection. And their dark eyes, bright in their lacklustre and intense in their emptiness, stare squarely at the viewer as if to invite them to read the character’s psyche, and through which, that of the viewer’s own.

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