Watch: Trailblazing Artist Zhang Jianjun on the Art of Seeing, and Learning Painting in Secret Under Mao

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10:13 AM HKT, Wed September 27, 2017 7 mins read

Zhang Jianjun is a leader of the Chinese new school. I’d encountered his art before at the Met in New York City, as well as in several of Shanghai’s most renowned museums, and in the pages of Chinese modern art textbooks. This time, we caught up with Jianjun downtown at the Pearl Lam Gallery, where he was working on a new installation piece. We sat down with JJ to talk about the installation, his career as an artist, where he came from and where he’s going.

Hi JJ, thanks for sitting down with us.


First question, can you introduce yourself?

My name is JJ, or Zhang Jianjun, a contemporary artist in China. I lived in New York since the 80’s, a long time ago. Now I’m back again in Shanghai, making art and working at NYU Shanghai. My first major was oil painting, western style, and then later I’ve been through many different mediums. Medium, for me as an artist, is just a medium. I’ve been a sculptor, a painter, a performance artist, or a multimedia artist. That’s just me.

Zhang with his work ‘Time/Space’ – 1983

Can you tell us about this installation?

This is one of my new pieces I’ve done a few weeks ago. The title of this work is Vestiges of a Process, Qian Zi Wen. ‘Qian Zi Wen’ is an ancient poem – it was written in 300 or 400 AD, almost 2000 years ago. Using one thousand characters, all completely different with no characters repeating, it talks about the universe, the stars, and then the four seasons, down to the human, culture, and everything. It’s the whole world, but using one thousand different, individual characters. I used ‘Qian Zi Wen’ as the foundation of this work. All my work for years, almost all my career, has been focusing on transition, time. I’ve been educated in both China and the United States, and my wife is American, so I’m always looking at how the culture follows me, integrating and conflicting at the same time.

“I’m always looking at how the culture follows me, integrating and conflicting at the same time.”

The visitors can participate – they can come to the space, where I’ve prepared brush and ink, and the ‘Qian Zi Wen’ model. They can write the whole thing, or choose one character, or a sentence. They can write anywhere – the floor, the wall, and not in order. People from different cultures: different provinces of China, old and young, foreigners – some people can’t recognize Chinese, they can only copy. So layer by layer it grows, and in the meantime, I use white wall paint to partially paint over it. You can see the other layers, and recognize a little bit from underneath. I also added the punctuation. In traditional Chinese there’s no punctuation, so I added it in color to connect it with the contemporary. Of course in this space, you can’t really recognize anything. No complete sentences, it’s all broken up. Sometimes people walk in, they sort of recognize it to be familiar. They say what is this? They’re confused. It’s my way of testing the idea of time, culture, and how they move. So that’s what I’m focusing on here.

Scholar Rock (The Mirage Garden) – 2008

You mentioned your work focuses on time and transition. What do you mean by that?

For a long time, I was always interested in time. Time, in the beginning, was my subject. I had works like Eternal Dialogue, you know, something about time. After that, years and years later, time became a medium in my artwork. I say medium because some of my work is finished in ten minutes, some in ten years. This work for instance, three months. So I don’t know what the end will look like. Like nature, like the summer – leaves grow. But how do they grow? We know they’re growing, and that the leaves fall in autumn, but the details we don’t know. For instance, who will be writing here? How will they write? I don’t know. So the work is finished, really, by chance. I think it’s part of a natural system. I don’t want to control it, I want to give it a direction. But how it finishes, how it grows, there’s a freedom. There’s air, there’s sun, there’s wind. There’s humanity, culture, and movement, combined.

Can you tell us about your own journey with art? How did you discover art or realize it was something you wanted to pursue – how did you find yourself to be an artist?

Great question. That one’s also about time! [laughs] When I was five, the first time people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be an artist. That was in kindergarten. There was one other thing I wanted to be, which was an astronomer. The reason was – I think it was summer at that time, evening – I remember my father and my family sitting in the street, enjoying the wind. I was always looking at the stars. I think all humans have this habit; ten thousand years ago, and now, and ten thousand years in the future, we’ll be looking at the stars. I remember my father told me, what you see is the past. The past? It’s not the past, I thought. The stars, the light from those stars, and the time it takes to reach Earth – eventually I grew to understand it. But at the time it was so mysterious, so wonderful – my head was empty. But it got me so interested, and I wanted to become a scientist. The other thing I wanted to be was an artist.

In my age at that time, after elementary school, the Cultural Revolution started. The schools closed, and I had no chance to be educated. I couldn’t be a scientist, but I became an artist. There was no school, nowhere to go. At home, I just drew what was in my imagination. I was very lucky because even in the Cultural Revolution, my school finally reopened, and I went to junior high school. That’s when I met my professor, an art teacher, who is the one who is very, very important to my life. He treated me and other students not just as students, but like brothers. One time, I remember, in art class, he taught all the class to write some characters. He said to me, you write beautifully. You have a very good sense for art. Do you like art? I said yes. He said, after class could you come to my office? I went, with my other two buddies. He showed me his drawing, he showed me his art. Of course, he can’t show us real art, he had to show us propaganda art, because that was during the Cultural Revolution. He only showed how the peasant workers supported Chairman Mao, that kind of thing. I just liked him, and I told him I wanted to learn art from him, because that really recalled my childhood dream.

During the Cultural Revolution, art and music that didn’t directly praise the Maoist regime were forbidden

He selected four or five students to form an after school program. After school, we had one classroom free and he would teach us art. Soon only two students remained. The other three, feeling bored, left. After about half a year he got to know us, and we knew him well. Finally he said, I want to teach you real art. This is propaganda, it’s bullshit. He started to show us Rembrandt’s paintings, and western oil painting, which is what he learned in art school. He said you can’t tell this to anyone, even your parents, let alone our schoolmates.

So he started to privately teach us western drawing. He kept plaster models, of [Michelangelo’s] David’s eye, or of still lifes. The window and curtain were closed. In that time it was summer, I remember it was thirty eight degrees centigrade. It was sweaty! We only wore shorts – topless. There weren’t any fans, in that time in China probably no air conditioning. We’re talking about 1971 or 1970. So I feel very lucky to study this tradition, classical western painting. Later on, after the Cultural Revolution was over, I passed the exam and went to art school. All the professors and students said, how did you get trained like that? Because you really draw well. I said I’m very lucky, because while everyone was doing propaganda painting, I was quietly trained. So I’ve always appreciated him so deeply, he really changed my life.

Vestiges of a Process: Mountain Series VII – 2011

You said before that medium is just a medium to you, that it’s not a major concern of yours as an artist. Could you elaborate on that?

It’s about having a process, I realized. For instance, when I was in school, I learned oil painting, classical painting, Rembrandt-style, and later Impressionism. And then when I graduated in 1979…that was a funny year. I travelled four places, all linked with Daoism or Buddhism, camping or in temples. When I was in school learning oil painting, I tried to represent or show the three dimensions. But when I went to those caves, I was shocked. I thought, wow, those wall paintings are two dimensional. Instead of going out they go in, on a spiritual level, into my heart. That was shocking, because that’s when I realized art doesn’t have to be something like a painting of a street with three miles of depth. It hit me inside.

When I grew up in Shanghai, even during the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai was very western compared to the rest of China. So before, I was never really interested in Chinese tradition. I said that’s bullshit, and I didn’t really read about it. But later back in Shanghai, I started looking at books. First Daoism, then Zen, then Indian Buddhism. At that time, I was already interested in Nietzche and German philosophers, and also Bach and Beethoven’s music. With the other books, it became more like one, integrated thing.

Works from Zhang’s series, ‘First Drop of Water’

That was in 1979, and one year later, my paintings started to change. My colors went from very bright to black and white. And then I started using stone and wood glued onto the canvas, to bring nature elements into my painting. Some would say I was the first Chinese mixed media artist. But when I say that, I’m talking about the 1980’s, in a very early age. More and more, sometimes I would be walking down the street and see a cloud move, or the wind, or a tree moving. I thought, it’s so beautiful, so powerful. In 1979 in Mongolia I was riding a horse, and when I saw the the space, with the speed, and the clouds…everything together – so beautiful, so powerful. That’s what really made me realize it.

I’m not really planning. Sometimes, day and night, I’m working. Or sometimes, in the morning I get up, and I write a few calligraphies maybe. Or I just have a nice tea or coffee. And then I look and hear a sound from a bird, and I’ll jump up, and think of some ideas. Those daily experiences are training me how to look at the world. For an artist, beyond the technique, it’s about how you look at things.

See more of Zhang’s work here. Special thanks to the Pearl Lam Gallery. Video by Kevin Pham. Music by Adan Kohnhorst.

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