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Zhang Xiaogang in his studio © Zhang Xiaogang

Essays

Artists Respond

Zhang Xiaogang: A Statement from My Quarantine

For our Artists Respond series, Zhang Xiaogang writes about his thoughts during this period of isolation. Below is a recent essay by the artist, in which he questions how and if social context affects his practice and well-being.

For an artist, creating is a daily activity. I have always been more of the indoorsy type. I haven’t been out once for over a month since the outbreak of the virus, and I don’t seem to suffer from any anxiety because of that. I just go about my normal life, doing what I always do every day. Nor do I demand myself to create any particular work that responds to the current situation during this period of quarantine. To me, it’s simply that I can’t meet my friends, and communication can only take place via WeChat. Also, I spend more time talking to myself.

Every day on the Internet, people get bombarded with all kinds of indiscriminate and foggy information and get emotional with fear, anger, despair, and tears when hearing of the many tragedies that are happening. Among those emotions, the most prominent one, I think, is the feeling of helplessness. This may directly affect my recent creation, or it may just remain in my experience and observation about the current reality. I don’t know. Perhaps only time will tell if this affects me.

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Zhang Xiaogang, Mirror No. 1, 2018, oil on paper with paper and cotton rope collage, 108 cm × 90 cm (42-1/2" × 35-7/16") © Zhang Xiaogang

During the past month, although I was not at the center of the epidemic, I, like many other people, profoundly experienced the way the relentlessness of the virus can lead to the vicious brutality of humanity. With this intertwined horror, naturally I become deeply moved by those simple kindnesses and pure affections that simultaneously exist. The epidemic will eventually end, but the evilness of human nature will have become deeply embedded in our hearts. As long as the opportunity matures, it will become activated and quickly devour the soul, making it rot and stink, and there will be no antidote—this is indeed the most terrifying virus.

I know that I do not have the ability to quickly translate real events into artworks, ascending to the metaphysical level of ideas to guide my creative direction. I also do not have the ability to surpass the impact of reality in my study of ontology. Nevertheless, I often find myself looking at certain imprints of historic events, more or less, that are left in the works. Over time these imprints form an inevitable pattern of expression. Whether you are painting a face, a chair, a room, or a light bulb, they all seem to be possessed by some spirit and become some kind of magical composition, existing forever. If you don't paint that way, you will feel unsettled, like your subjects are just empty vessels.

I do not create art for the era. Our history has taught us more than once to represent the era and to open up the future, which more often than not makes art a tool for deception. I began to wonder if art can really change the reality if it doesn’t even have the sincerity and courage to face itself. The grand times, the insignificant times, the good times, the bad times, they are all experiences that can evoke artistic thoughts, resources that we can acquire and utilize. I believe in the magic of the complex and contradictory essence of human nature, from which I can experience how good and evil, beauty and ugliness, truth and lies co-exist and conceal one another.  After decades of turbulence, I no longer believe in the so-called absolute truth. The expectation we have for tomorrow is merely some kind of deification and fantasy based on the past.

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Zhang Xiaogang in his studio © Zhang Xiaogang

Art is a mundane practice that deals with oneself and talks with “God.” Only in a free state of living can artists be more focused with greater depth, so that the artwork will not be reduced to a hollow symbol as a result of desire for quick success and instant benefits.

I always keep in mind what Kafka said more than a hundred years ago: "Man does not grow from bottom to top but from inside out. This is the fundamental condition for all freedom of life."

What is hardest to get away from is the reluctance to acknowledge the limitations and loneliness of life.

Essays — Artists Respond: Zhang Xiaogang, Apr 2, 2020