The masked figures of Zeng Fanzhi are such iconic images of Chinese contemporary art that most people have immediate recognition, even if they could not identify the name of the artist. In one of the two feature essays in this catalogue, the author Lóránd Hegyi who is director of Musée d'Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne, speaks of Zeng's painting as creating a narrative that has been generated by the very experience of the painting itself, an expedition into terra incognita. Hegyi suggests that a new visual language has been created by Zeng Fanzhi which defies art historical categorization, and may be described by words such as ephemerality, irregularity and mysteriousness.
Although often noted as an Expressionist painter, Zeng's unique painting style combining realism and gestural movements do not fit into the usual definition of Expressionism as the distortion and exaggeration of forms for emotional effect. The other defining characteristic of Expressionism is the intense subjective feeling, and it is perhaps how Zeng's paintings invoke intensive emotive responses in the viewers that the Expressionist descriptive is applied to his works. It is intriguing that Hegyi suggests that it is the painting itself that is the vehicle of that intensity, and takes on a life of its own, which is different from the painting as an embodiment of the artist's own subjectivity. The artist merely launched the painting into action, so to speak.
While much of Chinese modern and contemporary art is discussed in relation to 20th century modernism and international contemporary art, it would be useful to revisit some of the basic tenets of Chinese aesthetics when considering Zeng Fanzhi's works. This will also help us appraise the Expressionism issue. Chinese pictorial images were created not to mimic or represent reality but to parallel nature in a constant flux. Philosophers and artists struggled to achieve expressions of 'higher-order thought' – a translation for yi (usually 'idea' as in xieyi- 'writing idea' painting) by Ulrike Middendorf – which emphasizes introspection as a necessary source and process for knowledge acquisition. The parallel and alignment of nature in flux, human introspection, and the attainment of 'higher-order thought' in both author/artist and reader/viewer were distinctively different from a Western model of artwork as representation, including subjectivity in Expressionism, and artwork as an agent or channel of communication between the artist and viewer.
There is also the Literati celebration of withdrawnness which could also underpin the inconclusiveness of Zeng Fanzhi's paintings, for the human interaction that may be generated through a work of art is located at and even confined within the very site of the artwork, and it is not a necessity that a common narrative or content, not even one that is mediated, be shared between the artist and viewer. While it would have been true that in reality cultural codes and symbolisms predicated much of the traditional Chinese paintings, the immediacy and versatility of the oil medium allowed new possibilities in the realm of open-endedness and exploratory. This dovetailed with the value of the content flux, the non-representative nature of art, and the optional sharing of common narrative between the artist and the viewer. It is in the meeting of traditional Chinese aesthetics and Western medium of oil, in a postmodern context of multiplicity of signification that we can locate what Hegyi calls terra incognita in Zeng's art.
Marxism, History and Idealism
The other feature essay in this catalogue by the renowned international art critic and historian Robert Morgan offers a contrasting approach to Zeng's art. While Hegyi emphasizes on the concrete, sensual, visual actuality in looking at Zeng's painting, Morgan's piece is a reminder of the necessity in looking at Zeng's art in social, historical and biographical contexts, and what criticality his art may possess instead of merely subscribing to popular media. Zeng's art, then, is to be seen as pivots or points along a historical trajectory, and how by drawing upon memories of the recent past, regarding Cultural Revolution as past, and yet reflecting upon the worrying current state of globalization may make one 'feel the history that stands behind these paintings.'
It is perhaps appreciating Zeng's art against this sense of history that is what Morgan meant by a Marxist critique, although such critique may include a critique of Marx, historical materialism and communism. Zeng's treatment of a series of portraits on Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao entitled Great Man 1 – 5 offer complex and multilateral readings of these seminal thinkers and political leaders of Marxism. On first glance they look like official portraits, and viewers would have been reminded of such given their familiarity with the portraits of these historical figures. Upon closer examination the frenzied zigzag lines and the puzzling red lips in an otherwise largely monochromatic painting invoke complex, individualized and emotive reactions to these portraits. For as long as Marxism represents that full spectrum of inspirational, heroic, deployed, failed, problematic, lingering, perennial, transcendental or renewed sense of idealism, these portraits allow an equally rich array of reactions to them.
It is not without allusion to the Great Man series that the title of Zeng Fanzhi's exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum is entitled Idealism. However more precisely it is referencing the work entitled Idealism which marks the beginning of the exhibition display. It is a work featuring two masked men one adjusting the red scarf, mark of an accolade, for the other in a paternal manner, against a cheerful backdrop of blue and pink hues. The men have their elbows resting on a wooden plank which sits on a bed of beautiful blossoms. This manifestation of idealism along with the ironic didacticism and chilly dominance serves as an appetizer to the intensities and complexities of conceptual and emotive responses a viewer may have in the course of the exhibition; perhaps a reminder of James Joyce's famed line, that ideal reader suffering from an ideal Insomnia.
The Series and Chronology
Beijing-based Zeng Fanzhi graduated from the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, Wuhan, in 1991. The Hospital and Meat were his early series after moving to Beijing in 1993. These are works that may be more closely associated with the descriptive Expressionism but the realist foundation of Chinese art academy was ubiquitous, just as some of the pictorial and compositional elements from Chinese social realism and folk painting, and possibly literary references. Works in these two series were painting primarily in colours of human flesh, and readings of them often associate these works with cruelty, helplessness and death.
Zeng is widely known for the Mask series which first appeared in 1994. The eminent critic Li Xianting probed Zeng on the motivation for the Mask paintings. Zeng explained that being an introvert person much feelings were mustered up in having to deal with many strangers after arriving in Beijing. These works which are often praised for how well they captured the psychological states of masquerade were to Zeng the sorting out of personal feelings in such human interactions. Following Mask Zeng painted Portraits and gradually some of these had their masks removed, and identities uncovered. The Great Man paintings belong to this series, and were painted in 2004.
While painting figurative works Zeng had a parallel interest in landscape which gradually took on greater presence in his paintings, which exploded in the latest Untitled (Night) series of the recent years. The landscapes, often in the form of thick woods with or without human presence, are made up of frenzied and animated lines that seem to suggest forces of nature rather than the foliage themselves. The psychological intensity is taken to a greater height with these paintings almost suggesting the helplessness of human beings in the midst of the forces of nature and possibly of social and human condition. The exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum will feature new works in the series which had not been shown in public.
The Exhibition Layout
Zeng Fanzhi: Idealism was first conceived as a retrospective exhibition incorporating representative works from the artist's major series – Hospital, Meat, Mask, Portraits, and Untitled (Night). Though keeping to the comprehensive scope, a selection and presentation specific to the museum galleries were conceived in the course of working on the exhibition. Converted from a heritage building and adhering to the original architectural grid, the Singapore Art Museum's 1.10 and 2.10 galleries are L-shaped exhibition spaces on two floors linked by a stairway with high ceiling and flanked on one side by a large and only window. At different points of the galleries it is possible to view works in far distance, in a way that exhibits could be previewed or revisited, inducing a sense of cyclicality, or breaks from a linear sequence.
The interplay of Zeng's works and the gallery spaces, as well as the context of Singapore, could also have inspired the choice of the exhibition title – Idealism – which as highlighted above is also the title of the first, and smallest, work in the exhibition. The curators were drawn into the open-endedness of Zeng's works and felt that only a corresponding curatorial framework that will take a viewer onto a circuitous journey of encounters with Zeng's works will befit this interplay. It was decided that a chronological progression of the series was not desired. The exhibition would begin with what might be regarded as a preempted conclusion – idealism – followed by Untitled (Night) series which will immediately throw idealisms off tangent. The wall next the stairway will display Zeng's portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao in an ascending order, while the narrow space between the stairway and the large window will feature Hospital and Meat series.
The upstairs galleries will feature Mask and Portraits, to lead into the final gallery of the exhibition, where the largest work, Night will be seen. The work features a lone figure walking towards an unknown destiny. The bright glow of her white dress, and even hair, and the pathway and foliage around her cannot be explained by the contrasting pitch-darkness of the sky in this night scene. This is perhaps the nature of idealism which will always be a shot in the dark.