Loudness of cities or towns
People born in the Sixties are the best witnesses of the market boom after the reforms of the open policy: they are strictly linked to the city-life, but at the same time, for the very fact that they were born in those years, they still carry with them the memory and flavour of the little towns they come from.
Zhang Enli was born in Baicheng, a small city near Jilin in the North East of China, and has spent his college years in Wuxi, in the Jiangnan region. After the graduation he was appointed as a teacher at the Donghua University in Shanghai, where he is still working.
This special experience, to switch from the economically underdeveloped reality of the countryside and of the small towns, to the cities, is actually familiar to millions of people in China. Such a widespread experience and memory has become Zhang Enli’s main fountainhead and the favourite inspiration source for his work. In his paintings we are able to identify two main subjects, or – so to say - two faces of the same medal: the ‘city in the countryside’, and the ‘countryside in the city’.
After having just moved to Shanghai, the city was for him still a strange environment, in which he felt like an intruder, and which was both tempting and menacing. Its environment was too far from the intimate feeling inspired by the ‘small town lifestyle’ with its unpretentious plainness.
In the works of the early Nineties, like ‘One kilo of beef’, ‘Smoker’, ‘Strong worker’, and so on, we find a rich humanity made of peasants who have settled down in a corner of the metropolis. In these ‘countryside corners’ of the city, life goes on, history passes by, and many stories happen and develop among people. The artist is very skilled at portraying every detail, every feeling, every gesture of these people’s world, and he manages to portray characters who are aesthetically and visually rich. He is still ‘intoxicated’ by the complexity of feelings which bring him back to his hometown and he is addicted to the sounds and the atmospheres typical of the ‘small towns lifestyle’. The tiny realities, which are the most relevant part of an ordinary, simple life, and therefore are not considered to be noticeable, are revealed to the attention of the public by Zhang Enli’s brushstrokes, as if suddenly shown under a strong light. He uses brushstrokes which seem to engrave the canvas, leaving an open wound and giving us the impression to see the reflex of the blade of a knife.
The way he expresses his relationship and feelings towards the ‘lost’ countryside is completely different from the one shown in the paintings by artists of the Eighties, which were rather idyllic and still retained a sentiment of beauty and serenity. Here instead there is the bitter awareness of being ignored and having no way out, experienced by many people after their arrival to the metropolis.
I tend to consider this peculiar interpretation of the country life, and of its displacement, as a topic shared by many artists born in the Sixties.
It is especially after the changes caused by the open policy, and the fast economic development, that Zhang Enli starts to notice the masses of newcomers who reach the city from the small towns, and he is fascinated by their complex human relationships and romantic stories. The contemporary city is only a far background in paintings like ‘Small restaurant’, ‘Head’, ‘Kiss’ and so on. It seems that the city life has nothing to do with the protagonists of the paintings yet, beside the fact that it provokes their desires and it stimulates their busy struggling for material things. In these people’s life the concept of modern civilization is actually still a very abstract idea.
From then on, as we can see in ‘Fast food’, ‘City hunter’, ‘Eating’, ‘Intimacy’…, Zhang’s subjects start to be more strictly related to real ‘city characters’. After having been based in Shanghai for quite a while, his way of living has become ‘metropolitan’, and his gaze has changed into the one of a city-person who looks at the people around him. He has gained a new, refined skill at noticing all the changes taking place in the city, even though he has not modified much his expressive pictorial language. However, his attitude towards the city is very sceptical, leading him to adopt a detached expressionist style to portray the life of his fellow citizens.
The city is now no longer in the background, it has become the protagonist, as the quick development is more and more unsettling and un-human, beyond the choice of the single person.
Zhang’s everyday life is very moderate and simple, he likes to keep an even pace which does not make him feel too busy nor too ‘lazy’, but in the paintings he shows courage and energy. He purposefully uses the colours freely, in a way which reminds us of Chagall. This choice derives from the need to avoid any superfluous feeling of refinement and beauty.
Having said so, we realize that it is no longer possible to keep a kind of idealism and hope towards the city life. The cities are in a progress of modernization, but they as well contain very un-reasonable aspects.
Zhang’s viewpoint is critical towards the contemporary civilization standard, he is sceptical about artificial beauty, about the sudden change of life one experiences in large cities, about the quick and unnatural improvement of economics, about all the false temptations and desires, about exaggerate eating and drinking. His works mirror the situation occurring in the Chinese modern cities, with their unhealthy consumerism, where all excesses seem to be permitted and justified.
Zhang Enli’s most precious contribution to the artistic creation of his time is his dedication, his enduring - but not lonely - effort and determination. His works might not be so striking at first sight, nor are they very appealing for the art market, but they carry plenty of hints, of details, of nuances, that the viewer can discover slowly, and which show his aims, his dreams, his ideals. These motives manage to resist against the shiny appearance of mere exteriority.
The artist has being pursuing this process for a long time, almost in private, without searching for the support and the acknowledgement of a vast public, although there are many people who appreciate him. Maybe this is one of the reasons of his being so ‘stubborn’.
People born in the Sixties share a very strong sense of responsibility towards the society, and a refined artistic sensibility. They had to face confusion of ideals and social turmoil while they were still very young, therefore their generation is marked by a sceptical, sharp and critical approach towards everything. We can say that through the artistic creation they are actually questioning the very possibility of realizing their utopias.
I have chosen this particular interpretation of Zhang Enli’s paintings, being a person of his same generation, because my feelings are very similar to his. These Sixties’ artists are very different from those from the Seventies and from the Fifties. Looking at their success and un-success, hesitations, stubbornness, their honest and hard working attitude, their dissatisfaction, their hopelessness, and their attention towards the situation in China, I argue that they possess a moral attitude which is often very contradictory towards the development of the society. They cannot accept swiftly the status-quo and its changeable trends as those from the Seventies, as they actually take responsibility for everything in first person.
Having said so, I can easily foretell what they can do and what they cannot.
Theirs is a clear, transparent standard.
Beijing, March 2004