A Restless Soul
— Dialogue between Li Xianting and Zeng Fanzhi
Li: I remember we first met at your graduation exhibition.
Zeng: Yes. That’s in the summer of 1991 when I had just finished my graduation painting, namely, Hospital series, and that’s Hospital Triptych you saw. Actually I had painted a lot about hospitals before that.
Li: I was preparing for the post-89 exhibition at that time. The paintings were pretty good, and I felt like involving some younger artists in the exhibition. But I only saw Hospital Triptych and I hoped you could paint more.
Zeng: I didn’t know much about the exhibition but I had a strong feeling that something would happen because Wei Guagnqing and Cao Dan told me that you were a very important figure and were preparing for some kind of exhibition but they didn’t tell me about it very clearly.
Li: I was then surprised at the mature style in your Hospital series. More than ten years have passed but your painting, unlike most graduation works that show no sign of maturity, is still being appreciated by people. What makes your style? I also saw some paintings that haven’t been exhibited in your studio. Some are of Max Beckmann style. Does Hospital series have anything to do with it?
Zeng: Well, I should begin with the personal exhibition in my third year at college, when I painted models as required by the courses in class but after class I adopted a totally different style. I loved drawing people around me, like my friends and people in the street. Sometime took photos; sometimes I did sketch but mainly portraits. At that time what I desired to express was my feelings. I also did abstract paintings. But finally I found that figure painting was my favorite. I can always get a special feeling when I see the emotions of people in pictures. When I was ready to start the graduation creation, I realized a single person was too weak for the graduation exhibition, and I thought it over and over again but couldn’t find a way out. I was living near a hospital then, and I had to use the lavatory in it everyday, so I went there frequently. Everyday I saw numberless people queuing to see the doctor. I saw patients in danger and emergency treatment by doctors. I was suddenly aware that it was the very feeling for painting and I should draw a series, and I began to plan a bigger task. I employed all the techniques, skills and observing methods used in my personal exhibition and I was very excited during that period. Then I completed it. I felt extremely satisfied. I was so eager to have it seen by the teachers that I took it to school on the following day thought it was still wet. Seeing it, they were shocked C I judged from their facial expressions though they said nothing. At that time people usually gave no remark when viewing others’ paintings. I liked it so much.
Li: Before that you seemed to be following expressionism but now you are completely your own. I’d like to know what exactly happened during the time?
Zeng: In the early years at college I loved painting expressionism, and I studied many masterpieces. I was learning from every master. For instance, I imitated Raoul Dufy as well, whose lines are perfectly drawn. When he paints a thing, he can make the line in and out; when he paints a person, the color of the person is inside while the lines may come back. Those lines are wonderful. Willem De Kooning, the master of American abstract expressionism is also one of my favorite. His strokes are very forceful but I think it would be rather difficult to paint figures with his methods. I tried several times. It’s OK but not mature enough. Later on I painted such pictures continuously. At last when I drew the heads and hands in Hospital I got a little feeling. For the last piece I used the paintbrush reversely. It moved backward. There came the feeling I was awaiting.
Li: Comparing Hospital with what you absorb from the painters you mentioned just now, I notice you’ve succeeded in controlling the furious, neurotic and crazy things, and dealing with them meticulously instead of painting casually. Is it relevant to your personality or to the characters you paint?
Zeng: My personality. I believe some small details should be controlled in painting and I do that in figure painting. I will not draw as I wish but I mustn’t let the feeling slip away. I have to control it properly. If I choose free painting, then I must be entirely free. I had painted that way before, completely half abstract. No human figure could be seen. But I was not very fond of the style from the very beginning. You need to produce a story and special characters in your paintings but you can’t copy the models; otherwise, no one will be interested in that.
Li: I think one reason is your personality, the other is that what you feel is rather concrete. People’s facial expressions in the hospital and what happened there stimulated you, and the stimulation was fairly important. With that you found the basic thing for creation, namely, the association with life.
Zeng: You said it. It is indeed largely due to the living environment in my childhood. Before coming to Beijing I had been living in an alley since I was born, where people were stricken by different diseases, and there were various deformities. I can never forget the feelings for them. However I dress up now C wearing suits and ties, I have something deep in my heart. It moves me and can never be wiped out. I will surely express and release it. It is in fact an incontrollable feeling, and it is this feeling that gave birth to those paintings.
Li: You paint meat for a time.
Zeng: After I finished Hospital I painted some pictures of meat. At first I drew only meat and no person. Later I put meat and people together. The persons lie on top of the meat. The one I like most is Meat No. 2. I was inspired by a scene I once saw. In summer it is scorching in Wuhan City, and at that time there was no household air-conditioner. In some places there were electric fans but not in every place. There is a store selling meat. All the meat was carried from the meat processing factory. The whole meat was an ice block, iced meat. A lot of people then slept on it, and it was very comfortable lying on it in summer. I took some photos and then painted the picture.
Li: They were enjoying the cool but your painting displays a sense of cruelness.
Zeng: I agree. I have been thinking of this all the time. Why do I paint like this? I guessed later it was because of some other feelings. The color of people’s skin and the meat sometimes look alike, such as a pressed stretching leg and a stack of chopped meat. Since then I’ve painted a lot of meat, making it the same color with human body, and I painted people with the feeling when I saw the tightly pressed meat. All these are for the same reason, and I changed Hospital to flesh color.
Li: This has never changed after that.
Zeng: I am used to this color. Looking back now, I have been applying this color for over ten years.
Li: Your life now is well-off but you are still painting these things. Do you still have such feelings at your heart?
Zeng: I suppose so. Now life has undoubtedly been much better materially. However, the more change we have, the stronger I feel that something can never be changed. The things at my heart don’t allow the change. Though we have a better life I feel somehow uneasy. After I became a father, I felt more sensitive to these things.
Li: Could you elaborate on this?
Zeng: Well, I’m afraid I am not very clear at this, either. No specific thing gave me that feeling. For many times I felt the material change in my life but nobody around me has changed in any way, my relatives and my friends. Every year I go back visit them. My personal change estranges myself from them a little bit. Actually I thought a lot about that. Well, I don’t know how to put it?
Li: It’s illusive.
Zeng: Exactly, but it’s only on my part. One man’s help actually can’t change all. But sometimes the more help you give to someone, the more pressure you bring to him. He would feel terribly bad. I have a lot of friends around me. Their lives remain all the same… I painted some beautiful pictures in the past like the pink and yellow things but I think they are nothing but false things on the stage.
Li: Do you mean those with blue sky and white clouds as the background?
Zeng: Right. Originally I had thought to make them more splendid but that would look more unnatural, just like the scene on the stage. Human beings all tend to show the best of them, such as the affected poses before a camera, the simulated posture of a complacent citified person. Paintings like Mask reveal such a feeling.
Li: As an artist you have to keep the basic conscience of a human being, and this is the reason for being an artist. Do you agree to this?
Zeng: Yes, that is necessary. I firmly believe we should do everything according to our conscience.
Li: What particular experience spurred you to paint “Mask”?
Zeng: “Mask” was started in 1994 when I was painting the meat type. I came to Beijing in 1993 but I painted still with the feeling in Wuhan. I noticed several of the meat series at the later stage were not so good. Maybe they were good to the viewers but I understood they lacked something from my heart though the techniques were mature. Of course more mature and comprehensive techniques can help control these things, and the imperfect strokes may not be recognized, but painting, as for me, is not simply for work’s sake. I expect sort of pleasure during painting, no matter the pleasure is a relief or an expression. Frankly speaking I realized later I had some affected feelings and I didn’t think I could continue that way. My paintings had turned out to be a failure. I was trying to make some change to my model, and I cared a lot about techniques. Occasionally I used a scraper when I painted the hospital and meat, and I got the idea of painting a person wearing a mask with these techniques, a big one so that the effect could be obvious. I tried, without too much thinking, and the visual effect was good. The change at that time was mostly due to the emphasis on visual feelings.
Li: Is there any particular feelings for life in “Mask”?
Zeng: Yes, I suppose so. After I came to Beijing, I didn’t have many friends with whom I could truly open myself. I had a mixture of feelings when meeting new people, and I had to contact with a lot of them. While I was in Wuhan I seldom made new friends and I was not good at public relations. All my friends knew each other since childhood. I had to learn to get along with strangers in a new environment, and these feelings stirred me deeply, so I think the paintings are a reflection of things in my heart, not necessarily all people’s. It’s just my personal feeling.
Li: You think there are too many masks when people get along, don’t you?
Zeng: That’s for sure. There are many disingenuous things behind.
Li: I have been watching your paintings since you came to Beijing. I noticed two features: one is in “Mask” and is relatively easy to see, that is, there is an obvious symbol of something. However I don’t think your most important work is the original ”Mask”, but the processed one with the scraper. After being wholly scraped once, it looked different. There appeared a new way of expression C hiding and decorating. Once you said the blue sky and white clouds were like stage decorations, and I think they are similar to what you said about ”Mask” in some way. But you preserved something like the “hands”. While almost everything was changed, a spastic hand remained. Did you have this idea in your mind when you deal with the scraping?
Zeng: Yes, I did. I used the scraper so as to make a little difference from the original one. Apart from that, I wanted to get rid of some keen feelings I was eager to express. The scraper was able to remove the exciting strokes, entirely, and leave the calmness, hiding the excitement inside. I didn’t change the hand because I believe there are things in the world that can’t be really changed.
Li: All the hands in your paintings are exaggeratedly big with bulky, spastic condyles. I am watching you all the time. You are careful at dressing, but on the other hand, I can see you may be at loss suddenly in your mind, and that gives me a feeling of spasm.
Zeng: To tell the truth, I am an introvert person. The larger the occasion is or the more people I face, the more nervous I am.
Li: In which year did you accomplish the Mask series?
Zeng: It should be in 2001. Actually in 1999 I drew some abstract pictures. I am very interested in abstract things all the way. Every time I make some change, it is inspired by abstract things. I can find a lot in them. I started abstract paintings in 1988 when I was at college. I felt the disorder at that time and decided to present it, then I did quite a few abstract paintings, very excited. I still have them in my home. I don’t paint concrete things in life so that I can make some visual change easily.
Li: Does abstract art have any influence on your latest paintings?
Zeng: Sure. All my present works are from feelings when I paint abstract things. I maintain the incontrollable feelings and magnify the sudden weak feelings, placing them in their original positions. I still paint abstract pictures and I may never stop that. It is like a pause or a break I need when I feel nervous or depressed when painting other pictures.
Li: How come the helical strokes? Are they an exaggeration of a little thing in abstract painting?
Zeng: Exactly. I did these freely, black and white when I painted abstract pictures. Then I painted with two big brushes, in a reverse direction. Later I used some small strokes when drawing the outline. The mixing of black and white excited me. It was fun. I practiced and painted a lot in this way, big and small, before I decided to take a further step. I didn’t have a clear goal at first. I thought it was the meat grinder that ground people’s skin like that. It produced a very uneasy feeling visually, and I couldn’t put the feeling into words. As I recall, I was painting that way for several years. I have a name for my personal exhibition in Shanghai C “we” or “freezing lot with life”. It contains a lot of such feelings.
Li: I am suddenly excited by your chopped face. You are like a master now. By that I mean compared with the complete style you had before, you’ve got a kind of air at this stage, a greater one.
Zeng: I went to Shanghai days ago for a painting with various sizes of brushes, thick and thin. They are like Chinese chopsticks. I could manage them adeptly. I also tried to use the brush normally. But wherever I went you only saw the brush, and I didn’t like that, so I moved the brush backward. I was surprised at the change. It’s very interesting and I kept painting.
Li: What color is it?
Zeng: Generally I like pure, simple colors, black and white, occasionally a little blue in between, very little. The white was on first but finally it went bottom. As I painted more, I got a feeling of Jackson Pollock but I still felt, well, I didn’t control much but they had to be completed one time only.
Li: I don’t think so. Pollock came into being in Dada period and emphasizes an unexpected effect produced unconsciously but yours is not accidental. Actually it is totally controlled, including the use of brush, namely, the moving of it back and forth. It associates me with languished flowers and rotted leaves, dying grass in autumn, setbacks in life…
Zeng: You’re quite right.
Li: Though the brush goes smoothly, there’s a break from time to time.
Zeng: Yes. The crack excites me. You’ve got a sharp eye here. There is a wistaria in my home. The branches of it inspired me. They will bend and crack in winter, all of a sudden.
Li: Next is also connected with your sense of tragedy, probably unconsciously. I noticed the two yellow lines at the first sight. They immediately made me think of the decayed plant…overlapping, messy, but the cracks are different from down moving strokes in other abstract drawings. This might be relating to reverse use of brush. Languished flowers and decayed grass C reverse use of brush C setbacks in life are similar in nature. They produce the same feelings in people’s heart.
Zeng: Later I have more of these things, one layer upon another. I use white and black in order not to have too much transition. I also tried many other colors but it turns out that rich colors are not so effective as simple ones.
Li: Your paintings have reached another higher level. Sometimes I’m afraid you would become less and less sensitive to the tragic elements as your life becomes better-off, but now it seems I’m over-concerned.
Zeng: If I choose “Mask” I can continue to draw infinitely but I will feel bored. Besides, many other things affect me. For example on some occasions, I am introduced as “Mask artist” and labeled a trademark. When I’ve got too many it is like a blow because it has turned into a symbol, and I don’t want it last forever. For several years I was very contented. My paintings were known to many people but I didn’t think it was an absolutely good thing. There won’t be much significance if it continues like this. After I had a child I have more understanding of life and more concerns. There is no telling of the future. The living environment and education were not good when we were children. You had to think all the time whether you were right or wrong. For instance, in the maths class, we were asked to figure out how much we could gain and how much we were exploited by the landlord. On the walls were slogans like “never fear of hardship and death”. Students were learning in such environment. I don’t know whether you have watched “a silver coin” in which there was a plot that a child was forced to swallow mercury and died. The picture story was so well drawn, black and white, extremely miserable, filling me with hatred.
Li: We were brought up with a strong ideology. The problem is whether you are allowed and whether you are able to reflect on yourself, whether you are allowed to have your own standpoint and feelings.
Zeng: Childhood should have been showered by sunshine. But the education I received during the Cultural Revolution taught me too much hatred for the upper class. Living in such an environment you will have a different understanding of relations between people. Either you thought of nothing like a fool, or you racked your brains hoping to understand more before finding no answer to who on earth was wrong. So most likely people chose not to think too much and were not clear about the purpose of life you are asked to pursue. I painted The Last Dinner. Jesus is betrayed but all people wear a red scarf except Judah who wears a golden yellow tie, showing that he has given up the pursuit of his final goal in life.
Li: Love is the most important thing in art because love endows the artists with basic conscience and thus, basic cultural standpoint that is not subject to mainstream culture or fashion, particularly the collusion of the two, which rely on the media and are prevalent, controlling people’s nerves. I feel disgusted when I see the affectation and flattering behavior of some singers and hosts or hostesses. They are pitiful, as they have no “personality” any more but are merely dolls deformed by the mainstream culture. Maintenance of the conscience and independence is not easy for human beings, but you are able to keep a sober mind and are very clear about the real living environment. I think it is because you can release your gloomy feelings with art and that’s very important. I wrote a pair of spring festival scrolls: art is the same with religion in nature in the heavenly world; art works are inseparable from money in the earthly world. The horizontal inscription is “what course to follow?” I always regard art the same with religion in nature. Both of them are a way to save our souls. “Everyone is an artist” is an important proposition in modern art, the nature of which is to return the rights in art to daily life and let art be a practical way to save the soul. However, on the other hand, the levels and rules in art system distinguish common people from successful artists. This is a paradox, and is a test for the artist to see which is more important for him, fame and gains or self-salvation of the souls.
February 5, 2003