Zhang Xiaogang: ‘Painting is a slow process, it takes time to find inspiration’

In this exclusive interview, China’s leading contemporary artist talks to specialist Tianyue Jiang about his career and the creative process which resulted in one of his best-known works, Three Black Songs: Melancholy 

Tianyue Jiang: In your formative period, which artists had the greatest influence on you, and why?

Zhang Xiaogang: I liked different artists at different stages. When I was painting Three Black Songs, the first half of 1989 was influenced by the French artist Odilon Redon, and the Chinese traditional painter Gu Kaizhi.

The second half of that year was completely different, as though time stopped, and there was a huge shift in my psyche. At that time I was greatly influenced by European, especially German, artists; Neo-Expressionism, for example, and art that focused on the reflection of history. The inspiration for the collage area of Three Black Songs: Melancholy came from Antoni Tàpies. He had an exhibition in China in the 1980s and influenced many Chinese artists.

Tell us about the background to Three Black Songs: Terror, Contemplation, Melancholy. Is there a particular story you were trying to tell with these works?

At the end of the 1980s and early ’90s, the socio-political environment had changed drastically, and this reality shook me up severely. There was a great shift in my mindset. Before this, my paintings had romantic and dream-like themes. After the second half of 1989 I began a huge, soul-searching introspection. It seemed as though there were lots of things I couldn’t escape. 

At that time I had a strong feeling we were repeating history. My artwork took on a sense of the absurd, set within a fictional space, emphasizing the symbolism of intention. Three Black Songs is a condensed expression of all these scattered elements of that period brought together.

When I created the first two works —Terror and Contemplation — I just wanted to create a large picture reflecting this sense of tragedy. However, after finishing them, I felt unfulfilled. It was missing something. And so I made the final piece, Melancholy.

In this series I incorporate everyday objects as symbols — like playing cards, knives, books and so on. In Melancholy I included a collage of real envelopes, which allude to that era. During that period we were completely cut off from the world. In the space of one night we were returned to a state of isolation; we could only maintain communication through writing letters.

What are your recollections of I Don't Want to Play Cards with Cezanne and Other Works, the seminal Chinese contemporary art exhibition at the Pacific Asia Museum in California in 1991? And why was it only Melancholy that was shown at the exhibition? 

After completing Three Black Songs they were in my house in Chongqing. Not long after, I heard of some Americans who were coming to look at Chinese contemporary art, but because of their itinerary they were only able to reach Chengdu. So I took all three works from their frames, rolled them up and took them to Chengdu.

The wall space for each artist at the exhibition was limited, and the curators only picked Melancholy to show. Although at the time I was slightly disappointed, the composition and emotions of this piece meant it could stand alone as a complete work, and so I agreed to show it on its own.

How do you assess the global impact that show had on interest in and appreciation of both your work and Chinese contemporary art in general?

At that time, news spread slowly and I’m not too clear on the situation following the exhibition. But it has generally been regarded as a fairly comprehensive exhibition.

The exhibition’s title came from a painting of the same name by a Shanghai artist in the exhibition. Cezanne symbolises Western Modernism, and from here on it became a powerful emblem — no longer would China imitate the West. Chinese artists would establish their own norms, values and artistic direction. This was incredibly exhilarating and I think this was where the significance of the exhibition lay.

You have said that your early works were influenced by Existentialism, the Theatre of the Absurd, Surrealism and Western music. How much were these early works a reaction to the era you grew up in, and how much were they a record of your personal experience?

These influences are hard to separate from one another. Growing up, Western influences were unavoidable. We often say, ‘China takes ten years to walk the Western path of a hundred years’. China has this type of ‘hard and fast’ attitude — we want to learn things immediately, and apply them immediately. It’s a sort of urgent mindset.

At that time I didn’t want to be a student forever, I wanted to express myself. I had too many things I had to say. Chinese artists in the ’80s all had this feeling; we were hurrying to use readily available means to express our ideas. After a while, we gradually slowed down, and our thoughts slowly settled down, too.

In your mature works, such as the Big Family: Bloodline series, Amnesia, and Green Wall, figures have become recognisable symbols. How important is it to you to leave the small details open to interpretation?

I think this question has to be handled according to the circumstances of each artist. Take, for example, Picasso: his work has tens of thousands of permutations. However, as soon as you see one, you know it is a Picasso. 

Often there are exceptionally high demands placed on Chinese artists, always being asked, ‘When will you change? How will you change?’ These questions were first put to me over 20 years ago. It seems that not changing won’t do, but changing for the bad is even worse. Artists shouldn’t stick to developed ideas: they should constantly push boundaries, unearth, delve down and grow.

Yet change shouldn’t be superficial: it should be something devoted to the pursuit of the deeper levels of consciousness. Artists are being pushed to create art in the same way a business produces merchandise. It seems that if under the conditions of fierce competition something isn’t novel and fresh, the business is doomed to failure.

‘All Chinese contemporary artists are relatively “young” artists; there are no old and new generations’

What are your thoughts on the relationship between the last generation of Chinese contemporary artists and the current generation?

China has an extraordinary historical backdrop. The progression of Western history is fairly logical, whereas China’s has gone against the grain. The market for Chinese contemporary art has not been around for long; strictly speaking as an artist, I have only had a basic understanding of the market for around ten years. Western artists of our generation, however, have been able to study their market from the outset.

Looking at the international context, all Chinese contemporary artists are relatively ‘young’ artists; there are no ‘old’ and ‘new’ generations. In my generation, one has to be 40 before getting a feel for the market, and learn that it isn’t as simple as buying and selling.

Chinese artists’ understanding of the market is relatively brief. We are all beginners. With our generation of artists from the ’80s and ’90s, there was a feeling of it being an era of great principles. People were full of dreams for the future, becoming interested in big questions, and resolving to create a sort of art that could take part in the development of a global culture. They hoped to gain affirmation of their own culture.

What young artists concern themselves with now is on a smaller scale, and is more concerned with their own personal surroundings. This is evident — everyone comprehends the now from their own perspective, from their own personal experience. So in terms of artistic output, it will all be completely different.

‘I once said to the media that I demand too much of myself. But if I worked tirelessly for a year, and advanced just one centimetre, I would feel this was an enormous triumph’

You have had many exhibitions in the US and in Europe. How do you think Western and Asian collectors differ? Do they respond differently to your work?

I have always worked together with galleries. Exhibitions at home have always attracted lots of visitors, and everyone’s backgrounds are quite varied. When I have an exhibition abroad, only collectors or people connected to the art world will come to view.

Apart from that, the difference is this: Chinese collectors have come to know about my works relatively late on, and some may have started to follow me owing largely to the market, whereas Western collectors perhaps more readily engage with the artwork itself, and have a respectful, even pious, attitude towards my art.

That said, in recent years, many Chinese collectors have shown a deeper understanding and stronger enthusiasm for my art; their enthusiasm is borne out of a personal enjoyment of my works, which marks a big change from before.

Which new directions is your art taking you in?

I’m currently preparing for a solo exhibition in October this year at Pace Gallery, Beijing. Having an exhibition in China is very stressful, and expectations are high, with hopes for me to produce something completely new. But painting is a very slow process, and it takes time to find inspiration.

I once said to the media that I demand too much of myself. If I were a conceptual or installation artist, I would think about exactly how my next piece of work would turn out. But as a painter, if I worked tirelessly for a year and advanced just one centimetre, I would feel this was an enormous triumph.