Artist Zhang Xiaogang on the Cultural Revolution and how Chinese artists are perceived in the West
Leading contemporary artist on imitation, perception, making money and the poetic 1980s
Zhang Xiaogang became one of the earliest faces of contemporary Chinese art for the West. His Bloodline series, a stylised take on Mao-era family portraits, was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1995. Early in his career, Zhang gave away works to friends, and the ones that were sold went for about HK$1,000. Now, his pieces are stars of auctions – his Forever Lasting Love fetched HK$79 million three years ago. Zhang discusses the impact of the Cultural Revolution on his artistic expression, how Chinese artists are perceived in the West, and how he views his legacy.
Many critics see your works, especially the Bloodline series, as your critical reflection on the Cultural Revolution.
It’s true that I can never escape from my memories of the Cultural Revolution, but my paintings are not simply denouncing or criticising the movement. The revolution broke out when I was eight. For an outsider, the movement is utterly brutal and inhumane, but for people of my age the Cultural Revolution was our childhood. In the eyes of an eight-year-old boy, the revolution was like a long holiday, no school, no homework and no restrictions from parents as they were sent to different labour camps. Mixed feelings came to me after I grew up: the movement, in fact, split my family and traumatised all those living through it in some way.
Do you think the political and social value of Chinese contemporary art is more important than its aesthetic in the West?
The presence of Chinese contemporary art was first recognised by the world for its difference, in terms of both its artistic language and content from Western art. The side effect of such recognition is curators only selected art pieces that fit this angle. To some degree, Chinese artistic language has not been fully accepted. But things have changed in the past decade, from treating Chinese artists as a group, without knowing who’s who, to treating us as distinct individuals.
You are most known for the symbols of the 1960s you used in Bloodline, such as Mao’s little red book. Have you experimented with the 1980s?
Over the past 11 years, I’ve always been playing with the symbols of the ’80s. In my collection Amnesia and Memory, I depicted a lamp, flashlight, book, notebook and bed – part of my memories of the ’80s. The series is about the confusion of living in the juxtaposition between now and the past. The ’80s were a fast-developing era and, as a result, fragmented. The place that witnessed our happiness and sorrow yesterday would be gone the next month. For me, it was the most poetic era, the time when people were willing to queue up outside the Xinhua book shop for a novel. People stepping out of the Cultural Revolution had so much hope and a beautiful illusion of the world.
Some argue Chinese contemporary artists have really questioned the past, but they keep repeating themselves and the public has had enough.
Those who explored this theme in the 1990s did it for art and self-reflection, but I cannot deny that some who follow the trend now do it for money. It is natural that people would follow and imitate when something groundbreaking makes its presence felt. But followers can also destroy a theme. When I first started painting Bloodline, my collections were taken away at the last minute before the opening of the first Shanghai Biennale in 1996. I told the curator they [the Bloodline works] were not about the movement, they are about people, but the Cultural Revolution remained taboo at the time. Now it has become a theme that’s been overdone. Honestly, I became bored of the family portraits in the late ’90s, but kept working on the series for another few years for curators and collectors.
Some artists are better known as social activists. What is the value of certain works when the events they relate to become history?
Everyone is allowed to seek what he or she wants – reputation and wealth among others – with their own artistic language. There is a group of artists who are more directly involved in social events, whereas artists like me have our eyes on museums and art history. Regardless of their motivation, their works are meaningful if you look at what they have led to in society. When reforms take place, their historical mission is accomplished. There is no point in defining what is a piece of art. It’s just a matter of if you like it or not.