Chinese artist stakes out meaning between real and simulated

Wenxin Zhang blends the traditional with technology in her search for ‘things that are transcendent, that don’t grow old, that are always there’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 8:01am

Wenxin Zhang is a Chinese artist who lives somewhere between the real world and her imagination. The 28-year-old from Hefei, capital of east China’s Anhui province, creates artworks with new media, using videos, imagery and music to create layered works aimed at unveiling “larger questions about the suppressed”.

Zhang received her master’s degree from the California College of the Arts and recently moved back to China after six years in the United States. She hopes to find her own place in China’s evolving contemporary art scene, one that will blend together different mediums and ideas about reality.

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What made you want to be an artist?

It was pretty natural for me. When I was a child, my parents wanted me to have some hobbies, so they bought me a lot of graphic art books. I also took drawing and painting lessons for six years. I became interested in images. They have become part of my reality, even though they depict things that don’t really happen in the so-called real world.

From a very young age, the definition of reality for me has been fluid. I kind of live in a semi-imaginary world. As I grew up, I felt that reality had become larger and larger, and the space for imagination was shrinking. I did not feel very comfortable [with that], so I decided to do something about it – the solution was to make art.

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How did your artistic path take shape after art school?

Art school was a new thing for me. I grew up as a normal kid – I felt kind of lonely and isolated because things that I cared about were not very mainstream: the movies I watched, the music I listened to, and all those things. But at art school, that was the mainstream. Everybody was interested in art. I realised my art knowledge was really limited. In mainland China, it was very hard to get in touch with the whole contemporary art world because of informational, internet and language barriers. So I spent two years mostly catching up on my knowledge about art, especially the contemporary art world.

How did you transition from studying photography to working in new media?

I mainly did film photography, so I was carrying very heavy cameras around and taking many photos every month. That was crucial for me to practise a way of seeing, to cultivate the way I use images. But after several photographic projects, I realised I was more interested in something behind reality or even something purely imaginary. Photographs must come from the real world. If you take a photo of a dreamy landscape, the audience will question where you took that picture from or what camera you used. It automatically draws people’s attention to reality. I tried combining text with photographs or editing photos in a non-linear way to make them not very connected and more chaotic. But I didn’t feel that was efficient enough to convey my ideas.

I started reading more books on philosophy and contemporary art theories. I visited art venues and galleries to see shows with new media, multimedia or mixed media art. I realised other media – video, animation or even music – can more easily convey imaginary ideas. People don’t usually question where they come from because they know that those things are simulated or virtual.

How would you describe your artistic process?

Normally, I write first. I write on a daily basis. I write short poems and longer articles, artist writings and stories. After writing for some time, I start to condense my ideas and realise what I am really interested in, then I will start a visual project based on those ideas.

Last year, I wrote a lot about the relationship between the real world and the simulated, and I read a lot of European philosophers like Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. Their theories really had an impact on me, as well as the work of some other visual artists. Combining all those things with my own writing, I focus and condense my ideas, then choose a tool – for example, certain software or a way of making work – then I start creating.

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How has contemporary art in China changed over the past few years?

I think it’s going really well compared to some other countries. There are more independent or alternative art spaces in China, and there is more international exchange. It’s getting easier and easier for a Chinese artist to go outside to do residencies, get fellowships or get sponsored by international organisations. Academically, there are more and more people getting into the contemporary art history world, and more young people are interested. It’s like a whole biological environment. A lot of people say it’s still kind of chaotic. It’s true – there are still barriers. There’s very little government funding for artists. Most artists need to make money for themselves to sustain their art practice. Sometimes it costs them a lot of energy, so they cannot really focus. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of capital in the contemporary art world in China, so buying and selling is not that hard compared to some other countries. Overall, I feel the whole environment is very promising. It’s still kind of fragile, but it has a lot of energy and a lot of young people’s ideas blending into it.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I like to be on the margins. I want to have a very low-key life in a small city, but still be connected to the bigger scene, while maintaining my own individuality. I want to expand my path, also in foreign countries. I rented a very small studio in Hefei. Although it’s not a huge city, it’s still quite big, too noisy for me. I don’t like living in big cities – there’s a lot of financial pressure. I like the countryside and mountainous areas; I think that really speaks to my spirituality. So I may move to a mountainous area, and I hope to build up an artists’ residency there.

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What are you working on now?

My most recent work was an exhibition at Wuhan’s Surplus Space called Time Burns. I have also started to learn coding and programming. I want to learn all the technology I can, so that I have more freedom to create. I want to do more collaborations with musicians, and use coding to make interesting interactive projects with music, interactive videos that are more immersive, and maybe even [augmented reality] or [virtual reality] projects.

Many artists use virtual reality or simulations, but I think their focus is the technology itself – that’s not my focus. My focus is breaking boundaries. I want to use the newest technology to convey things that are transcendent, that don’t grow old, that are always there. New technology can more closely connect to people’s sensory experiences. Now there’s so much new information and all this stimuli every day, so it’s becoming harder and harder to connect with people using traditional language. If people are changing, then art needs to change too.

What’s the hardest part of being an artist?

Dealing with reality. I think good artists, when they’re making art, have to be really, really focused, and they need to dive deep into the world of making art. It’s a very abstract world and it is very pure. You have to be very, very concentrated in the process of creation. Creating is so wonderful. But if you are just indulging in creating, you will fail because you don’t look at reality. If you don’t connect with people, with the art world, you don’t sell your stuff, you don’t exhibit. If you don’t obtain certain opportunities, nobody will look at your work. This is very hard for me. I really enjoy the process of creation, but sometimes I need to meet and talk to people to introduce my stuff. That’s distracting for me.