HK Magazine Archive

Zhang Zhenyu Makes a Mesmerizing Display of Tiny Insignificance

The Chinese artist's “Dust” series draws from the particles that float all around us.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 April, 2016, 10:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:04pm

Does “Dust” represent your idea of China? I’ve been asked a lot of times whether my work is related to the smog in mainland China, but no, this wasn’t what I had in mind when I started the project. Air pollution in Beijing is a pretty hot topic now, so it’s only natural that people are reminded of this when they look at my work. If that’s what they get from my work, so be it. But it’s definitely not the inspiration behind “Dust”—besides, the haze wasn’t that thick in 2011.

So how should it be interpreted? People tend to have different interpretations on my work, like the exceptionally rapid urban development in China and the growing desires of mankind in general. All these add to the meaning of “Dust,” but these practical issues are not the concept I would like to convey. I’m trying to express a much bigger idea here, one that transcends nations and deals with existence itself.

Is there a single message you want your audience to walk away with? My works are open for interpretation and I don’t care what the audience thinks of them. I believe every person will perceive my work in a different light, and I feel reluctant to “polish” their thoughts in a certain way. So, instead of telling them what to think, I’d rather ask them: what do you see in your reflection in the dust?

Why dust? It all traces back to four years ago, when I saw dust motes dancing in sunlight by the window sill one day. I was instantly struck by the beauty and lightness of its movement. I find it interesting how dust is constantly in the air everywhere we look—especially in our country—but at the same time it’s such an elusive substance that we pay almost no attention to. This emptiness, the paradox of its ubiquity, urged me to capture the moment on my canvas.

What’s the process of how you create your work? I try to transform the form of dust by directly sticking it onto the canvas and polishing it over and over again, until it becomes a mirror where you can see yourself. I try to keep the raw materials to a minimum—I only need two things for my work. Glue and dust. The color you see is the result of chemical reactions with the glue, and the superimposition of so many layers.

Where do you get your dust? Most of my dust is collected in Beijing—on the streets, from a passing car or a windowsill. In 2014 I issued a call for dust from all parts of the country, so people would collect it and send them to me in Beijing. I received around 100 samples, and I made an art piece out of dust from each city. It’s fascinating how dust exudes a different “aura” from place to place.

What about you–what do you see in the reflection? In my imagination, dust depicts the nothingness on the two ends of the spectrum of time—before creation, and after the apocalypse. When a living being dies, it disappears into dust. Amidst all the formlessness and chaos, it seems that only dust stays on. It also makes me reflect on how men are but a speck of dust in the universe, so trifling and tiny in the face of Mother Nature.