The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wizardry, Quantum Physics and Contemporary Art: Zhang Xiaotao at Pékin Fine Arts

Last month I spoke to the disarmingly delightful Zhang Xiaotao in the beautiful surroundings of Pékin Fine Arts, the gallery in Beijing's Caochangdi run by an icon of contemporary art in China, the indefatigable Meg Maggio. Our conversation ranged across many topics: Zhang's desire for a Buddhist Renaissance in China, his thoughts about Chinese art education, his love for the work of Xu Bing, his influence from advances in Quantum Physics, and his belief that artists should be like "wizards in the lab of the future." My account of that conversation was published today on The Art Life. Here is the start of the article, "In the Realm of the Microcosmos: A Conversation with Zhang Xiaotao"
With Zhang Xiaotao in front of his animation 'The Adventures of Liang Liang' at Pekin Fine Arts
Visitors to Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery are likely to have encountered Zhang Xiaotao’s paintings of rotting garbage, swarming ants and used condoms. Depicted with meticulous realism, and with such a fabulous palette of viridian greens and lurid, glowing yellows and purples that they somehow make his abject and repellant subject matter appear beautiful, they are an indictment of a decadent society focused on obsessive consumption. Zhang has said that we live in an “age of lust” and in the past the major themes of his work were sex and death. Trained at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, one of the powerhouses of Chinese art education, he has reinvented himself as a new media artist of extraordinary ambition, using the new possibilities of 3D animation software to create allegories of our time on a dramatic scale. Zhang Xiaotao co-founded and now heads the Sichuan Fine Arts Academy’s New Media Studies Department. And in an equally dramatic shift, he has turned from a darkly satirical skewering of modern desires to a deep engagement with Buddhist theory and practice.
Image #1 Liang Liang
Zhang Xiaotao, The Adventures of Liang Liang, Animation, 11’49”, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts
For the China National Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, uber-curator Wang Chunchen selected two of Zhang’s 3D animations. I met the artist in Beijing during his solo show at Pékin Fine Arts and we talked about the dramatic developments in his life and art. “Zhang Xiaotao: In the realm of Microcosmic” presents three full-length video animation works. Sakya is centred upon the reconstruction of an important Buddhist temple in Tibet, partially destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang has blended traditional Buddhist thangka painting and mandalas with live action film, video gaming imagery and lushly layered effects to produce a hypnotically beautiful and immersive experience. The Adventures of Liang Liang animates the charmingly eccentric drawings of the artist’s little son, creating an allegorical journey through heaven and hell blending traditional Chinese classical imagery of mountains and water with the contemporary world of traffic jams and airport security checks. Three Thousand Words attempts to visually represent the Buddhist notion of the three realms of our existence, a multi-level, multi-spatial exploration of human heart and universe as one. Photographic still images in the exhibition reinforce the themes found in all elements of Zhang’s practice.
Image #2 .PekinFineArts.ZhangXiaotao.SakyaNo.4.StillImage 80x144cm.Edition10.2010-2011
Zhang Xiaotao, Sakya No.4, Still Image, 80x144cm, Edition10 2010-2011, image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts
I watched each animation with the artist, while he provided a commentary about his thinking. They draw inspiration from the contemporary visual language of video-gaming as much as from traditional Tibetan Buddhist iconography and the ancient Chinese tradition of ink painting. The Adventures of Liang Liang features cartoon characters, superheroes, and Buddhist deities in a joyfully eccentric visual cacophony. Characters ranging from Snoopy (in the red scarf of a Chinese “young pioneer) to cartoon monsters and the protagonists of traditional Chinese stories merge and overlap. It is wonderfully charming and thought provoking - and I for one totally get the analogy between airport security and the realms of the damned. Zhang is influenced by new theories in quantum physics and the way they challenge accepted notions of time and space and by the philosophies of Xu Bing, his mentor, and the artist he most admires. Zhang Xiaotao believes an artist should be “like an alchemist.” Over many cups of fragrant tea, I asked Zhang to tell me about his metamorphosis since 2005 from painter to new media artist working at the cutting edge of technology. What follows is an extract from a longer conversation, which took place in Chinese with an interpreter assisting.
ZX: In my view, we are now in an age of images, internet and technology. So we must learn new techniques and new languages. New media has changed my destiny. My work went to the Venice Biennale and the Asia Pacific Triennial in Queensland. I think it is an artist’s calling to study and implement new techniques and new languages. An artist must continue to learn and to transform. He has to do this every day. But I still paint! I like traditional material as well as new visual languages. So I spend half the time painting, half the time doing animation.
Click HERE to read the rest of my conversation with the artist.