Zhang Wei / Wang Luyan: A Conversation with Jia Wei
English / German
Hardcover with dust jacket
12 x 19 cm
36 color and 6 b/w illustrations
Between them, Zhang Wei (born 1952) and Wang Luyan (born 1956) have witnessed and co-written the story of Chinese contemporary art, which begins in 1976, with the death of Mao and the wider opportunities opening up after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like many of their later friends and colleagues, the two were in their early 20s, self-taught, and setting out to discover art out of an inner urge. Zhang Wei went to the Beijing parks to paint and met similarly-minded young men and women with whom he would form the core of the No Name Group, then mainly an association of plein air painters in a roughly impressionist style. Wang Luyan became an early member of the more political Stars Group. When both groups staged their influential first exhibitions in 1979, Zhang Wei was already on his way to abstraction, while Wang Luyan went on to develop his own kind of conceptual art founded on paradox in the late 1980s. The one emigrated to New York in search of greater artistic freedom, the other stayed in Beijing, where he played an active role as an artist, collector, and curator. Today, both of them are based in Beijing, enjoying international success amid the rising interest in Chinese contemporary art. In this book, they discuss their shared history, their bodies of work as well as their larger ideas on art with Jia Wei, an expert in Chinese art and managing partner of Beijing’s Boers-Li Gallery. Their conversation makes us follow them on their own artistic path as both a collision and a fertile dialog between their personal roots and a global world.
GOOD EXPRESSIONS HAVE ABSTRACT MEANINGS
(excerpts from the conversation with Zhang Wei and Wang Luyan)
ZHANG WEI: In the early ’70s, it seemed that everyone was very keen on painting. Of course, the works were quite unsatisfactory, but that was unimportant. When I look back, I see that our collective behavior of painting outdoors was just a surface ritual. The true purpose was the subconscious affirmation of self-worth, a self-actualization of the meaning of being part of society, a way to gain an authentic sense of existence. Because the decade of the Cultural Revolution was a brutal period that completely obliterated individuality, painting was an escape to avoid the politics of society, this horror of reality, which was a particularly stressful time for the progeny of so-called capitalists. As long as I painted, I could psychologically cast off this kind of influence they had over me. And, through painting, I also met a lot of young artists who shared the same ideas, led identical lives, and endured similar experiences. I was able to find a small social group of my own.
In the winter of 1974 we had an exhibition for the first time. By chance, it was a few days before the New Year. As a group, we felt that we should celebrate. Using this as an excuse, everyone’s paintings were gathered for display at my house, like a party, to celebrate New Year. But in fact its real meaning was far greater than a New Year’s party. It united this group of people and lent them spiritual support. Everyone in the group gained more mutual understanding. On that day, the paintings were all hung together at my home. We were also sharing with one another our views of art and paintings. We were emotionally closer, more united. Under the pressure of such a powerful political society, this small group became especially valuable. After solidifying the strength of this group, we kept in very close contact until 1979.
JIA WEI: And painting itself became more important for you.
ZHANG WEI: From the early ’70s to the early ’80s, my paintings slowly changed from sketching to abstraction until they were completely abstract. It took about seven or eight years during which the works gradually evolved. For instance I remember how I went to Xiang-shan (Fragrant Hills Park in Beijing) to paint. “Do you really want to paint these mountains?” my companion asked. “The mountains here are nothing special, and yet painting them realistically is very difficult.”
WANG LUYAN: In the ’70s, Chinese art still aimed at the mainstream values of the Chinese government, the systemic values of the academy, art in the service of politics, and art as a political tool. In contrast to the art of the West, the development of modern and contemporary art in China lacks a long process. From the art of the Cultural Revolution to the Stars, China jumped directly into contemporary art. In this era of just a decade or so, Chinese artists had nearly repeated and imitated the forms of all the art genres in the history of modern Western art. Another aspect of the ’80s was that Chinese contemporary artists began to read a lot of Western philosophers, and they delved into the study of a number of Western literary and artistic theories, such as structuralism, linguistics, and semiotics.
ZHANG WEI: In the first half of the ’80s, we had some secret exhibitions at my home, inviting foreign friends to see the works… Then there were occasions where we arranged a place for exhibitions. These were usually shut down by the police. In 1985 we had a group show, an exhibition of ten people, and we paid rent to exhibit at the Chaoyang Theater. After the police shut it down, I went to ask for the return of our paintings. At that time, the person in charge of the theater was the director of the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Chaoyang District. I was the organizer and had made all the arrangements. When I asked for our paintings back, this man said to me: “I advise you all not to make trouble and don’t engage in this kind of activities again. Don’t think about hosting exhibitions of such abstract paintings that are clearly different. If you people have the opportunity, you all should leave. Don’t hang around here, there is no future for any of you.” I said: “You make it plain!” “People like you,” he continued, “the government knows your whereabouts, even if you’re not followed every day. When the government considers it important, they know whom you talk to on the phone and the places you’ve been to.” So the pressure of living in China was very high. I was in a panic. I really felt the pressure when I was being spied on. I was in contact with lots of foreigners, and many of my friends were considered dangerous by the government. I was under surveillance by the police station located in my precinct. After the show at the Chaoyang Theater had been closed, I took a trip to Tibet in 1986 and left for the United States afterwards.