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Hidden Stone - On Zhang Hua’s Arts
by Luo Fei (Curator of TCG Nordica, Kunming) 

Zhang Hua is an artist born in Pu’er, Yunnan in 1979. He enrolled in the Art College of Yunnan Art Institute (present Yunnan Arts University) to study sculpture in 2001. Zhang created a large number of painted pitch sculptures in the form of creases to remodel classic academia images. These works, with their large sizes, greatly impressed people of the time and gained widespread attention. Mr. Wang Lin, a critic, once wrote: “All of a sudden, he has transformed the sculptures which are three-dimensional into creases which are two-dimensional, depriving the narrative authority of these classic images we are so familiar with. He makes them the carriers for the contemporaries to reinterpret and relive the history.” With colorful paints, these re-engineering ancient Greek statues, courtyards, landscapes, bridges and corridors have been entrusted with a brand new aesthetic style of automotive industry. It is because of these stretching, squashing, wrinkling, and depressing handlings that made the classic images lost their seriousness and solemnity, and vested them with the taste to have fun with.

China’s contemporary art in the middle and latter 1990s, in the sculpture community particularly, employed the method of tampering and diversion. They reshaped and reinterpreted the classic images, and among the most typical ones were Zhan Wan’s “Zhongshan Suit” (1994) and “Artificial Mountain Rock” series (1995 to present), Sui Jianguo’s “The Legacy Mantel” (1997) and “Clothes Veins Study” (1998) series, and Liu Jianhua’s “Obsessive Memories” series (1998 - 1999) and so on. They tampered the classic Chinese or Western images and symbols of certain periods, with the utilization of modern industrial materials to infuse a sense of urbanity, and through a series of works to strengthen their personal schemes. From this we can see the strategies of Chinese artists and their anxiety in managing to establish the individual schemes in the historical narrative of visualization.

If one would say that China’s contemporary art had shifted its focus from political expression in 1970s to market success in 2000, it’s a fact that there are more and more artists coming back to their hometowns from urban centers like Beijing after the global financial crisis in 2008. They have connected their artistic practices more with the local experience and its cultural context. So, the contemporary Chinese art has begun on a journey of localized diverse expressions featuring individual and geographical characteristics. This form of localized expression, in the globalization context, has specified itself in those more concrete geographical cultural interactions and community identities, rather than that of the expression of “Chinese symbols” hanging in the air. This kind of change has further urged the artists to utilize the contemporary art languages they have inherited from previous generations to take on a more active interpretation of certain local culture and its context. Following the development of this logic, we have witnessed how Zhang as someone who is known by the arts community suddenly turned to a distinctly different creation pattern, drilling deeper into more personalized language experimentation. This personal language shifting also took place on those sculptors I mentioned previously.

Since 2011, Zhang Hua has started to use various media to create, from the stones discarded along the roadside and riverfront, to the building stones and marbles left behind from demolition activities. He used the hammer and jade carving machine to cut portraits on the stones in accordance with their original sizes and features, or simply to artificially frost certain sides of some rocks. It seems that this kind of day-to-day labor has turned the artist back to a folk mason. These stones vary in their sizes, with some as small as fingers. Their faces are blurring and look serene, just like how the babies are developing in its mommy’s womb, or the giants in their contemplation. Any unassuming stone in this stone carving series could become a precious one in the palms of the artist. The artist “created the images with the stones” (in Zhang own words), making each and every ordinary stone more mysteriously singular. This working pattern was inspired by Marnyi Stone of Tibetan Buddhism. It is normally, in a square or round shape, a pile of white stones placed on the top of mountains, mountain passes, road junctions, ferry crossings, lakeside, temples, or cemeteries, for people to pray and serve as the patron saint to the local. Stones are living and spiritual objects for people living in the areas influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. For the Marnyi Stones with Buddha statues and Buddhist sutras carved on them, there are no uniform sizes and shapes. Anyone who picks up any stone can randomly carve on it, mostly “Om mani padme hum” and other mantras. This series of works, which have been named as “The Gods”, presents themselves as a piled entity, with constant addition of stones he has been carving on a daily basis. It resembles a sacred stone alter fallen off from a high mount. The faces carved on the gravel or cobblestones are not certain personalities, nor any divine images, but the ones that are silent and primitive. They revealed the mystical experiences in the stones that are chiseled out with the carving language that is both pristine and restraint.

Mr. Yu Jian, a poet, described how the Tibetans crave the stones in the Yushu area in the River of Gods, an essay collection about the Mekong River Basin: “They do it meticulously, and the more they work on it the better they become. They could not care less whether they are good or bad, as there is no distinction between the two. There is no such a standard, as long as they work on, that is good; and once they can work on it wholeheartedly, and that is being kind.” These words come close to Zhang’s heart, and they are the best commentary for his present artistic creation situation. There is no good and bad in Zhang’s stones, and there are only linguistic chippings left behind after the artist’s persistent communication with the stones.

According to him, the River that Yu Jian described in the book is exactly the one that had accompanied his grow-ups. It is called Lancang River in China’s territory, which origins form the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, runs through Yunnan, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, and ultimately into the South China Sea. This river flows through many different countries, cultures, religious and ethnic regions, and has put together a historical narrative of “multiple gods worship” that is vastly different from the modern civilization. There, the River is not just for the purpose of water conservancy and economic development, it is more about being the cradle of fairy tales. Zhang grew up along this River. He knows better than everyone about the cross-cultural ecology where multi-ethnicities and multi-gods live together. He grew up in the riverfront, picking up cobblestones. He is now craving images on these stones, and they in turn piece together to constitute the riverbed of his memories.

We can see Zhang’s earlier works were presumptuous, ornate and magnificently modern, and he “distorted” the classic sculpture images by tampering them. His works nowadays, however, have featured the restraint, simplicity, plainness, and mystery. He carves the stones that are discarded, passing on to them their intrinsic dignity and possibilities, rebuilding the sentimental connection between human and objects. We, thus, can understand this phase as the “restoration” of the original images. It can be said that Zhang has returned from the “disenchantment” of the Western classic images in his earlier creation to the “re-enchantment” worshiping that is characterized in the culture of multiple-gods in Southeast Asia’s Mekong River Basin. While this is an expression that seriously deviated from that of the contemporary popular styles, it is indeed the only route for the artists to return to his or her personal experiences and local cultures. In these rock piles, he let people realize the relationships among the stones, rivers and human are not just the ones that are physically, economically independent, but more closely associated in their spiritual and religious dimensions.

Zhang has picked up the cultural genes of old folk stone-carving language, personal growth experiences and regionalism. In this group of stones, he has already casted off the double impacts exerted by the sculpture artists of previous generation as well as the taste of contemporary Chinese art market, and embarked on a journey of daily toil returning home and his personal spiritual world. 

There is on one hand the re-enchantment of “polytheistic worship”, while the care for the hallucinatory realism in the big picture of Chinese society on the other can’t be simply ignored by contemporary Chinese artists. Zhang said that the kindergarten, primary school, secondary school, high school and university he attended have all been demolished now. These schools are gone. It is only by running into a former schoolmate now and then that he could remember he actually went to a certain school. Ever since the 90s of the last century, China has undergone a rapidly advancing process of urbanization and an unordered city planning. As a result, a huge number of people have been displaced in a migration status without any sense of stability. The old towns have being replaced by the new ones, while the new town constantly expanded, populated, and refurbished. The endless circle of demolition, reconstruction, removal, and rebuilding has depressed the Chinese into the collective amnesia and rootless anxiety, and the relationship of people-to-people, people with history been seriously cut off. It is precisely because such a violent isolation that a number of artists start to utilize the ruin sites as their personal expression.

The ruins being the fundamental reality of contemporary China has also reflected that of the people’s culture and mentality. The concern for ruins is also about highlighting current affairs, channeling people’s attention to the violence and destruction. This was the theme that some Chinese artists got involved in the mid-1990s, such as the “Ruin Cleaning Project” by Zhan Wan in 1994, the demolished houses in Beijing that Rong Rong photographed in the mid-1990s, and Zhang Dali’s city graffiti, and so on. However, different from the approaches that intervened in the ruins sites in the form of public arts, Zhang actually brings construction ruins home, back to his studio. He brings the “tattered” and “fragmented” homes, schools, and workplaces back to his own private space to create, craving subtle and astonishing faces on the mixture of concrete, stone and steel. That’s what touches me the most in his artistic creation. It seems as if the people as well as their stories that used to be contained in the dilapidated houses, schools and workplaces have again been invited back under the hands of the artist. The faces are remembered on the ruins and the ruins in turn sublimated by them. The construction remains after violent demolish and stones discarded by men are picked up again by artists to carve on them the very existence of life. Traditionally, the distinction between sculpture and other types of art lies in its tangible, solid perpetuity. For art style as such, it would normally reject itself to be carried out on the wastes, and it’s even a necessity to require its size to be enormous. Zhang’s works, however, has always been done on construction wastes that are constantly being demolished, and are about carvings in a meticulous fashion, just like how the Tibetans find a stone in mountains and work on it. These images of human hidden in the building rubbles are “raised from dust”, so it’s understandable that the viewers could have completely ignored their existence. Nevertheless, once being found, people would be so marveled at their mysterious existence. Modern architecture has long forsaken the idea of spirituality and holiness in the stones. It is precisely because of this that humans have been building a “disenchantment” society since the time of Modernism, while construction stones left behind after violent demolish have become nothing but a heap of garbage of building material - a testament to the expansion of the society of human capital. However Zhang, in his work, has called for each of the stone in ruins to be “re-enchantment”. He allows us to experience the hallucination and anxiety by intertwining the ancient folk stone-carving artistry with and the reality China’s ruins.

From the perspective of urban caring, Zhang’s practice is not so much about the utilization of abandoned buildings stones, but rather the “care” he presents to the city and its residents after they have been violently destructed. The artist literally “invites” the city ruins “home”, giving this “tattered” city an artistic and spiritual home. By carving on the waste the “images of the world” or “masks of gods”, he reentered into what is ordinary the possibility to live again, reconstructed the sentimental connection of human and objects, human and history, and restored the significance of spirituality and revelation in these stones. That’s the value of the artists’ labor, i.e. to behold the hope of being born again in fragment and destruction and to rebuild the spiritual homeland in the midst of the ruins. 

For this reason, this pile of Zhang’s stones “is a holy land that is never assuming.”(Yu Jian) That sanctity does not lie in how they have displayed the protection and presence of the unknown deities or how people can come here to worship gods or even the art itself, rather about the self-effacing dignity that the artist has equally given to everything. The dignity is the glory that the eternal God has blessed man and everything with since the very beginning of the world. We are empowered with the desire and ability to explore and express the spiritual realm in this very glory.

December 12, 2014, Kunming