NOSTALGIA FOR THE FUTURE /Monica Demattè
For Zhu Bing painting constitutes a way to know oneself and one's surrounding reality, rather than a profession or a relaxing hobby.
It is perhaps for this reason that the process of painting, which includes a work's conception, preparation, and execution, which are at times quick and determined, at others long, complex, and ridden with doubt and changes of heart, holds an importance which is perhaps greater than the final result. Through his continuous confrontations with the whiteness of the canvas, with an “emptiness” that - more or less - terrifies us all, Zhu Bing re-examines his life, which is full of “memories that chain dreams” (as in the lyrics of “Volver” [returning] - a beautiful song by the Argentinian songwriter Carlos Gardel) and which influence the artist's present life in sometimes pressing terms, while at other times tinging it with a yearning nostalgia.
The future exists but in our thoughts, hopes and fears, yet, despite this, it can affect us in powerful, sometimes castrating ways. Upon a closer look, the past's actual existence is just as uncertain. According to Zen thought, each of us is born anew every day, in each moment one may decide to become a new, different person. Yet we bear the “marks” of countless experiences, which forge and direct us. Not even our progressive awareness of the elements that have influenced our lives, of the ghosts that we may trace back to our childhoods, can allow us to be open to new chapters in our lives. The “emptiness” we must confront also bears certain profound vestiges of our prior existences: perhaps that's what renders it even more difficult to face.
Painting is now often considered as a technique, a codified language that stems from long hours of study and the observance of rules, proportions and the relationship between colors and tones. In this way it is stripped of its deeper, foundational significance, which Chinese literati knew so well: that of expressing and communicating profound truths that resoundingly strike the collective chords of those kindred spirits who share “elective affinities”. Thus reduced to a purely decorative or commercial function, the object of painting, the painting itself, does not unveil anything new – it is but a colorful stain or a visual narrative.
During my encounters with Zhu Bing through the years, I have always found him to be intent, restless, and demanding with regard to his relationship with painting. Although immersed, despite himself, in an environment – that of contemporary art – that gauges success according to highly prosaic, concrete criteria, I have seen him constantly question the sense of spending long hours in his studio, brushstroke in hand. I've heard him ask himself questions that go beyond the external, superficial marks of public recognition, instead honestly and rigorously questioning himself about the meaning of his artistic endeavors. I believe his is an autobiographical course, which began in the place of his birth, Henan.
It is precisely in Henan that I chose to spend several days with the artist on a number of occasions, in pursuit of the landscapes and recollections that fill his works.
Along the Yellow River
Zhu Bing was born and raised between Zhengzhou and Kaifeng, between the city and immediate suburbs of places with a rich history that bear the vestiges of bygone days. He carries within himself the slow rhythms of the great river, the distinct landscapes that alternate flat, regular areas with sudden gorges and impervious, crumbly-soiled ravines. The trees he remembers are thin, slender, and rather scrawny, as are those that grow where rain is scarce, winters cold, and summers hot. Zhu Bing's knowledge of trees is that of an urban dweller, who carries within himself a sense of familiarity for them, rather than a knowledge of their names or possible uses. Yet trees are the absolute protagonists of his paintings.
When he moved with his family from Henan, the land of red soil, to Guangdong, with its lush, evergreen, invasive and imposing vegetation, it was precisely this feature that struck and attracted him. In a country such as China, where each city alas resembles all the rest, variations in climate and vegetation constitute a barrier to visual “globalization.”
I think Zhu Bing's passion for trees differs from the likewise as intense one of his friend and colleague Meng Huang, as from that of his colleague, the painter Duan Jianyu, a native of Zhengzhou who has been living in Guangzhou for a few years. Her trees are all easily recognizable: bamboo, firs, and the like, which seem to have been derived from a botanical manual and reproduced in a rather ironic, breezy, irreverent vein. Meng Huang's trees are living matter in a state of perpetual growth and motion, like hands stretching towards the sky. Zhu Bing's trees are instead engendered by both long-lost and more recent recollections; they evoke certain atmospheres and states of mind while questioning the viewer.
“Why paint trees?” Zhu Bing asks himself. “It has to do with the north: each time I think of Henan, the woods in winter come to mind, and that sense of feeling cold that moves me. It's the shape of the naked branches that tightens the throat and makes me think of trees and how they so often appear in traditional Chinese painting.”
Conjuring up the places where the artist grew up seems to overwhelm the present; perhaps the process of remembering softens the hard nature of his past experiences, lending them a tender, comforting air.
Or perhaps Zhu Bing often lives in the past because the current situation seems overly humdrum, comfortable, and ordinary; in short, it lacks that almost heroic sense of sacrifice that scores of Chinese generations know so well. From my conversations about the childhoods of both my contemporaries and slightly older peers (born in the fifties and sixties) – or even younger – I have come to realize that the sharpest memories, which are also the most moving and commonly shared, regard the “lack” of something: material lacks that have in turn led to the development of ideas, flights of fancy, and creativity.
I think it is true that for each of us things that are acquired too easily are just as easily forgotten, leaving no marked traces in their wake. Instead, every personal conquest is the fruit of arduous, impervious, hard-fought personal paths that lead to inner growth. Zhu Bing's youth, which was also spent toiling in a factory which taxed him to the point of making him quit, nonetheless holds within it the glowing glimmer of joys as simple as they are intense. Such as the time when, as a teenager, he skipped school with a group of friends to go on a trip to the countryside, where they all barbequed some food and smoked like grown-ups. Or the artist's relationship with his factory, a place of human apprenticeship, but also of suffering and strenuous effort.
Landscapes as Dreams
The artist's paintings during the last few years I think show that Zhu Bing has adhered to an important, significant process of subtraction. The items that crowded his landscapes a few years ago – dolls, human figures, animals - have gradually been replaced by atmospheres which alone contain the same sense of mystery without the need for overly explicit, sometimes exotic, elements. The colors have become “dustier,” the contours hazy, and the figures dissolve into each other, becoming almost undifferentiated matter. Zhu Bing favors earth tones, such as sienna or burnt sienna (it seems strange to speak of colors whose name derives from the earth of “Siena” rather than Henan's, but historically that color's name bears Italian roots...). Sharp, pure colors and tones rarely appear: for the most part the colors the artist uses are unique blends that cannot be reproduced.
Cats are the artist's most beloved animal, and the most mysterious; he often depicts feline figures, whether in groups or singly, whose profiles are sharply delineated with respect to the background, or whose figures blend in with the matter depicted. Along with birds, which are also a familiar subject, these felines are meant to exalt a sense of mystery and disorientation – their size, which is sometimes disproportionate with respect to the landscape, only serves to underscore their arcane nature.
A few settings remind us of the small parks that are so often found in the cities: small bridges, wooden or cement pavilions, and huge mushroom-like umbrellas. It seems that anything could happen there, that a dreamy, rather gloomy Alice has just returned from Wonderland and is thoughtfully picking her way through one path or another, one amusement ride or another.
Other settings include squalid urban outskirts bordering fields with debris-swollen brooks, which, despite the havoc humans have wreaked, still bear traces of the creative, enchanting force of nature.
Personally, the paintings I like best are those in which, as I mentioned above, the painter does without symbols or easily recognizable figures, and instead directly transforms a given state of being into the act of painting itself, into brushstrokes and drippings that are immersed in an almost undifferentiated whole that could, in the long run, lead to pure abstraction.
Yet Zhu Bing has recently confessed to me that he is more interested in telling a complete story, with a narrative development and an ending: the scanning of time, which is better expressed through media that capture motion, such as video, greatly interests him.
His large drawings, made up of several sheets of juxtaposed paper, are but the first step in this aesthetic direction, which I think will be marked by original, unpredictable developments. Having freed himself from the concerns which, whether one likes it or not, the use of color entails, the artist may now wholly devote his efforts to the telling of a narrative through the use of graphite backgrounds and strokes. Here a further aspect of the painter's expressive needs emerges, that of drawing upon a collective imagination through the use of recognizable elements, hence addressing the outer realm more than his own inner realm. Human and animal figures share a space in which proportions are subverted and thus perspective as well. They remind us of the language of cartoons, despite their also bearing that sense of suspension and mystery we've come to know so well.
I am convinced that the artist's creative course will lead him to experiment with new languages and artistic visions, which, while increasingly reflecting his own nature, will nonetheless become ever more accessible to others.
Luoyang, 8 October 2009
Translation by Francesco Giusti