Concealment and Reemergence of Time in the “Faces of Humanity”

Zeng Xiaofeng’s works record and depict the history of his time and his individual spiritual history with extraordinary precision. Astonishingly, these two narrative dimensions are often entangled and emerge together within a single work. These artworks, be they paintings and installations, or sketches and rough notes, all emerge in a form that I call “faces of humanity,” like a long-sealed storehouse of memory opened by the magician’s hand. Those flows of time that have been left concealed and speechless by “intellect” are activated at this moment, the “aura” of the past brought back to the surface, so that we may encounter it through our gaze.

These so called “faces of humanity” are not the giant unsettling, anxiety-inducing, even somewhat terrifying human portraits in his works. These images often appear in the form of children and the elderly, or sometimes “transformed” into swimming fish, flying birds, running dogs or withering trees, emerging in the painting or on steel cabinets alongside that indecipherable, meaningless writing, but these images are carriers for profound allegorical meaning, carriers in which the history of an era and the spiritual history of the individual artist are mixed and poured. These signs and images are a series of specific faces complete with personality traits and social characteristics, but they are also “faces of humanity” that are abstract, beyond time and place, nation and race, and encompass the fate of the myriad beings.

As an artist born in the 1950s, Zeng Xiaofeng’s life experiences are roughly the same as those of his peers. Theirs is a generation shaped by the nationalism and collectivism of the Mao era, and the first in a new wave of art and cultural awakening after being “defrosted” in the late 1970s. In terms of his specific artistic pursuits and his explorations and experiments in artistic language and style, however, Zeng Xiaofeng has never fit in with his era or his peers, always maintaining the spirit and character of the independent intellectual. His works stand guard over the humanist heritage of cultural memory. Like a watchman over a storehouse of time, he maintains his distance from the clamor of the era. His works span different times and spaces, but have always maintained the intelligent, poetic and spiritual value of art as they constantly probe the meaning of life across the flow of time in the form of “faces of humanity.”

Storehouse of Memory—Zeng Xiaofeng Works Exhibition presents nearly sixty recent paper and installation works by the artist. The repeated struggles with the concealment and reappearance of “memory” in his recent works are also rooted in the individual bodily experience dimension of temporal narrative. The birth of dream states and the murmurs of somniloquy form the tone and atmosphere of the works in this exhibition. Just like his mysterious, tomb-like installations, the tone revealed in these works is tragic, powerless, isolated, dejected, pained, and even takes on a wicked sense of humor. It maintains a distance from the clamor of the times, but we can still see the artist’s yearning to reconcile with the era.

For Contemporary Gallery Kunming’s first individual artist case study, and Zeng Xiaofeng’s first solo exhibition in his hometown of Kunming, the curator hopes that the individuality and spirit apart from the times that is conveyed by the artist’s unique voice can endure the test of time.

Guan Yuda

Translated by Jeff Crosby