The Way of the World: Tang Zhigang’s Children from 2013 to 2018

Metamorphosis of the Image

In 2013, as Tang Zhigang faced grave illness and the looming specter of death, a major transformation took place in his painting. Though the main protagonists were still children, the settings they inhabited were no longer the political and military spaces he had so meticulously depicted over the years. Instead, they had moved to the civilian, secular world where all things gather and take place. The painting language used to shape this world was also very different from his paintings of the past. From Children’s Meetings to Chinese Fairy Tales, Tang Zhigang had generally used flat brushwork to construct his images. And though those paintings were mainly painted in gray tones, the children and their postures were marked by the red, bright and luminescent traits unique to the painting of the 1960s and 70s, imbuing the follies of the children’s meetings with unique historical traces. In his paintings after 2013, the graphic forms no longer had the solidity of being shaped by flat brushwork, but instead were slowly emptied out by highly tactile brushstrokes. Likewise, the colors were no longer so bright, but became heavy and muted in a generally hazy atmosphere. If the flat brushstroke propaganda painting style and “red, bright and luminescent” traits of the Children’s Meetings series referenced specific history, then beyond serving to shape the images, did the painting language that emerged after 2013 encompass some other special metaphorical meaning? If we want to decode the metaphors in Tang Zhigang’s painting language on this level, then we must first look at his landscape paintings from 2013, because this year also saw changes in the style of his landscape painting.

After he began the various children’s series, Tang Zhigang’s depiction of the landscape also switched to the flat brushwork of propaganda painting, as he built the shape of the landscape with series of planes. Though this flat brushwork could be used to generalize a wide range of details of the landscape, all of the mountains, lakes, trees and houses in his landscapes from this period have rather clear outlines. On a psychological level, when a painter is using flat brushstrokes, he can ignore the finer details of the landscape and enter a relatively free creative state. When highlighting the outlines of the forms in the landscape, he is often constrained by form and enters into a rather tense and passive creative state. A quite different look emerged in his landscape paintings after 2013. The landscapes that emerged after this time were no longer single solid objects, but instead a more conceptualized landscape emerging in the intervals between the brushstrokes, and in the emptiness and fullness formed between the variations in the bright colors. Conceptualized here refers to Tang Zhigang doing away with the realistic modeling of the forms in the landscape in favor of building his perception of the landscape through arrangements of brushstrokes and colors.

No longer constrained by form, nor anxious about the true appearance of the landscape, Tang Zhigang’s landscapes were filled with a relaxed, romantic air. Such an air had rarely appeared in his painting before, because this relaxed, romantic air wasn’t an artistic need for Tang Zhigang, but a psychological need, a response to his physical ailments. This level can be easily understood. Tang Zhigang’s painting appears on the surface to be a medium for shape and form, but beneath that surface, it is an individualized allegory and spiritual carrier that engages with life.

In the children’s series before 2013, the flat brushwork and the red, bright and luminescent faces led the meaning of the paintings to a specific period in time, while also highlighting the facial expressions, shapes and props within the scene, thus forming a semiotic setting, one that serves as an individualized artistic marker, and also creates very specific indicators of meaning. As for his paintings after 2013, the deconstruction of form produces a spiritual space of indeterminate indicators. This space is inextricably linked to the mortal world, because from the recognizable scenes in the paintings, we learn that Tang Zhigang’s children have left the world of power and authority to enter the world of mere mortals. Thus, in the six years between 2013 and 2018, the paintings of children have presented all kinds of ordinary human forms, sometimes melancholic, sometimes flashy, and though their direction is uncertain, they are closely tied to Tang Zhigang’s life, his experiences and his perceptions of the world. Here, we can follow a painting titled Pooping on Mama’s Bed (fig.2) into Tang Zhigang’s intertwined worlds of life and image.

Trembling in Fear

The child in the painting is stark naked, his fleshy butt raised high in the air, turning him into a beacon or monumental form to mark out the spot where he laid a large, orderly pile of excrement that contrasts with the shape of his body. Excrement and related materials are certainly not rare in contemporary art as materials of extreme expression. It first appeared in Western contemporary art back in the 1920s, and its transformative effect persists into the present.

The most typical example is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, made from a urinal, which, aside from sending out shock waves for its ugliness, also had many people worrying and wondering about what constitutes art and what could become art. After Duchamp, Italian artist Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement in 1961, producing a total of 90 cans. The cans were labeled in multiple languages: “Artist’s Shit, contents 30 gr net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961.” When it was produced, a collector could purchase a single can of the artist’s shit for 30 grams of 18 karat gold, By August 2016, a can of Manzoni’s shit was sold at auction in Milan for 275,000 British Pounds. Though this artwork was rooted in the artist’s father’s judgment that “your art is shit,” Piero Manzoni and his audience successfully transformed cans of shit into works of art. In terms of artistic form, the significance lies in the use of the foulest human excretions to strike at the lofty refinement of traditional art while expanding the boundaries of art. Today, the boundaries of art have vanished. When a can of feces in the name of art can be worth nearly 2.5 million CNY, with plenty of room to grow, there really isn’t anything that can’t be art. Compared to these acts of art for art’s sake, Tang Zhigang’s artwork is not all that conceptual, because the scene in the painting matches the title, which indicates an individual narrative.

The child who has just defecated is surrounded by other children of various sizes. They are compiled from blocks of warm color, sometimes emerging in the form of a child, sometimes resembling roots or flowers springing up from the light green of the bed. Together with the red flower embroidery along the edge of the mattress, the green of the wall, and the green-tinted dark red of the floorboards, they give the painting a vital warmth. Tang Zhigang uses the tender warmth of the idea of Mama’s bed to establish a context, but in real life, few mothers would put up with such behavior, so Tang Zhigang’s tender warmth is just an ideal. In fact, this brazenly pooping child does not just appear on Mama’s bed, it also appears in such settings as a Simmons bed, stairs, a dinner table, and appears throughout Tang Zhigang’s creative career to the present.

Tang Zhigang published some writing in 2002, including a passage called “Shit Falling from the Sky,” in which he described his experience in the Laoshan Front of the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1984. This experience may not be directly connected to this painting, but when we place the two together, it becomes apparent that Tang Zhigang has been thinking about shit for a long time. If we view various secretions as physiological processes for disposing of the body’s waste, then we can find certain links in Tang Zhigang’s childhood experiences.

First are the things he saw, such as a disabled person’s secretions after masturbating, or Tang’s own secretions as a frequent bed-wetter. From Tang Zhigang’s writings, it is easy to see that the former is a release after pressure reaches a high point, a cathartic relaxation, while the latter was sure to elicit harsh, public punishment from his mother or teachers, with the resulting fear and shame coming to form a massive mental block that still encircles him to this day. For this reason, the childlike fun and tender warmth evoked by Pooping on Mama’s Bed is actually, in Tang Zhigang’s real world, a cage of anxiety and fear.

Tang Zhigang is no stranger to cages, because his mother worked in a prison in Kunyang, in charge of thought work for the female convicts. Tang Zhigang lived with his mother, and much of his childhood up to high school, was spent in the prison. He would freely move back and forth between confinement and openness. Though he did not personally witness the clamor of the decade of chaos unfolding outside of the high walls, he did, on various levels of life, perceive the clear divisions within the prison, so Tang Zhigang’s memories of the prison are strictly in black and white. It was not until he returned as an adult, when the prison had already fallen into ruin, that he finally found some color in the place. From this, we can deduce that the repression from his frequent physical bed-wetting and resulting punishments resulted in an extreme psychological response of blockage and release regarding defecation and sexual secretions. In regard to Tang Zhigang’s living space, the confinement of the prison and his own freedom of motion formed into psychological properties of isolation and openness. The personality shaped by the two types of mental states between blockage and release, isolation and openness did not decline with the passage of time, but came to permeate Tang Zhigang’s life, and from his life, entered into his art. We see such phenomena as sadness and joy, fear and revelry, power and weakness flowing through his paintings from every period.

In the late 1970s, influenced by the social environment of the times, Tang Zhigang’s paintings were red, bright and luminescent, and showed people tall, strong and healthy, evoking vitality and joy. In the Soul of Soldiers series from the 1980s, this all metamorphosed into death and sadness. This sadness would disperse in the later series on the lives of soldiers. In the children’s series beginning in the late 1990s, while creating an individualized artistic marker, he placed the childishness and feebleness of the child’s body together with the responsibility and strength of the military uniform, children’s play and the meeting room, with its power over ordinary people, and in this way, Tang Zhigang’s extreme psychology no longer appeared alone, in segments, but instead simultaneously concealed within a single painting. In the children’s series created between the late 1990s and 2013, amidst the contrasts between child’s play and power, there are occasionally direct references to Tang Zhigang and his reactions to his own physical condition, as in the transformation of restraint and release into stones blocking the flow of water in Gallstones. After 2013, as the children in the painting began to retreat from the theater of power, and as the image began to be disintegrated and voided by brushstrokes and colors, the political properties of Tang Zhigang’s paintings also began to decline. Individual spiritual properties grew stronger and gradually came to dominate the subject matter. The Fairy Tales series is one such example.

Fairy Tales

In 2015, Tang Zhigang painted several watercolor paintings titled Fairy Tales. The bodies of some of the children are complete, while some are dismembered, scattered across steps or set on shelves. Amidst the dark green tones of the paintings, there is a cold, frightful atmosphere, mixed with doubt. What did these once red, bright, luminescent and arrogant children experience to leave them dismembered and strewn about like this in only two short years? The only thing that is for certain is that Tang Zhigang’s fairy tales are not children’s fairy tales. The general public’s notion of fairy tales is of a beautified, idealized adult world dreamed up by adults using a children’s mindset. In order to protect the children’s innocence, as well as perhaps to bring a bit of the beauty of the fairy tale world into the lives of the adults doing the telling, these fairy tales block out the dark side of human nature. Through Tang Zhigang’s “dolls,” perhaps we have a way of gazing into this abyss.

The Dolls were evidently painted using Fairy Tales as a reference, but they bear a different title and indicate different meaning. Dolls are toys for children, but in Tang Zhigang’s paintings, the children themselves have become dolls, some of them physically whole, others dismembered, and just as in Fairy Tales, scattered across the scene. On some of these children’s limbs, we can still see faint traces of their doll joints, but not on others, which look like chunks of children’s flesh. The expressions on the faces are still just barely distinguishable. We do not see strong emotions, just the numb acceptance of fate. Tang Zhigang had previously seen limbs ripped off in war, but these memories had coalesced in the philosophical, meditative atmosphere of the 85 Movement as the grief and sadness of the Soul of Soldiers. Some traces from those memories may have remained in the limbs of these fairy tales and dolls, but the reference was more directed at Tang Zhigang’s personal experience, because in some other paintings, the heads of the children have left the settings of the fairy tales and dolls, and been placed below the nether regions of other children. Such images had not appeared before in Tang Zhigang’s previous paintings, but in the threads of graphic history, we can find some connections in regard to torment in the works of Mexican woman painter Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) was in a car accident at the age of eighteen, and though she survived, she endured 35 surgeries during the course of her life. The enduring pain and spiritual trauma blended together, and she came to see painting as a massive space for release of her suffering, and also led her, in the last days before her death, to write in her diary, “I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return.” Frida Kahlo left the world over half a century ago, but her pain and spiritual trauma still rumble in the paintings she left behind. One traumatic episode took place in 1932. At that time, Kahlo painted one painting about herself each year. The first painting was titled My Birth.

In the painting there is a head, and the body of a dead woman that is covered in a white sheet from the waist up. She is lying face up on a white bed, a child’s head protruding from between her legs, yet the face of the child is that of an adult. This expressive method has a graphic source in Aztec mythology, in the form of Tlazolteotl, a goddess with dark properties. But the birth of new life from the mythology is gone in Kahlo’s painting, because the infant in the painting died halfway through birth. The depiction of the face tells us that this dead child is Frida Kahlo, its identity is actually the artist’s stillborn child. Her hopes died with the child in the painting. Even more tragic, Kahlo’s mother died while she was creating this painting. The woman in childbirth in the painting is both Frida and her mother, while the child is both Frida and her own child. In actuality, three people die in the painting. They are intertwined, but you do not see tenderness between them, only the cold suffering of death and hopelessness. This suffering appears in Tang Zhigang’s paintings in another form.

The children in Tang Zhigang’s painting sit or stand on five toilets. Some children are even stacked on the shoulders of others, looking out from the commanding heights, seemingly oblivious to the head blocking their nether regions. Though they assume a posture of opening the floodgates, we do not see any fluid flowing out. This scene of defecation and urination draws obvious associations with Tang Zhigang’s frequent bed-wetting as a child and the dual physical and psychological reactions to the resulting punishment. For Tang, this nightmarish experience is not limited to the depths of history and memory, but appears in the present reality in the form of cancer in the urinary tract and liver disease, which long chipped away at Tang Zhigang’s body and will. This extended suffering is diminished by the childlike play of the children in the painting, but in a painting from the following year, titled Bladder Cancer Cells – Qinghai, the pains of illness and the specter of death take on nightmarish form.

This painting constructs a seemingly very large indoor space. The reason it is so broad is because the playing children have suddenly become very small. We do not see the toilets from the 2015 painting, but the children have a similar form, some standing, some stacked, like a row of twisted pillars fixed in the foreground. A large, standard portrait of a child hangs on the wall in the background. This kind of standard portrait was a mainstay of Tang Zhigang’s Children’s Meetings from before 2013. The child would be neatly dressed, and though often furrowing his brow, this child’s form could still manage to emanate an air of authority. The standard portrait in this painting is a cute, wide-eyed doll, but the eyes have been transformed into giant dark gray color fields embedded in a pale face. In this face and its vacant stare, we do not see the authority of the past, but fear, recalling Edvard Munch’s Scream.

In Munch’s painting, the person in the foreground appears like a phantom that has been atomized and distorted by suffering. The surrounding scenery is bathed in the blood red glow of sunset, with eddies of purple and deep green converging to form a terrifying scene of turmoil. We can also faintly discern two other figures, who appear able to causally stroll through all of this. From Munch’s illnesses and his description of this painting, we learn that Scream is rooted in a sudden experience. One time, while walking with a friend, he was suddenly struck by a sense of terror and dread. For a heavily depressed person such as the artist, such a strike comes from deep within and penetrates every inch of the body like a bolt of lightning, bouncing off the skin and forming a black hole of anxiety and fear that immediately sucks in all joy and hope. Infinite hopelessness and fear well up to encapsulate the entire body, and condense into the abyss of the spirit. Munch’s Scream is a form of this abyss, so the reason the other two figures are able to casually stroll through it all is because they are walking outside of Munch’s abyss.

In this sense, the eyes of the child in Tang Zhigang’s standard portrait have doubtless become black holes leading to the depths of his heart. Though we cannot know how much fear and pain has built up in this child’s body, we can at least clearly see that this fear and pain has turned the once proud and powerful child from the portrait into a vessel eroded by terror. Now that all of the colors of life have been melted away, there only remains a pale shell clinging to existence. This dejected atmosphere rarely appears in Tang Zhigang’s paintings from before 2013. That is perhaps because the pain and fear of illness had not so deeply penetrated his will before, or perhaps because the playful scenes and childlike bodies helped to dispel the pain and dread in his mind and body. But after 2013, an air of dejection and fear has frequently appeared in Tang Zhigang’s various settings and paintings. Also, quite surprisingly, there has emerged a resplendent flowery scene. To enter deep within, we must view the children from Pooping on Mama’s Bed from another field of vision.


The children in this painting are strangely fair and tender, like flower petals, some soaring in the air, others sprouting up from the ground, echoing the flower patterns on the mattress to form a vision of great vigor. This vision is a reversal of Tang Zhigang’s physical and psychological anxiety that, in the series of works on paper titled Profusion of Flowers is transformed into flowers, some resembling peonies, some appearing like confetti flying into the air, some like flower patterns on wallpapers and tablecloths to form an atmosphere of joy and celebration that sometimes draws one’s thoughts to the drum and gong celebrations and propaganda posters of the 1960s and 70s, and sometimes to various joyous scenes from the present. The children revel within the scene, but in one painting, titled Mirror Image, a child in a military uniform looks into a mirror laid against a wall. There is nothing on the wall, but the child and the outside viewer see a profusion of flowers in the mirror. Set against the blank wall, this splendid scene is a mere mirage, or a white-washing of our world, or perhaps a flowery branch sprouting out from Tang Zhigang’s sick body, showing us, through the mirror image and Tang Zhigang’s world of children, the delusions and reality of human life and this world. Perhaps this is the real reason Tang Zhigang chose children to be the protagonists of his paintings.

These children who appear in military uniform in his paintings after 2013 appear like discharged soldiers, returning from the meeting rooms, stages of power and army base life to the world of mortals. Sometimes they gather in a theater to watch an empty stage, sometimes they endure the pain of illness, sometimes they defecate on their mother’s bed, forming Tang Zhigang’s myriad world. The children in the paintings are like guides, leading the way through this world like Dante. The difference is that Dante led people from this world into hell, using the punishments of hell to reflect the evils of the human world, while Tang Zhigang’s children present the human world, the world through which Tang himself walks.

In 2018, a dog appeared in Tang Zhigang’s images of the world. Dogs have often appeared in Tang Zhigang’s various children’s series, but they faced a very different fate. Before 2013, dogs appeared in various meetings, playing happily, even mating, serving as mediums for added childish absurdity. After 2013, the dogs were no longer playing, but instead were being dismembered right along with the children, the parts of their bodies scattered about. The dog in Historical Event, on the other hand, is quite special. Not only is it wearing a coat, it is not even playing in the setting, just standing calmly in the foreground. This dog lives in Tang Zhigang’s home, and is named Runrun. The reason that Runrun is so well cared for in the painting, and so serene, is that Tang Zhigang sees her as the reincarnation of his mother. September 9 is the anniversary of his mother’s death. On this day in 2018, he wrote the following note: “Runrun and I have deep karmic ties. My mother must have reincarnated as Runrun so she could stay close to us. A dog’s lifespan is about twelve years, and in this way, my mother can be with us for another twelve years, by which time she’ll have lived on this earth for just over ninety years, about the amount of time she originally wanted.”

Looking at Tang Zhigang’s painting Historical Event with these words in hand, we see three children along a roundtable, one raising his hand to ask a question, one playfully tearing away at a book, and one sitting at the table, his hands clutching an unidentifiable object. Fixed here in the painting is a childhood from Tang Zhigang’s memory with his mother by his side. He grew up in experiences and memories of blockage and release, isolation and freedom, and after maturing amidst extremes of anxiety and bluster, the heavy blows of painful illness, multiple surgeries and looming death turned his memories into reality, and in 2013, turned into a frightful shadow that swept over every child in the painting. Looking back now in the children Pooping on Mama’s Bed, the anxieties and convulsions in the painting are real, because this is closely linked to Tang Zhigang’s real life; the vigor and vitality is real, because this is Tang Zhigang’s white-washing of life; the tenderness is real, because this comes from the needs of children. For a child caught in the depths of fear and pain, how could they not yearn for their mother’s presence?

Ma Ning