Zhang Xiaogang: Enigmata

Zhang Xiaogang: Enigmata


Amnesia and Memory: Boy with Closed Eyes, 2006

Curator’s Text:

There is a constant theme in Zhang Xiaogang’s artistic world, being the paradox of perception, which places us in the seams between such opposites as memory and oblivion, fabrication and truth, real and surreal, familiar and strange. We find ourselves experiencing distance in proximity, and summoning the urgency of the present from the remote distance—the cultural codes in the artist’s grasp carve out a labyrinth of meaning across the images he creates. Many people tried various paths to cracking these codes, hoping to uncover exactly what complex cultural genealogy lies behind this individual’s spiritual history, and how he achieves this spatiotemporal picture constructed from metaphors and symbols. This time, literature serves as a medium for approaching the artist’s inner world, a gaze which allows us a glimpse into the character behind this artist’s pictorial style.

The significance of literature here is not in presenting the artist’s reading history, but in probing how a graphic language translated from an individual’s perceptions and thoughts meshes with literature. A profound, intimate individuality within disjointed time and space, an inner monologue between conscious and unconscious, an entanglement between individual and historical memory—within the visible that he has provided, we encounter the legible, and deem it a fable. The mirroring between Zhang Xiaogang’s painting and the world of literature is much like Marcel Proust described: “We feel in one world, and think and name in another.”

The artist′s image board, detail view

Studies for the Mayfly Diary series

Enigmata is Zhang Xiaogang’s first solo exhibition in Kunming, coming some forty years after he left his hometown. The deep connections he forged with literature during his time in Kunming is what turned him into a modernist early on. It would define how he would experience and interpret the world around him, and go on to become a visual thinker in painting and beyond. Like the modernist literary operations behind such writers as James Joyce and Franz Kafka, the narrative in this artist’s works serves as a means for carrying complex awareness and psychological motivations, with all threads aimed at suspending meaning. With the image’s linguistic advantage of having no need for translation, this symbol-filled world allows viewers to piece together inner narratives of their own.

Though the mirroring function of literature allows the artist to recognize and affirm his psychological trajectory within, his experience having grown up in China, with the accompanying historical, cultural, social, and individual experiences, determined his unique spiritual perceptions, and guaranteed that he would not follow or reproduce any extant linguistic modality. Within the paradoxical relationships of his original images, within the allegories of weightlessness and vertigo, we recognize our own memories, histories, and countries in the confluence between our own language and his silent yet deafening images.

This exhibition presents representative works from different periods of Zhang Xiaogang’s career and their connections to literature. In particular, from previously unexhibited early works, and from his journal entries, letters, sketches, and other private jottings, we can follow his two methods of preserving memory and resisting oblivion—images and writing—to enter the artist’s psychological space. Here, metaphor and symbol are the last remaining weapons for defending our cultural world.