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by Jerome Silbergeld


by Art-in-Buildings


by Ev Manz


by Christopher Calderhead

6 6



by Britta Erickson


at The Warehouse Gallery,
Syracuse University

by Jonathan Goodman


by Anja Chávez


by Katherine Rushworth


by Seo Jeong-Min


by Michèle Vicat


by John Haber


by Charlie Schultz


by Robert Ayers


by Mike Wood


by Laurel Graeber


by Jonathan Goodman



by Cui Fei




by Cui Fei, published on chineseart.com, 2001


As one of the leading Chinese contemporary artists living in the United States, Zhang Hongtu is best known for his paintings and installations of the Mao series.  His art continues to be vibrant and developmental.  Since coming to the United States in1982, he has continued to experiment in a wide range of media.  His work includes the “Soy Sauce calligraphy series,” the “Landscape Painting series,” and others.  In the recent exhibition, Infinity/Unknown—Culture and Identity in the Digital Age, at the Taipei Gallery, NYC, three digital works demonstrated his latest explorations of new technologies.  In this interview, Zhang talked about how he views and deals with changes in his work, and the relationship of his life experiences to his work.  This interview was conducted both at his home in Manhattan and his studio in Brooklyn, New York.

I  The Work

Cui Fei (Cui): Mr. Zhang, could you talk about your most recent digital work currently shown at the Taipei gallery?  Could you also comment on computer art?

Zhang Hongtu (Zhang):  I started computer art not too long ago. I haven’t done much so far.  In a very strict sense,my work probably should not be defined as “digital art”.  For me, the computer is just a tool.  The idea is still consistent with my previous work. 

The work Page of a Christie’s Catalogue—very rare complete set of twelve zodiac figures (fig.1) represents my impressions of a recent trip back to China.  It seemed to me then that the “counterfeit” was everywhere.  “Fakeness” had become a common phenomenon.  In my work, I also make use of the counterfeit, but try to do so in a creative way.  “Fakeness” becomes a theme of my work. There are three elements in this work: the Tang Tri-Colored pottery texture, the Mao outfit, and the postures of the 12 zodiac animals.  Most people will be able to relate to these animals connected to their birth years.  The Tang Tri-Colored glazed pottery signifies something ancient and unearthed.  The Mao outfit basically represents Chinese fashion trends when I was in China.  When I mixed these three seemingly unrelated elements, I intended to create new images that have connections with reality— connections which transcend the meaning of the twelve animals.  This strange mixture parallels the current situation in China: a mixture of old traditional feudalism, communism, and capitalism.  From 1987 to 1997, for about 10 years, I was unable to re-enter China because of the Mao series.  After 1997, I went back China for several visits.  China had changed tremendously.  When I returned, it was as if I had entered a totally new world.  It was a profound experience, even a kind of shock.

Cui: Many immigrants experience this when they return to their homeland. This so called “second culture shock” is even stronger than the initial one they experienced when they first traveled to a new country.

Zhang: Yes, That’s true.  I have a very personal memory of the China I had left behind.  When I returned to my homeland, I found myself questioning this memory, even denying it, doubting its accuracy.  The first culture shock experience I had was, of course, when I arrived in the United States.  It arose merely from the comparison of the old environment with the new one.  But this time, I had to compare my struggle with my own memory and sense of self.

The diptych Bikers (fig. 2) also reflects my impression of my recent trips to China. The bicycle is still the primary form of transportation for most of people there.  Yet, since there are more cars on the road in China now, I felt that the environment was more crowded.  I also sensed different attitudes of people. They are more eager to make money.  Every image in these paintings is real.  I took hundreds of digital pictures in Beijing, which were then retouched and rearranged in Photoshop.  The background of the first piece is a Chinese landscape painting, while that of the second one is simply an empty space.  This work implies that people starting from the same place will, however, go to an unknown future.   Here I used Chinese traditional collection seals and the scroll painting format to create an ancient atmosphere.   So, there is again a mixture and twist: the background is an image of an old Chinese painting while the people riding bikes in the front are very contemporary and realistic.

My third work in this show is the Self-Portrait, in the style of the old masters (fig.3).  In general, a self-portrait aims to represent the artist’s identity, but I did not intend to emphasize my appearance in this work.  In stead, there is a mixture going on: the background is taken from Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, while the way I compose the figure refers to Picasso’s portrait painting, and an ancient Chinese folk song is written on the background. 

Cubism has had a great impact upon my approach to arts.  Cubism was a liberation from traditional reality, appearance and illusion.  It was a breakthrough in art history. Cubist artists broke down an object and presented several aspects of that object in one work.  However, their innovations are not groundless— these artists were influenced by Cezanne and African sculpture, and they had direct connection with the cultural environment at that time.  Particularly, I was influenced greatly by Picasso.  However, I feel it would be meaningless to paint a self-portrait in his style— it would merely be a kind of recapitulation. 

Using a computer in art work has many specific advantages. For example, one can  preserve the texture of skin, and change color by a simple click of the mouse.  The Chinese folk song expresses a profound Asian philosophy: remain essentially the same internally despite all apparent external changes.  For instance, from Renaissance art to digital art, there were countless revolutions in art history.   But one thing has never changed, that is, the fundamental language of art.  The function of human eyes has never changed.  Whether you have double-fold eyelids, or single-fold eyelids, or single-fold eyelid that later customized to double-fold eyelids, the essential ability of all human eyes is simply to perceive the world.  And this ability is forever the same.  The common function of human eyes determines the commonality of visual art.  

II   Change

Cui: From the Mao series to the Soy Sauce series, and then to this digital art series, your work is constantly changing.  A universal question faced by all artists is how to deal with changes.  As artists, we are all encountering changes and related problems, such as how to push our limits, how to keep experimenting with new things so that we can improve ourselves.  When we change, there are always risks and challenges because we are doing something that we are not familiar with.  Sometimes it is even a little bit scary.  Could you talk about how you think about the changes in your work?

Zhang: Although my media and methods are changing, the basic foundation of my work—my attitude toward art, the relationship of art with myself as well as with my life experience, and the relationship with the audience—has never changed. 

When my work begins to change, I don’t deliberately claim that “I will change.” For example, the Mao series is more like psychotherapy to me.  After I was cured, in a sense, it became meaningless for me to keep doing it.  So, I stopped naturally.  But the last piece of Mao series led me to the Landscape Painting series.  So, the change is not coming from nowhere. It is developed from my previous work.  It comes naturally.  When I make changes in my work, I don’t worry too much about  “taking a risk” or losing my audience. I think that as long as you have the right attitude, there will not be a problem when you change. 

I don’t have a strategy though.  I don’t have a scenario of how to conquer the market, or how to conquer museums.  Basically, I tie my art with my life experiences.  Therefore, when my life changes, it definitely affects my work. 

Life is hard to predict.  When I came to the United States 1982, I did not expect to stay here for almost two decades.  Even now, I don’t know how long I will stay in New York City.  Although I don’t have a very clear plan, it doesn’t mean that I will “drift with the tide.”  It is my principle and foundation to try to connect my art with my life experience.  One thing I certainly will not do is to adjust my work to follow the main stream, or certain popular trends.  I don’t really care how others may think about the changes I made in my work, even if they respond negatively.  I am very serious about one thing—that is—the connection of my art and my life experience.  This actually is the criterion of whether or not you are honest with yourself and your vision.  On the other hand, I am not living in a place that is totally isolated from human society—after all, I am part of this society.  Although people have different characters and interests, we do have commonalties.  So, my life experiences can echo with others’.  Thus, I am not overly concerned about whether my work is too personal to understand, or whether people like my work or not.  As long as I am honest to myself, I will have some connections with others. 

Cui: No matter who you are and what you do, you are a human being.  So, there are always connections with others.

Zhang: Yes, the function of art is to communicate.  Everybody has the instinct to be an artist as a child, but not every child has had the chance to be an artist as an adult.  When I use my work to speak for myself, I also speak for those who have had experiences similar to mine.   I don’t really have an audience in mind when I work.  Yet, at the end, my work always draws its own audience.

Cui: You talked about the relationship of your work with your audience. When you did the Mao series, you were already very successful.  In general, for people who have gained fame, changing styles may be even more risky.

Zhang: My friend also mentioned that to me.  Most of time, people will immediately envision an artist’s style upon hearing their names.  In my case, my different styles make it hard for people to have a unified picture of what kind of artist I am. The galleries are not quiet sure if they can “sell” my work when it is done in a new, unfamiliar style.  It is also hard for historians to categorize me into certain trends or schools.  Critics probably feel difficult to write about me, since there are so many aspects to cover.  This is a very practical problem.  I thought about how to address it, but finally gave up.  I think this is their problems, ultimately, not mine.  My responsibility is to do my work. 

Certainly, when my work changes, some of my audience becomes a little confused, because they are more used to my old works.  Some of them do not understand my new works, and even criticize them in newspapers or reviews.  However, I have confidence that good work will draw an audience on its own merits. 

Cui: Do you care when your work receives negative criticism?

Zhang: Only in early times.  My Mao series was criticized as being influenced by the Russain artists Komar and Melamid.  They painted Linin and Stalin in the socialist realism style.  Although I had similar background—that is—coming from a Communistic country and dealing with a previous political icon, I did not even know either artist when I started the Mao series.  My work is merely a reflection of my experience.  But after that, such criticism no longer bothered me.  I believe that the audience is the best judge.

III    Identity

Cui: You’ve lived in the United States for 19 years.  It is probably no longer accurate to define you as a “Chinese artist;” but it is definitely not true either to define you as a western artist.  As artists living in-between cultures, one of the most common questions we are asked is “what is your identity?”  What is your answer to that? 

Zhang: That is true. I am often asked this question. Finally, I arrived at this answer: I don’t have a clear answer. 

I thought of myself initially as a bona fide Chinese artist. Earlier, when someone said that I was probably no longer a “Chinese artist”, I took it heavily.  Now, I don’t care too much about it.  Perhaps, I have been away from China for too long.  Curators and critics in China have showed certain distance from my works.  I was seldom invited in Chinese Avant-Garde exhibitions in China or in Europe.  I understand that curators or critics have their own definitions for “ a Chinese artist.”  If you don’t fit in their definitions, they will not label you as such, and you don’t belong to that group.  But American critics certainly label me as a “Chinese artist.”  Some people say I am probably a “Chinese immigrant artist.”  I never heard this title before, so I joke with them: American call the America Born Chinese as “ABCs”; accordingly, I call myself a “CIA.” (Chinese Immigrant Artist). 

My final conclusion is that this question is really not of concern to me.  If I think about it constantly, it will become a mental burden for me.  They can name me, label me, whatever they want—it really doesn’t matter—as long as not too far off the target—something like a “Malaysian artist,” for example.

IV   The Meeting Point of the East and the West

Cui: Could you talk about the influences of both Chinese culture and Western Culture on your work?  What kind of relationship you think they have?

Zhang: I try to mix both cultures.  For me, the relationship of these two cultures is not like oil and water which cannot be mixed.  Rather, they are like milk and coffee which can really mix well. 

I learned ancient eastern tradition in China and I learned the most advanced technologies in the United States.  This kind of mixture, hybrid or combination is also the theme of my work.  In my soy sauce calligraphy, I mixed the Chinese traditional calligraphy format with the Sweatshop help wanted AD I found in Chinatown.  In my Self-Portrait, in the style of the old masters,I mixed Picasso’s style, Mona Lisa’s background, and the traditional Chinese painting format. For the landscape painting series that I am doing right now (Fig.--), I mix Chinese traditional landscape paintings in the Impressionist style.  So, I actually made something unique, which doesn’t belong to any single category.  I think the blurred boundary represents the reality of current human society.  The boundaries between the East and the West, between races, even within art itself, are becoming more and more blurred. 

Cui: In your landscape painting series, you paint in other artists’ styles.  Is it as if you are speaking in languages other than your own?  How do you feel about that?

Zhang: Facing an empty canvas, usually I have lots of Chinese traditional paintings on one side, and impressionism paintings on the other side.  I paint the shape of Chinese traditional landscape painting first.  Then I imagine myself as van Gogh, Cezanne, or Monet, like an actor, to apply their personalized color and brush stroke.

Cui: When you don’t speak your own language, is there a conflict with the concept you mentioned before—that you need to be honest to yourself?

Zhang: Yes, there is a conflict.  When I paint in Cezanne’s style, I want to use his techniques.  I try to see Chinese landscape painting from Cezanne’s perspective.  During the whole process I am actually hiding from myself.  Thus, I name my work “conceptual paintings.”  In traditional painting, we have to express our feelings, use very personal brush strokes and colors.  Here “honest to myself” becomes “honest to my concept”.  I learned both Chinese art history and Western art history.  I painted Chinese paintings and also Western paintings.  Now, I am living in-between cultures.  Thus this kind of mixture is very objective.  At this point, I am honest to myself.   My painting process becomes a process to complete my concept.

V   And the Life Goes On…

Cui: When you came to the United States 19 yeas ago, it must have been very difficult for you…

Zhang: For an artist, it doesn’t matter whether it is difficult or not.  As long as you have passion and interest in art, nothing can hold you back.  In China, my wife and I both had descent jobs. But we did not have the freedom to make our work our own.  Although we have more hardships in the United States, we have more freedom to do our own work.  For me, that is enough.

Cui: In China, you did not have many choices.  Life, in a sense, was actually simpler and thus, easier.  When you came to the United States, suddenly facing so many possibilities, you must have had to make choices on your own.  This must have been a very strong challenge.  How did you deal with it?

Zhang: I did not feel comfortable with the situation in China, where one was faced with very limited choices.  I had only one strong desire, and yet could not accomplish it there.  When I came to the United States, I indeed had many more choices.  However, my single desire was so clear that it was not really affected by such a wide spectrum of other opportunities.

Cui: So, what is your desire?

Zhang: To be an artist.  I have been very sure of this since childhood. Certainly, the implication of the word “artist” is changing from time to time. But my desire “to be an artist” has never changed.  I never had any doubt or uncertainty about it.  When I first came to the United States, I took any job I could find in order to make a living.  Some of the jobs I took are probably beyond what you could imagine. While working, I was thinking about my painting.  As soon as I had enough money for living, I would often quit a job, no matter how much money I might have been able to make, or how secure a future it might have promised. 

Cui: While your desire or goal to be an artist is very clear in your mind, is it clear to you what kind of artist you want to be?

Zhang: In general, there is no doubt that I want to be the best artist in the world.  It may sound naïve, but you must have this ideal in your mind.  Learning is necessary and you can learn from everybody.  Even if you don’t like the work of some very successful artists, it is not necessary to envy their commercial or market success.   It is better not to think of it too much.  If you set a goal, you must set the highest one.  It doesn’t matter whether or not you can actually achieve your goal.  The process of trying is what is more important, it is from this that you can benefit the most.  The final result consists of many factors, such as objective or subjective conditions, inborn or postnatal conditions.  During the Cultural Revolution, it was impossible for us young artists in China to gain access to modern art.  So, after I came to the United States, I wanted to compensate for the time I had lost.  This is also the reason why I work very hard in my art.  I feel that I have so much to say in my work.  So I have to use my time to the fullest advantage.

Cui: What are your plans for the near future?

Zhang: I will continue to do my landscape painting for a little while.  I plan to travel to Europe to see the original places where the Impressionist master’s conducted their work.  I also plan to see the two Forbidden Cities in Beijing and Taipei.

For more information on Mr. Zhang’s work, you can visit his web site at www.momao.com.

This interview was conducted in Chinese and later translated into English by Cui Fei.



© Cui Fei 2008-2024. All rights reserved.