Zhong Biao is a person of independent thought, without needing to start discussions or promote his own theories, his train of thought is lucid and thoroughly considered, something prophetic often tumbles out in amongst his words – just like his appearance, which is clean, sharp and well-practiced.  Once I came across an essay of his in a magazine about the teaching of art.  It shook me, because to be honest it was much better than essays I had written on the same subject matter.  This was a piece of writing from the hand of a well-read man, the expression was elegant, wise and captivating which showed his accomplishments in both reading and thought.  I had once written a rather extreme statement in one of my essays, “in our age, the best critic can only be as good as a second-rate artist”.  What I meant to express was that in practical terms, art moves too quickly, is too broad and individual and the art critic can only lag behind and watch its changes like a spectator.


I believe that we can all agree on this: Zhong Biao’s works are typical products of the consumer age.  What kind of art is typical of the consumer age?  I believe this is an unrealistic question, a question that ought to be left hanging, because logical analysis and conclusions are incapable of capturing the whole picture, it is almost impossible for us to attempt to summarize the phenomenon.  Art in a consumer age is immensely different to the art of any previous period; therefore when faced with it all previous theories and aesthetic systems are useless.  Even engaging with it piece by piece we are only able utilize its resources.  The system has already fallen apart, the order is broken – in this kind of situation what can we achieve by trying to re-establish the system and build a new order?  Or rather, is it at all possible to attempt to recognize the standard of “great art” amongst a turbid and disordered environment?


Zhong Biao stands up to point out that the three conditions of great art are as follows:


“For art to be great, it must posses the following three qualities: Accuracy, Realism and Freedom.


Accuracy is the ability to express your aim with concision.  It incorporates the combination of your knowledge, technique, intelligence and experience.


Realism does not refer to form, but to the fusion of artistic reality and the truth of life in the deepest parts of your heart.  It rejects the traps of the insubstantial, utilitarian and foolish, it is the pursuit at the beginning and the end of art, even the reason to exist as an artist.


Freedom is the territory that is comprehended and realized on the path of constant breakthrough from the boundaries of 'self' and 'history'.  It is the ambition of art.” 


Browsing old and new art theories from China and overseas, searching for a kind of explanation and of what to demand from art, one can see that they all try to establish types and standards, but in the end are only able to frame their ideas in the abstract terms of language.  I believe that “Accuracy, Realism and Freedom” will have one hundred different meanings in the eyes of one hundred different artists; therefore linguistic explanations lose something of their importance.


There is something else very interesting that Zhong Biao has said:


“I have only one dream, that the people under my brush might take this world of confusion and in years to come look out at the people of the future on my behalf.”


What a rebellious notion!  Normally people will say, “I hope that my work can record the world that I live in, so that later people will be able to understand and experience this world of the past”.  Whereas Zhong Biao hopes that his works will see the future in place of himself.  He has already stepped outside of his own self, he believes that the people in his paintings will remain and be passed on.  This counter-thinking has a great deal of flexibility, just like the vivid cultural icons in his paintings, Zhong Biao leaves a great deal of space for those who analyze his work into which they may throw their own perceptions and experiences so that they are drawn unconsciously on to walk in that space.  The relationship between his train of thought and his influence that gradually expands in his audience is as the relationship between a boat on rising waters – just as confidence may result from a string of achievements, the achievements make him less concerned with success in itself.


There is a kind of artist who lives his whole life in a state of hidden contradiction.  Andy Warhol was a man that liked to create extremes, he was the center of attention; whilst in terms of his individual tastes he was an unswerving classicist, his study and bedroom full of pre-nineteenth century objects.  His own artwork would be out of place in such surroundings.  Looking at this example, we can see that the work an artist produces is not necessarily at one with his own tastes, it may even be that the clash between the two is a motivating force for creation – that the artist derives inspiration and excitement from the contrast between them.  Talking to Zhong Biao in his studio and seeing the antiques that he loves to collect, I became aware of his definite inclination towards the culture of ancient peoples and literati.  I was surprised with all the canvases in the room full of icons of fashion, to find that the artist himself has a leaning towards ancient times.   Of the artists I have come to know, this kind of artist makes up only a small minority.


Zhang Qikai uses the word “insane” to describe Zhong Biao’s works “His interest in borrowing visual materials comes close to insanity: Coca-cola, Marlborough cigarettes, Karaoke, property investment, shopping malls, hotels, sex stores, the return of Hong Kong represented in the media, the slogans of China’s open door policy, Tiananmen Square, Persian carpets, telephone booths, bus stations, bicycles, computers, television, telephone, lamps, airplanes, Courbet, flying cranes, Beijing opera masks, soldiers, heroes, pop stars, movie stars, political leaders . . .  everything seen by us everyday is available to be picked up by Zhong and juxtaposed in his visual world,” Zhang says “All these insane images share one obvious characteristic: they can't escape the intrusion of Chinese symbols on the canvas.  From 1991 to 2004, his style shows signs of change over this thirteen-year period.  The Beijing opera masks, monks and bodhisattvas, terra-cotta warriors, Ming and Qing furniture, traditional costumes and architecture, dragon and phoenix patterns and so on, Zhong's popular visual images whilst in step with the latest trends are always permeated with the aura of traditional culture," Zhang concludes, " The reflection of these traditional symbols among many of his paintings clearly manifests Zhong's identity as a Chinese contemporary artist."


True, sometimes Zhong's paintings are like a documentary portrayal of our world: capturing all kinds of events from the September 11th attacks to a wandering dog on the street.  He records the world from the perspective of a contemporary Chinese artist, however it is not true that he is restricted to recording Chinese modern living just because his canvas is dominated by Chinese figures.   No, Zhong Biao does not undertake the task of purely factual narration.  I’m not sure whether the standards of accuracy and realism that he points out indicate that necessarily. I believe that the joy he feels in expressing his own realizations and feelings as a Chinese artist is both accurate and realistic.  In fact, there is no such thing as accuracy or reality set apart from the personal viewpoint; both are irrevocably tied to the notion of freedom also raised in Zhong Biao’s list.


There are far too many discussions on the topic of freedom, but freedom is never an abstract notion, it is something revealed gradually in the occurrence and development of freedom itself.  As we move from the closed to the open, from uniformity to variety.  The freedom manifested in the person of Chen Danqing (including the accuracy and reality that is judged as a result of freedom) and different from Liu Xiaodong, just as Liu Xiaodong is different again from Zhong Biao, this line of reasoning clearly delineates the different kinds of accuracy and realism that freedom can bring about.


So who is more accurate and more realistic? It’s difficult to make a comparison, or to put it another way, the accuracy and realism of classicism is much changed by the time we reach romanticism, then onto impressionism, modernism and post-modernism the notions of accuracy and realism have once more undergone massive changes.  Expanding within the realm of freedom, the artistic understanding of accuracy and realism changes more and more, even resulting in the final limitless variety of contemporary art.  To return to the original question, when Chen Danqing came to realistically present his feelings lending the power of realism to the canvas through his own spectacular talent, Liu Xiaodong also did the same – the only difference is that their feelings were so different.  Zhong Biao has gone further than either of them, but naturally is bound by the restrictions of his own state of existence.  He paints various subjects, experimenting with several techniques, all of which are limited by the nature of painting.  In his work we see categorized skill, personalized experiments and some personal contributions on the form of creation.


Most of Zhong's paintings look simple not only due to their documentary subject matter, but also because of his particular artistic language.  Zhong Biao adds pale or strong colors on the background sketches in many of his works, this is a trademark of his style, which is easily identified.  Such a technique could easily result in over-simplicity or stereotyping.  Many artists use a similar technique when practicing or making draft sketches.  However, Zhong Biao develops this technique and makes it an important component of his visual resources.  One has to admit that this is an important contribution to the field.  On closer inspection, we find that his basic attitude towards painting is still traditional; this is reflected in his careful depiction of figures, props and background.  His technical ability is secure enough to allow for experiments following his feelings as he paints; with arrangement, brushstrokes and color blocks all appearing in harmony.  The proportions, balance of chiaroscuro, brushstrokes in his depictions of figures all satisfy the standards of basic academic training, the only difference is that he alone dares to expand a simple tree into a forest and to condense the forest into a single tree.

Zhong Biao has his own motto, and hopes to present it with ever increasing clarity in his works:

"Whether you’re going from Chongqing to Hangzhou, or from New York to Paris, from city to countryside, from abroad to home, we are faced with the same globe, only it is seen from different angles.  So it is that we are often closer to a real view of the world when we are on the move."


16th October 2006