Let’s start with a fictitious tale from a Zen education. A pupil was instructed by his master that all phenomena in the visible world are in constant relation to the invisible world. The phenomena are driven by the invisible world, being perennial, a potentiality of energy, not form in itself but causing all forms that are its temporary representation, and this just for the short moment of their actuality. Forms are incessantly changing, while the potentiality’s energy is like a silent spring, a source never exhausted, never running dry. The pupil, deeply impressed, went out of his master’s home. After a month, he came back reporting: Master, for deeper insight I followed your tuition. I went to the big river, tried to move through its drift to its spring. But the farer I went, the fiercer it opposed my endeavour.  Replied the master silently: Why didn’t you accept and follow his tide?

Contemporary drifts give too much reason to oppose their tide, to intervene in a situation which coins its achievements by the epithet globalization, but which seems to produce sharp antagonisms between cities and countryside, between rich and poor nations, between high speed and creepiness, between zones full of energy and sapless ones, between high industrialized and underdeveloped zones, all in all between civilization and nature. – At the turn of the last millennium, Kofi Annan, then general secretary of the United Nations, declared in his address broadcasted all over the world: “We are entering the new millennium through a gate of fire”. Yet it was not so clear if that fire was the framing of a passage, the ending or opening of an abyss, or just a metaphor for all by far not yet solved conflicts of our contemporary world.

China back then was just in a feverous speeding industrial, urban, social and cultural development. In Beijing large billboards did show at that time a photograph of the proud sculptures of Mount Rushmore, Dakota, portraying the four legendary American presidents aligned with a single, serene Chinese Buddha – a humorous commentary on the own goals. A lot of Chinese artists at that time were mocking the past and the ongoing changes of their society as well – nevertheless profiting by them. Chinese contemporary art started to be respected in the western world, and the following decade brought an international acknowledgement for the Country when it was entrusted with the performance of the Olympic games and two years later, in 2010 with the World Expo in Shanghai. In line with the schedule of this Expo, Zhong Biao was invited to open his new multimedia work – “For the Future” – at the evening of the opening ceremony of Shanghai World Expo, on 30.th April 2010, in the new Museum for Contemporary Art in Zhangjiang, not far from the Expo Arial in Pudong. Self-assured, he coined as title for this event: “The Night for the Future – Zhong Biao. Shanghai. 2010”, adding in an introductory comment on the invitation card, posted also at one wall of the exhibition: “Your coming here, is your choice for life to pass through this point.”

Well, the Zhangjiang Museum is just a tiny dot in the vast map of greater Shanghai, its architecture wrapped by the artist as a white gift box, tied with a pink ribbon bowed on the top, realized in coated stainless steel. Let’s open this box while entering, given that “this point” may not only refer to the location in space, but as well to a passage in time, thus heralding the chance of a metabolic event for the audience.


Passing the door, you’ll be engulfed by a dark glooming room, filled with hard rock beats and changing sounds, a seemingly boundless cosmic space lightened only by some scarce lamps and black light tubes from above at some walls. While crossing the darkened floor, your sense of gravity will be loosened by a turmoil of moving images under your feat, the only fixed sensations for your eyes being two large painting, one filling the whole rear wall in front of you, and one on your right side receding in a slot of the room and filling also the whole backward wall.  Turning your eyes to the left, the room is deepening in another recession where at the end you’ll see in the glass top of a box the revolving image of a kind of globe, pending in the dark void, its form and structure permanently changing and dissolving.

The exhibition room is amazingly transformed by sheeting the walls with mirrors from top to bottom, reflecting the two paintings in an immediate endless repetition and losing itself in the darkness of the endless space. The central painting of the rear wall – “For the Future” – with its urban landscape, intermingling the bright orange light of a sunset sky with the murk of the darkened terrestrial parts, is framed in front of the left edge by the enlarged figure of a Chinese boy, laughing and jumping out of the image plane, while on the other edge stands a seemingly western girl with long fair breads, seen from back, looking downwards with hands on the hips. “Light Year”, the large painting in the smaller bay of the lateral axis, evokes the eternal dark of the universe with tiny lights from distant stars, illuminated scarcely in two larger areas, the one aloft on the left hand side showing an eruptive cosmic instance with an uproar of cloudy dust material, reflecting the light of its eruption on recessing stars and on some figures in shimming clothes down in the foreground on the right corner. Given the mostly dark colour of the surface, the mirrored reflections on both sides of the canvas sink even more gloomily back in an invisible dark.

The mirrors, coating the walls of the longitudinal and lateral axis of the cross room, omit the entrance door and a small bay on the rear wall where a precious sky globe from the Ming dynasty is put on a table. Yet the most decisive device to transform the given structure and volume of the exhibition room into an uncontrollable, ever changing and opened up night space is delivered by the mirror between the entrance door and the corner with the Qing Dynasty globe. Slightly shifted, this mirror is facing the painting “For the Future” on the opposite wall. You have to take into consideration that there are three coordinates, conditioning the modes of reflection that make vanishing the borders of the given room: The two real paintings, the mirrors, and the shifting position of any spectator. The mirrors at the sides of the two paintings are positioned in a right angle to these paintings. The mirror in the middle of the entrance wall stands in opposition to the painting on the rear wall. Therefore, he not only reflects this painting, but its mirrored image is also endlessly reflected in the opposite mirrors of the lateral walls, otherwise out of the reach of that painting, constructing a fleeting succession of surfaces like in the framings of some stage setting with dark openings in between.

With the changing position of the spectator, all the mirroring is criss-crossing the space, opening up tunnel visions in all mirror surfaces as soon as you move in front of them. Moreover, the mirrored spaces, dissolving in the dark, overlap with the confined space, creating a situation where the real room and the imaginary space, surface and deepness, density and transparency, gravity and its suspense, form and non-form, thus that what is to touch and the un-touchable become simultaneous.

If the exhibition room were not only dimly lit, this situation wouldn’t be able. In addition, the dark floor, sucking light and colours, transforms the animated images on it into a nocturnal apparition. Sent out from seven synchronised video projectors, a loop of seven minutes shows dusky pictures, sometimes moving synchronized, sometimes in split directions, created with different computer programs. Starting with a travelling through distant cosmic rooms with tiny stars, it passes to some cosmic eruption, a creation of new forms, continuing with en endless flow of objects from our known world, moving arbitrarily around and crossing each other. Inserted are fragments from the lines of writing and single words or characters in Chinese and English language, taken from the introductory essay of Zhong Biao, mounted on the wall beside the box with the video globe. Inserted were also a video take of a young girl, looking up from the dark down, and a young boy, hanging around. They merge in a whirlpool, change to Mandelbrot curls and kaleidoscopic mirrors. Finally large efflorescent lotus flowers appear, vanishing in an elegant dance of waves from stirred water. A bird’s eye view of Shanghai, starting with a night sight turns in daylight, than the city dissolves in its map view, refilling itself with natural growth and with birds flowing over it. The city’s map comes back in grey hues dissolving in the dark cosmos thus closing the loop. In instances where the dark augments, the spectator is suddenly not sure if he is only physically looking down yet simultaneously looking up in the infinity, loosing his dependence from gravity.

The sound track, sampled for the animated images, is in sync with its choreography, beginning with dark drums followed by the tender voice of a violin and added ‘cosmic back stage noises’, passes to syncopes of hard rock beats, drums, cymbals and wood in a sharp rhythm. When the images of Shanghai appear, they are replenished with urban sounds, the distant shouting of masses in large arenas, bright ringing bells from mobile phones or bicycles, a dry metallic alarm clock, the menacing roaring up and down of a motorbike, and the cries of flying bird swarms. - Yet the sound track not only accompanies the animated images, it gives a feeling for the speed and overlapping of experiences in our times. Normally, we are used to locate sounds in causing physical carriers, be it things, beasts or human beings, and finally special musical instruments. Even if our receptive ears are in rectangular opposition to our eyes, we turn our heads to recognize the causing source, sometimes only to find back our misplaced mobile phone. But we are constantly surrounded by an open sound space, giving us a feeling for its extension. Maybe depending from this condition, we developed the idea that even the outer cosmos is filled up with sound and even music, a cosmic longing we sometimes try to configure in musical evocations. Thus, the sound in the installation is not only experienced as due to the images, but adds a lot to the atmosphere of the whole space as well.


All elements of the multi media installation, the large painted canvases, the displayed mirrors on the wall, the moving images on the floor and the sound track, including the tiny spot of the shimmering Qing Dynasty sky globe and the holographic sphere of the changing-in-time globe in the glass case, are thus in a balanced interaction, promoting the sensation for the audience to be simultaneously here and beyond. This audience when moving around, would also contribute to the situation as dark shadows with magic reflected white spots caused by the black light on their eyes, teeth and parts of their clothes. Physically condensed in their bodies and virtually transported in the endless opened-up space of the dark mirroring, their position in the given room would be confirmed while they observe endless groups of other visitors in the mirrored spaces. Maybe this could remind them, when they were born they did shrink to small earthly lumps, in contact with the infinity only by dark memories that nevertheless build up their eager efforts to re-establish this contact, the basis of all human creativity.

This leads me to a questioning of some central issues of Zhong Biao, articulated in his commentary essay on one of the walls of the exhibition space. In the English version, Xian Xing is translated with “Revelation”. Revelation, in the western understanding coming from the Greek “apokalyptein”, is a mystic term signifying the lifting of a last veil from the truth underneath. It has a promising significance, but also a dangerous one linked with the fear of what we call apocalypse. Anyway, it means the lifting of the veil built up by the physic reality, menacing with its disappearance. Zhong Biao instead links his “revelation”, Xian Xing, with Hun Dun. While Xian Xing means the “manifestation of form”, thus that what confirms our reality, Hun Dun means “without form”, the cosmos at its very beginning, a world of pure energy but in a state of not-yet-form. All forms on the other hand are momentary forms, ever changing, in permanent transition, nourished from the Hun Dun, whose ‘apparition’ or ‘revelation’ they are. There is a time line when Hun Dun was in the beginning, but also a time/space continuity when Hun Dun is the underlying energy of all changing existence. Thus Hun Dun, the non-form, is not showing up itself. It is invisible, not tangible, not to grasp, not to manipulate. If we, poor bodily lumps, follow its energy, we will be able to create its apparition in all our embodiments, our creative work, and our art. We cannot go against the energy of the Hun Dun, but diligently and carefully follow its energy from the world beyond to find our own freedom.

This leads to another difficulty in translation to English, as given  in the catalogue “Zhong Biao”, published for the opening of “The Night for the Future – Zhong Biao. Shanghai. 2010”. Hun Dun is there translated with “Chaos”, a term that comes directly from the Greek. Still today in the Western world it doesn’t mean the invisible and untouchable energy that is supporting us, but a dangerous force that is menacing to destroy us.

Yet it seems that there is a possible viewpoint to reconcile the two distinct concepts of Xian Xing and Hun Dun on the one hand, and of Revelation and Chaos on the other hand. Even in the Western world, we are aware that we can’t go against the laws of nature. But when we try to break the rules of nature, by way of bringing them under our control, this can lead to a dangerous state of manipulating them, thus bringing us in an opposition to them. Simply said, we should not defy what is supporting us, and this does apply as well for our psychological order as for our socio-political one. In the western context there is a name for this untouchable, the Sublime that haunted the philosophical minds since the Enlightenment of the 18.th century A.D.

In this respect, the vision of the two actual, large paintings of Zhong Biao, come into play. Let us therefore search a deeper insight in these paintings and their telling arguments for the broader intuition of the installation, to follow the way of their contact with Zhong Biao’s former work and their development out of his artistic language.


First, these two paintings stand in a relation to each other that we can parallel with Hun Dun and Xian Xing, the dark one – “Light Year” - giving a vision of the endless world of the cosmos, full of a permanent energy in a state of transformation in even those light years, the brighter one with light and dark zones – “For the Future” – also full of permanent energy and in a state of transition of ever transforming forms, but also as it where in an estranged state of dangers and hopes.

In the pictorial concept, both paintings are developed out of a slightly earlier large painting, “Mirage”, 18 meter long and 4 meter high, shown in October/November 2009 in Denver/Colorado and also with an installation momentum, a mirroring device over the adjacent wall. In its unfolding, it was constructed like a Chinese roll painting, yet as the ‘landscape’ of our passing from the not yet formed to the contemporary forms. The two paintings from this year 2010 did split this continuity in two paintings, the one the cosmic Universe, the other the contemporary urban landscape. This term landscape if so we should take as a hybrid, because the painting consists of landscape elements and urban elements as well. Yet, what is surprising is that Zhong Biao, who in the last years baffled his audience with concepts of attacking the picture frame, putting the ‘real’ painting inside a larger painted area where the motifs of the painting where ‘repeated’ in dark charcoal, but might also refer to the ‘models’ for paintings, more real or as it where less real – “Beyond Painting” 2007 - and finally voiding the frames of the ‘real’ paintings and overcrowding the fields around them with whole sceneries of ‘real’ painting stuff with sketches in dark charcoal as well, as if it was the reality finding no more its place within a picture frame – “Revelation No.2” 2008 – what is surprising is that Zhong Biao turns back to a comparably conventional mode of figuring out his vision – a classical landscape, rendered in bird’s eye view, with a classical sun setting, the motifs thus bathed in back light yet not rendered in the classical consistency of the scale of the motifs in relation to their location within the landscape space.

In this quality of evoking traditional landscape paintings, Zhong Biao’s new pictures are comparable to the large landscape paintings of the Danish artist Nina Sten Knudsen, with the difference, that her paintings are evoking memories of elapsed times, often in a dreamy and somewhat sad way, but also with deliberate inconsistencies in scale and neighbouring elements. Zhong Biao’s history painting, in contrast, is full of all the actualities of our times, which by the way characterized in former times a real history painting as well, for instance in the 19.th century. And this actual state of the world contains a lot of actual references, be it 9.11 with the voided peak of Manhattan peninsula, city people sitting outside at tables of a coffee bar, groups of citizens gathered as looking out for some strange event, Shanghai World Expo area as seen from an airplane, a glimpse on a leisure park with a Ferris wheel etc. To this vocabulary are added the typical figures of the artist, given in a sharply modelled and lighted photorealistic style, emerging from the landscape in a somewhat Magritte-like trompe l’oeil manner. Some of them not only fly or jump around by their positions but also loosely around on the picture plane, not embedded in the landscape at all but as if in loose contact with it.

Yet most disturbing might be the specific lightening of the picture. The colours or non-colours of its surface look like a Rembrandt set under real fire with dense clouds of smoke, or drawn out from the fall in a contemporary trashcan. Sky and horizon are rendered in the typical flat Zhong Biao’s manner, yet no more in bright blue or cool grey. Now it looks like a reverberation of an invisible fire, standing in sharp contrast to the dark zones and the brighter grey ones that remind at well conserved ashes.

What consternated mostly some critics was Zhong Biao’s passing to abstraction since about 2007. There is a quite abstract sketch for his painting “For the Future”. Yet being an intuitive sketch for this imagination, one can doubt about the artist’s affair with abstraction. Nevertheless, a look on some artists of the abstract expressionism may be helpful to find a path to Zhong Biao’s translation of this language. Abstract expressionism, from the American artist Frank Kline until the Italian artist Emilio Vedova, was a method to go through destruction with the aim to reconcile with form. Audience and critics did in the beginning only see destruction, until they were able to share the reconstruction of form. Zhong Biao may use his ‘abstractions’ as pictorial signs for Hun Dun in state of passing to form, while it is not yet clear if the passing might be successful, what might mean that it also depends of our awareness. By this way, the zones of ‘abstraction’ might signalise a state of not yet form, in sharp contrast to formatted areas. Together with the large dark zones of the painting, not only separating inconsistent parts from each other, but also referring to the cosmic dark as all area shadows in our world do, the artist thus imagines a world in transition, a world who might contribute its part for winning the contemporary party.


Past, present and future, as Zhong Biao argues in his essay posted in the installation, are not separated. If we look through a Hubble telescope in the cosmos, we are confronted today with a long gone past, not yet knowing what happened since those times. If extra terrestrial beings would look on our world, they would look back in a long gone time, not yet knowing what happened in between on our earth. But suchlike mirrors are put in front of each other in an admittedly star far distance. The mirrors as part of Zhong Biao’s installation however, confront us with the simultaneity of the terrestrial Xian Xing, the manifestation of form, and the cosmic Hun Dun, the not yet of form. Thus, it might be right to argue, the achievement of Zhong Biao is routed in the confidence to win the audience for the collective work of constructing a future, even if nobody knows exactly which is his part in a play that is split between an hierarchic concentration of power and a rhizomatic net, constructed of strew patterns of infinite small powers, given the new technological modes of communication and a self confident acting within these possibilities that more and more people all over the world develop and use.

Who is in relation with the global current, who knows? Anyway, to be confident in being not the demiurge of the real may help to accept one’s own part in upholding our time/space-continuity. “Looking through the mirror glass” was composed to allow Alice a passage from a dangerous subconscious world, filled with the conflicting world of her time, to freedom - a gift Lewis Carroll would like to offer her by his famous tale. The future as the past in reverse is paraphrased after a legendary remark of Vladimir Nabokov, who would like to give a warning of catastrophic repetitions. Taking the relation between the past and the future as a transforming hinge, could include both, a beyond continuity and a transformative process contributing to solutions for actual problems, we all are involved in.

With “For the Future”, Zhong Biao is proposing the audience a chance to share, depending from remembrance and engaged individual commitment as well.


Ursula Panhans-Buehler

Chongqing, 8.th may 2010