From a Chinese perspective, concepts of order and chaos, certainty and chance, tangibility and the intangible, are neither separate nor necessarily representative of discrete phases in history.  They function rather like a division within a zygote, the fertile egg, where the discrete halves function within the same basic organism. They belong to an identical configuration that foresees the course of history. Like all mutable forms, they evolve through periods of devolution and reunification. One is the potential construct of the other. There is no real boundary between the past and the present, or, for that matter, the future – a point that Zhong Biao makes clear in relation to his recent painting installation, For the Future, installed in the Z- art center at Ziangjiang Park in Shanghai.  For this occasion, the artist has written: “ Past, present, and future are co-existent, the delineations of time and space are fading, the material and immaterial live together in the world.” 

 

Instead of boundaries between arbitrary division of time and history, one senses in For the Future a lingering possibility that the past and present are being transformed by our quest for the future.  The work of Zhong Biao suggests that history does not progress in a single direction and that the past – in contrast to Confucius – is never gone forever.  When a single idea of history is given prominence, other latent ideas may still exist in a process of germination.   Whether or not these ideas are manifested within a given period of history, they come to exist less as separations between the past, present, and future, than as a precondition in search of new forms.  In recent years, the goal in China is not only seeking advance through new technologies, but also seeking methods of instrumentality by which to implement these new technologies toward the benefit of the whole.  This represents clarity rather than naivety regarding the direction of the future. It further implies that the artificial appearance of the split sign – between, for example, tangible and intangible realities – is more a media manifestation than a historical one.  Again, where Westerners tend to accept commercial media as the representative sign of history, Easterners have traditionally been reluctant to do so.  But through the forces of globalization and a market economy, this may be irrevocably changing.   Meanwhile, the present ordeal in China gives witness to constant social ferment as the need for survival among peasants and ordinary people continues.  This larger portion of the population knows its reality more intrinsically than many of the new entrepreneurs and therefore understands the need to endure their subjugation within the present.  While the youthful imagery revealed in this exhibition scrambles within a high-end urban landscape, there is yet another context for China that is concerned for survival on the most basic level. Therefore, on a certain level, For the Future is an unintentionally a statement of absence more than presence, a statement of the real versus the illusion of trends seen through the mist of entrepreneurship.

 

The composite design of For the Future may, in fact, function more as a concealment of the past and an illusion of the present. In that the past has yet to be realized, the future floats like a net of denial in relation to the population. The presence becomes a specter of uncertainty attempted to hold forth, and therefore, ascertain its relative position through endless branding and labels of every kind imaginable.  The surface of For the Future operates as an allegory in time involving a multiplicity of discrete parts that persist in deconstructing the whole. The question becomes – What is this Whole?  Is it the new China?  Is it China’s surge of art as a representation of a new world economy? In fact, Zhong Biao has given an intentional coherence to his epic work by creating a uniquely antithetical stylistic and multimedia perspective.   Through the illustration of painted figurative signs shattered by the illusion of mirrorized walls, accompanied by a massive scan of overhead video signs scattered across the floor, with sound emanating obtrusively as techno genre, the paradoxical fusion between these elements appears to instantly conjugate and disintegrate.  In doing so, viewers are unable to feel their grounding, thus echoing the flying figures in the painting that move through the illusion of an inescapable present.  This auratic paradox extends further into a time and space relationship between tangible and intangible realities, as the artist states: “Your coming here is your choice for life to pass through this point.”  In reading the repetition of this line of the wall of the exhibition space, I was immediately struck by the similarity of this phrase to the one written by the medieval poet Dante, where in the Inferno he states: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  In either case, there is the assumption that the traveler is caught unaware and he or she by passed through this point in the harrowing present, where one may ultimately conjure a subjective design for the future.

 

In his earlier large-scale painting installations Zhong Biao has used both framed and unframed images drawn directly on the wall. In recalling these works, Chinese critic Pi Li referred to this phenomenon as a “visual archaeology” where the artist “cuts a section from the visual symbols people are familiar with, then takes out those fragmented symbols from the cultural deposits of different times, and [lastly] arranges and combines them in a unique way.”  On a similar note, American artist John Baldessari is known for recontextualizing images appropriated from grade-B Hollywood movies in order to incite disequilibrium in the normal syntax of viewing.  Another artist Robert Rauschenberg also engaged in a similar deconstruction of signs by re-editing a travelogue film from the 1950s entitled Canoe.  Here the once smooth temporal sequence of voyagers traveling by canoe across wilderness rivers is repeatedly disrupted through the artist’s indeterminate and irrational splicing of the film. By altering existing images from the entertainment and advertising media, both artists show the phenomenological absurdity of their mass appeal.

 

Working within a similar context, Zhong Biao creates equally bizarre, if not disturbing conflicts between fragmented signs in which a re-sketched version of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon on a rearing horse is portrayed in relation to an Asian woman drinking a soda with a black man starring at her in the background. The mixture of commercial signs with high art images and mundane magazine advertisements combines in such a way that they suspend meaning outside the normative reaches of culture.  Once can look at Zhang Biao’s recontextulaized paintings, such as Kingdom of Beauty (2006), as simultaneously representing sensuality and technology.  The order is formal, yet the context is irrational.  They both exist within the same realm of perception in the context of present time and space.  This is also true of Zhong Biao’s Beyond Painting, shown at the Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art at The Old Factory in the 798 District of Beijing in 2007, where picture frames hold composite images derived from various other portraits, including lovers in a crowd, a religious crucifixion surrounded by contemporary tourists, and women running across a sky with tall skyscrapers. Here the artist develops a complex ambiguity of Pop Surrealist signs by incorporating composite images on to a painted wall mural where identical figures exist both inside and outside the frames. The fundamental purpose of this internal/external dialectic is to reveal the illusion of time within a shared space.  Thus, Beyond Painting prefigures For the Future by three years in that it visually articulates the simultaneity of narratives whereby they collapse into an allegory on the relativity of time. After the exhibition of Beyond Painting two major works were two important transitional works, one shown at the SHINE Art Space in Shanghai in 2008, titled Revelation, and another pivotal work shown the following year at the Denver Art Museum, called Mirage (2009) in which Zhong incorporates the use of zigzag mirrors, sound and video with a large-scale painting.  Mirage is essentially the prerequisite to understanding the new visual (and conceptual) language that Zhong Biao put into effect prior to the installation of For the Future at the Z-art Center.

 

Correctly speaking, the two major large-scale paintings that serve as the focus for Zhong’s this multimedia extravaganza began with two separate titles.  The painting on the front wall as one enters into the second floor gallery at the Z-art Center in Shanghai is called For the Future, while the equally large painting on the right wall is titled Light Year.  The subject matter of the two paintings is nearly diametrically opposite.  Whereas For the Future follows a certain logic of stylistic progression in which images of various people – mostly young, foreshortened, and flying through space – are taken from various sources and recontextualized within the painting, Light Year portrays a more somber view of the universe revealing planets and stars with two primary areas of light diagonally juxtaposed suggesting metaphors of birth and death. The area of light in the upper left is inchoate, meaning that some evidence of the corporeal subject is in the process of evolving, whereas the more defined figuration of an elderly man in the lower right suggests an epiphany before he passes on to another time and space.  In either case, a wall of mirrors is placed perpendicular to each painting so that the activity described within the painting is redoubled.  This is accentuated by the video projections of abstract signs projected on to the floor, an elevated kinetic holographic video on one side of the darkened space, and a small, but exquisite late Qing Dynasty bronze artifact with fiery dragons supporting a pearled globe in an architectural niche to the rear. This is the basic design of the space in which the artist would like his work to ascend beyond painting into the stratosphere of multimedia, yet still retaining its painterly presence.

 

What I get from Zhang Biao’s work is the sense that the present is one grand illusion or perhaps a rapidly passing dissolution where the disappearance of images through instant replay and repetition functions as a degenerate sign, a type of inevitable virus, where anxiety over lost perceptions with nature signifies the human race transforming itself into a phantasm on the verge of disappearance.  Whether the disappearance is total or partial, partially lost or completely driven to dire straits in the multitudinous caverns of deceit, viewers have much to contemplate within this time and space by standing in isolation waiting for the future.  The alternative to isolation happened on opening night, noted as The Night for the Future, where the museum’s interior cubic space was literally packed to the gills with spectators standing wall to wall, without ventilation, while being bombarded with thunderous techno-sounds.  Needless to say, such an environment is far from conducive to contemplation. Here, looking up at the wall above the throngs, where a virtual sphere is turning behind glass, as it is being eaten away slowly, I read the resounding words of the artist once again: “Many years later, people of the future will find signs of communication in the places we have passed through, opening up the ancient stories that have laid concealed and pursuing questions of existence of an eternal truth. At this point we cannot deny that everything will last forever!  At this point, we have already returned to the future.”  The earnestness of the words strives to become convincing, as if the words themselves contained their own reality.  Even so, I receive a different perception of this reality.  Here we all are in this crowded space with oxygen in a state of dissolution, unable to move, and barely able to think, and the future is with us.  Indeed, we have entered into his future.

 

Here is one last comment regarding Zhong Biao’s ambitious move in the direction of going “beyond painting” into the stratosphere of multimedia effects derived from painting.  His art approaches the spectacular event or, more precisely, the spectacle.  There is something essential in his work that needs market economy to flourish and to be appreciated.  It is far from the humble cry of artists a century ago who espoused a more humble bohemian style of art that was borne from the emotional turmoil of another historical moment, a past moment – if I understand Zhong correctly – that is never entirely past.  This idea is encouraging.   As the writer Henry Miller once expressed, writing in isolation in the region of Big Sur, California – “Give the artist too much and you destroy him.” This comment should not be taken as a generality so much an idea from another time when artists understood the foundation of art not in relation to investment, but in terms of a language that spoke without pretense and without effect. In an interview with Zhong, I came to agree with his important idea that artists are meant to attune themselves to the vibrations that are entering into history and are evolving as tendencies that will reconfigure our understanding of time/space as a relative notion within the present.  Zhong has many good ideas, many borrowed from traditional Buddhist and Taoist philosophies.  He is putting these thoughts into his art and putting his art into a new context, giving his images a refreshing momentum so as to “move with the flow” in relation to the advanced technologies of the present. His point of view is necessary in this regard as it applies to all advanced art being made in our global arena. His desire is to be in the present.  Yet there are other concerns as to whether he has the patience to discover the real future or a simulacrum of the future that is convenient in conforming to the expectations of his peers.  At times, his is symbolism may be too shallow to sustain the depth that is necessary to reveal the persistence of imagination required of art.  However, I am willing to hold out for Zhong Biao. There is little doubt of his ambition. Meanwhile, I am willing to look beyond painting through the eyes of a painter and, in the process, to see what his future brings.


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