Zhong Biao is a Sichuan artist, albeit one who is skeptical of what he calls “geographical psychology.”  He is also a global artist, with solo exhibitions in galleries from Jakarta to San Francisco.  But Zhong Biao, ultimately, is a Chinese artist, by which I mean one who bears a particular kind of witness to China’s current transformation, the kind which allows him license—and affords him necessary tools—to represent that transformation in his art.  In order to do so, he adopts an expansive approach to his images, where entire cities or even world scenes are brought to view.  The apotheosis of this approach is surely Zhong’s most recent work, “Mirage” 海市蜃楼, a 1800-centimeter wide canvas upon which appears a full view of the contemporary state of affairs, from specific reference to the 2008 stock market crash to more generalized militarism, terrorism, and turmoil. The panoramic effect of the image is reinforced by mirrors which frame one side of the canvas further extending the painting’s already considerable indeed seemingly all-encompassing “embrace” of a troubled world scene. 


Yet also in Zhong’s recent work there has emerged a new layer of abstraction, one which suggests the possibility of a different kind of landscape.  This vista, presented in non-representation lines which began swirling around his canvases late in 2008 and become more prominent in 2009, suggests a fundamentally new orientation, one which engages for the first time the possibility of visual exploration of the artist’s (or some sort of collective) unconscious.  The trend stands in contrast to Zhong’s style otherwise, one which focuses, if this be possible, on panoramic vistas that are directed outward to often spectacular effect.  The subject of this essay will be how Zhong balances the new drift towards visual exploration of his own psyche with his on-going panoramic method. 


Panoramic expressions like the one we see (and hear) in Mirage, though new in terms of the multi-media dimension, are long-standing in Zhong’s work.  They should be understood, moreover, as more than panoramic in spatial/visual terms, but also conceptual and temporal: Zhong Biao, by including historical fragments, is suggesting wide-angle encapsulations of different eras, even those not yet occurred.  The view one is afforded in the painting is therefore from above in a profound sense; the “bird’s eye” view of the phenomenal world functions as recurring vantage point and as an over-arching metaphor for his work in general.  Methodologically speaking, the vistas are a product of images selected from Zhong’s collection of digital photographs, images which are projected onto canvas and then rendered by hand in, most commonly, acrylic paint and charcoal. The method is resonate with meaning, as the digital photograph is itself an often casual snap-shot of some current state of affairs, an instant reality which is typically dynamic (figures in rapid motion) and intimate.   Through this process, the people of Zhong’s paintings are typically caught in emotionally revealing or sometimes suggestive postures, gestures or facial expressions that speak about their condition.  His art more generally involves an ability to take the raw material of these stand-alone figures, rooted firmly in the time and space of their capture, and draw them out into landscapes which encapsulate contemporary China in at once broad and at the same time uncompromisingly detailed form.  Looking at a Zhong Biao canvas, the audience can see, in essence, what is going on. And seeing what is going on in China is, at the risk of hyperbole, one of the principal global media endeavors of the 21st century.  At the very least, China is currently a major spectacle of world news, and a contemporary world picture will contain if not feature, for instance, a solitary man standing in front of a tank.  The Chinese artist, in contrast to the Associated Press photographer, is more authentic, one with the experience—usually negative—to “back up” the picture.  Nonetheless, both the artist and the photo-journalist or other documentarian speak in a global language of “Chinasight,” a worlded spectrum of spaces (Great Wall, Forbidden City, quaint temples), as well as objects (construction cranes, scaffolding, to a myriad victims of environmental degradation) which collectively mean contemporary China.  An artist like Zhong Biao is a major figure not because he responds to these “realities,” but because he composes this reality, supplying his part of the essential visual vocabulary for the articulation of contemporary Chinese experience itself. 


In interviews and in short essays he’s composed for exhibition openings and the like, though, panoramic representation of contemporary China is not the goal of Zhong Biao’s work.  His goal in fact is more ambitious still, namely, to discover and depict the underlying order of all things.   Zhong Biao elaborates on this goal in a November, 2009 interview, by using the Chinese word “xingtai” 形态, typically rendered as “state of things” (Interview).  His explication of the term involves breaking apart its two components, the xing, which is the form that is visible to the eye in the phenomenal world, and the tai, which, in his description, is a kind of force which manifests itself in the xing, but which is ultimately invisible and also constantly transforming.  The focus is upon the “unknowable” cause or force which, once accorded with, makes the creative process a kind of natural (and, he points out in the interview, “effortless”) extension of the flow of events/trends domestically and internationally. This “extension” is the work of the artist, both to put the tai into a form which can be seen at any given point in time, but also to keep one’s attention on the changes which are inevitable feature of tai, to prepare oneself for subsequent transitions. 


The xingtai dualism is characteristic of Chinese philosophy, most famously in the mutually informing and transforming yinyang, and all that flows from them in the phenomenal world.  It would be a mistake to look at Zhong’s intellectual orientation as strictly Chinese, however, as he is drawing equally from Western aesthetic theory, particularly modernist.  In a 1998 essay, Zhong recounts his reading experiences of the heady days of the mid 1980s when he and other young artists and intellectuals were busily consuming entire cultural traditions from the West. Particularly in the year 1985, Zhong’s major influence was Hermann Hesse, specifically the novels Steppenwolf (Der Steppenwolf, 1927) and, more importantly, The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel, 1943).  The prominent intellectual binaries of Hesse’s work, e.g., reason and emotion, nature and civilization, restraint and abandon, etc, had a profound effect on Zhong’s development intellectually.  Zhong’s various intellectual influences, drawn from a wide array of sources, are all brought to bear both on the project of art itself—to bring about the revelation of the order that underlies myriad manifestations of material experience—and for the particular method of art which he adopts, a tapestry of individual acutely real images cast in panoramic display of a larger, artistically conjured “realities.”


Conspicuously absent from this rundown of conceptual dualisms is one other major force in modern art (among other human endeavors): Freud’s notion of the conscious and unconscious mind.  Were it not for Zhong Biao’s recent move towards abstract expressionist method, this omission would be entirely appropriate, as there is very little in Zhong Biao’s work to suggest the importance of dream life or other unconscious processes (i.e., repressed material) to his painting. The move toward abstraction  and non-representational method is thus either a major shift in Zhong Biao’s aesthetic method, or a major new synthesis of previously incommensurate intellectual and visual devices. To put the matter a bit more crudely, the shift is also notable on two, quite interconnected levels: 1. Zhong Biao’s status as basically a Chinese artist bearing witness to changes in Chinese experience is erased when representation becomes unidentifiable and, Second, in the absence of China, the meaningfulness of the art endeavor—and financial gain from its commoditization in world markets both literal and non—evaporates.  What is at stake when Zhong ceases to re-present is considerable and perhaps even materially quantifiable. And regardless of economic implications, how can a Chinese artist bear witness (through panoramic method) to China’s changes if the record of that witness is too personal to be read as “Chinese”?


To address these questions we need to look more carefully at Zhong’s abstract method.  To begin with, we note that abstract expression was frequently hinted at in Zhong’s earlier work, with peripheral or marginal elements of canvases receding from representation into something, for lack of a better word, else.  We see instances of this abstraction from Zhong’s earliest works, appearing as patches of clouds, sketchy details of clothing, or an obscure alley-way presumably too insignificant to render in Zhong’s otherwise highly precise even hyper-realist fashion.  It is not until 2008, though, that a clear and rather sudden unraveling of visual sign function begins takes shape, and 2009 a preponderance of non-representational imagery appears in Zhong’s work.  A characteristic example is “Scarlet and Black” .


Zhong’s abstract images in many respects read like his other work, where isolated images operate metaphorically but where layers of such metaphorical maneuvers provide polyphonic statements that defy paraphrase or summary. The composition of “Scarlet and Black,” for instance, can be seen in almost still-life fashion as a flower in full bloom.  The blooming flower, in turn, is easily connected to the traditional metaphor of schools of thought (“hundred flowers bloom” 百花盛开), with the school children in such reading appearing as seeds of future development.  Also in such a reading, the young scarlet woman in a stamen-like position becomes the essence of the flower itself, and the flower’s stalk jutting up, a fulcrum for rapidly (blooming) development of material China recapitulated in the building at that back of the image. The painting, in short, reads well, with a sound symbolic architecture and clean linearity typical of Zhong’s work. At the same time, the flower reading is aptly undercut by the wide-spread physical and spiritual demolition which accompanies in lock-step the building of contemporary China, perhaps one of Zhong’s most eloquent themes. In this related idea the bloom of the flower is also an explosion, which it equally resembles. 


The significance of the abstract maneuver extends beyond either a flower or an explosion, though, even if such reading fits well within Zhong’s symbolic approach. Returning to Zhong Biao’s pursuit of an underlying or internal order mentioned above, we should see such a goal taking shape in the context of China’s political history, with the Cultural Revolution, Maoism and shift to market capitalism of the past three decades prominent components of Zhong’s meaning structure.  Zhong Biao’s 1997 “autobiographical statement” (one of many) makes the historical-political orientation of his ideas particularly clear.   In that text Zhong reviews the major events in his life, including marriage, divorce, schooling at the Central Academy in Hangzhou and others leading to his first major one-person exhibition in Hong Kong in 1997.  In this personal historical review, while Zhong manages to travel widely imagistically, and easily from the quotidian of contemporary China to the summits of world power, the epistemological frame which holds the fragments together is assuredly contemporary Chinese history, a hierarchy of sense which renders world events readable, even weighable, in terms of China’s specific gravity on a world stage.  The act of selecting these events and pegging his development to them is akin to the act of acquiring “origin” images and placing them in paintings.  In this respect, Zhong’s ideas and his method of arranging digital photographs in paintings line up in a kind of historical-political arena, a world picture of his composing.


It should also be noted, however, that Zhong’s demiurgic hand is one he’d rather us not notice.  In the above-mentioned interview, for instance, Zhong attempts to minimize his role in the specific deployment of images. He acknowledges that “at one time” he did in fact arrange and select individual images in order to achieve interesting contradictions, but in later work, he explains, the images themselves are no longer specifically relevant, there are no meaningful contradictions, notable paradoxes.  The goal instead becomes to effortlessly allow the images to circulate through his work, to even emerge of their own accord from the canvases themselves. 


The minimization of Zhong Biao’s poesis in the process of his painting is one we could appreciate, particularly in light of Zhong Biao’s own claim to abide by principles of representing xing from tai.  Part of the goal of being so connected to the “flow of things,” to return to Daoist-tinged metaphors, is that action in accordance with such forces requires relatively little effort on the part of the agent.  A “tuned in” practitioner taps into an ever emergent supply of, in this case, visual material and then, in a sense, gets out of its way.  Whether this has been true with Zhong’s work up until 2008 could be a matter of argument.  What is clear is that a new abstract method makes such observations moot; these images appear from the matter of their texture to their specific location on the canvas, courtesy of the industry of the artist’s hand.  As such the panoramic view of the world “at large” transitions, possibly, into an internally-focused lens, a landscape shot from within the artist himself, blooms or explosions of unconscious material brought to light of day.


The fact that the new vista afforded in Zhong’s recent work is internally focused is suggested by the number of titles which have to do with psychological processes, particularly memory. A characteristic example is “Burning Memory”


The connection between the figure and what appears around her, then, constitutes the new step in Zhong Biao’s artistic process, where a precisely rendered female figure is surrounded by swaths of color amounting, we presume from the title, to a mixture of unconscious and conscious material swirling about in her mind.  Zhong’s approach to the representation of the inner mind is to almost attack the canvas, with ample amounts of acrylic paint spilling out in all directions.  The result is considerable bleeding of colors as well as the generation of a wide variety of textures, from high density to almost transparent.  This again conjures the explosive quality, but now the explosions are redirected: it is the supine woman’s own mind which combusts within her.  Amidst this tangle of brush strokes there also emerges in the clear grey at the upper left region of the canvas Zhong Biao’s bare, charcoal-drawn legs, and perhaps a torso of another figure started but not finished.  While Zhong’s canvases very often contain such sketches, they have previously been surrounded by two things—other more fully articulated human figures, and/or the built environment.  In this case, the arrival of non-representational material to the equation, an addition which changes matters entirely.


Another example, and even almost a corollary to “Burning Memories,” is


As with “Burning,” “Overwhelming” is a two-part composition: a solitary figure in heightened psychological state surrounded by a multiple swirls of non-representational stuff.  Working from the title, literally “mist engulfing mountains and rivers,” 气吞山河 we can see something like a landscape embraced by the figure.  As landscape we can take primary horizontal elements of the canvas as mountains that are bisected, vertically, by a lake and perhaps even river.  Framing the images within the canvas we have the limits of the landscape as Zhong has created it, with relatively blank spaces at the top and lower right corner of the canvas.  In particular, a solitary black stroke intersected by paint drips and charcoal lines reveals the painter’s speed and randomness in the act of creation.  The figure falls into suggested but again incomplete forms.  This descent relates ironically to the four-character compound of the title, as this phrase is often used to describe an attitude of monumental bravery in the face of some daunting task.


What emerges with regard to the figures, though, is in many respects a conflict.  Though Abstract Expressionism as an artistic movement is no doubt varied in terms of style, one attribute clearly is the relative absence of the human figure. In observing the paintings above, we can see among other things the way in which the view of the human body entails a certain solidity of perspective—the shadows of the young woman’s boots traveling up her legs and onto her lower back, her high-lighted hair shines in the glimmer of light which plays across her body unaccountably, or the young man, illuminated from above so that his face plummets into a darker region of the image.  The angles of view suggested perforce by the human body amount as well to the implied viewer’s occupation of space, and both contends with the perspectival possibilities of the non-figural elements of the painting, effectively limiting the impact, localizing within the painter’s view of the painting.  In this respect, Zhong’s experiment with abstraction seems out of synch with his work as a whole.  


“Overwhelming Bravery” though, is also highly characteristic of Zhong Biao’s painting thematically: a human figure suspended in space.  The levitation theme is all over Zhong’s work, providing a kind of overarching metaphor for life and for art.   It also provides a convenient entre into analysis of the images in more strictly psychoanalytical fashion.  Freud’s analysis of flying in dream state is legendary, first in association with male erection and then with surrender to erotic impulse.   We need not accept Freud’s specific analysis, however, to observe the fact that Zhong is consistently concerned with the phenomenon of gravity-defying maneuvers of all kinds.  These appear as winged-flight, great leaps, dives, and a variety of falls.  Of the forty-two paintings the artist produced in 2008, thirty one of them contain images of flying, whether human or other, and of the twenty five images from 2009, sixteen contain flight.  When looking at the preponderance of flying images in Zhong’s paintings, we are given further insight into a psychological world of his painting, and this insight relates more broadly to his method prior to abstract expressions of his most recent work.  To observe this we return to Zhong’s method as a painter.


One of the major achievements of Zhong’s work is his approach to juxtaposition. The knack for assembling, collage-like, disparate images is common enough, but in Zhong’s work it takes on central importance as the panoramic method depends on the artist’s ability to draw from as far afield as possible and yet provide the sense that the disparate elements belong to a single fundamentally ordered universe.   With this accomplishment in mind, we may now reconsider the notion that Zhong’s abstract work is a departure from before at least in certain psychological processes.  The underlying order, in other words, may well be not external to the artist, but in fact unconscious material which has been repressed or displaced, but still remains connected in the psyche of the artist. Freud’s word for our engagement with such material is “uncanny,” psychic matter that is not on the surface recognizable, but when analyzed in the context of the subject’s history becomes powerfully connected to decisive developmental stages.


The related Freudian concept at work in this process would be “repetition compulsion,” a circumstance where the recurrence of various images stem from the subject’s repressed memories of traumatic experience.   This seems an apt way to describe what Zhong Biao does with the digital images which re-emerge in his paintings over time.  Indeed, even the act of re-painting these images is itself a kind of unconscious process, a way of taming and controlling unruly anxieties, of re-making desire and other unconscious forces into something “orderly.”  The “discovery of order” in the outer world which Zhong names as a goal for his art could well be instead the imposition of the order of the conscious mind onto an unruly mass of “disorganized” unconscious material.  The images of 2009 indeed seem to suggest a trend in this direction.  For instance, “Climax”


The mind, unconscious or not, is figured here almost explicitly, encapsulated in a square skull, the interior of which almost in fact looks like brain matter.  Other psychological or bodily correspondences flow dynamically throughout the canvas, with copious amounts of what appears bodily fluid (menstrual or—with the title in mind—seminal fluid) emanating from a shape-shifted female with something approaching a fish tail across her torso.  Her warped body is both a funhouse mirror cliché and a reference to surrealist painting.  In front of her falls a young man and his double, a reminder of Zhong’s flying theme. 


The frame itself is of central significance.  Though not a new device (Zhong Biao has been using frames within his paintings for years), the appearance here is with a completely abstract image at its core.  The metaphorical value of the frame, then, is greatly accentuated.  More than a comment on the art-making process generally, it here emerges as a depiction of the act of finding order specifically, one that remains elastic and incomplete as the black line extends across the barrier of what is figured and what figures itself.  Here we are seeing Zhong Biao’s engagement with the xingtai notion, but approaching the matter in a completely new way.  As the xingtai is both of the external and interior world, the relationship between the two can become more malleable.  In fact, we can imagine a situation where the artist, through something approaching miracle, dials back the process, capturing less of the xing (that which we see) and more of the tai (that which both precedes and determines what we see) in his work. 


What is more, the universalist quality of the claim, a xingtai not of Zhong Biao, or even Chinese origin, but in fact one which derives from human experience, is by far the most ambitious notion suggested by the frame.  The transferability of particularly emotional impact of his canvases, on a Freudian level, suggests a more collective cultural anxiety which must reach global proportions in order to be effective.  If Zhong Biao’s work truly resonates, it does so because of the universally uncanny quality of fragments he brings to the fore, a globalized “repetition compulsion” which is both centered in China, but always cast ever more broadly than that. 


Again, the development of abstract method shifts this aesthetic program to a new plain, one wherein the recognizable is increasingly sacrificed for the possible. The only canvas to commit entirely to this method, and one which notable also prominently features a frame, carries the appropriately ambitious title:  “the unrepresentable possibility”:


In looking at such an image we may try to establish material connections: the bridges at right and left of the canvas, for instance, suggest an urban scene, conjuring once again China’s economic and material development. Such an effort, though, rather cuts against the grain of the work, which, strictly speaking, contains no Chinasight, or even contemporary world as its context. What is left out is Zhong Biao’s characteristic panorama, an omission so extraordinary that one is inclined to attempt a kind of cost benefit analysis: gone are the automobiles, movie stars, helicopters, world leaders, historical movements and spectacular human figures. With these departs the sense of the uncanny, the feeling that somehow the Temple of Heaven, Che Guevara, Monica Lewinsky and Alfred Hitchcock and a cigar are intimately linked by some internal order, whether that order be more present in the external world, or in the underlying anxieties in the artist’s or even the viewer’s mind.  Gone finally and by far most conspicuously is Zhong Biao’s own name.


On the positive side, the image is clearly a kind of liberation, the limitations presented by the human figure, or any other physical object, now no longer restraining view.  Here the canvas opens itself and the viewer entirely to tai.  It stands as a momentary glimpse of the state of affairs prior to the moment when that state was manifest. Such a glimpse seems to afford something quite positive, a state of pure energy, explosiveness, light.  The torrents of colors, shapes and forms affirm something fundamental, something with which the viewer can easily identify.  Identification proceeds, of course, in psychological terms—the image is the very churning of unconscious drives themselves, prior to their condensation into image, dream, or thought.  We must not lose sight of the frame, for the other part of the equation which Zhong rehearses in multiple contexts verbally and in print is the fact that the underlying order is changeable, and that his relationship to it, as an artist, is precisely what is figured in “The Unrepresentable Possibility,” a moving canvas hoping to capture the form of the essence precisely as the essence and the form transform.


Having arrived at such a method, the question which emerges from such an image is: what is next for Zhong Biao?  Does the methodological pivot suggest further movement into the depths of his and the viewer’s unconscious matter, or to ever more detailed if panoramic representations of the Chinese “real”?  As an answer, we can take such an image as a statement—actually a reaffirmation—of Zhong Biao’s artistic intent all along—the search for an internal order.  The abstract panorama which emerges is a characteristically effortless transgression of a boundary which seemed previously quite sound.  As with so many other binaries simultaneously suggested and dismantled in the artist’s work (East/West, contemporary/ancient, affluent/destitute, building/destroying, and the list goes on), the abstract/real dichotomy seems oddly less secure with each passing canvas.