The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast airshafts between, surrounded by very low railings… Our destiny is not horrible because of its unreality; it is horrible because it is irreversible and ironbound.(Jorge Luis Borges)

Through chaotic manifestations of worldly matters, we find endless possibilities behind the façade that we perceive as reality. Underneath the possibilities lies the irreversible current that changes everything in invisible and unnoticeable ways. And deep within that current are the infinite energy movements of the universe. The real world and the energy world are interchangeable; the infinite movements of energy create myriad directions. The directions, in turn, create opportunities, which make our next moment in life always unpredictable.(Zhong Biao)

China’s remarkable development from 1979 to 2013 has caught the world by surprise. The speed of this development, the double-digit growth rate sustained through more than three decades, the tight political and state control that is supposed to hamper economic development, the wealth amassed in a short period of time, have all made people inside and outside China disoriented. Traditional epistemology is challenged: There is no single frame of knowledge that can be easily adopted to explain the hybrid of an economic giant and a political monster. Even the best literary masters are rendered speechless by the enormity of changes to a country with the largest population in the world and with one of the richest traditions. The most talented visual artists can only retreat to their individual cocoons, mapping out, one slice at a time, the world as it changes at a dizzying speed.


Zhong Biao, born 1968, is arguably the only Chinese artist able to capture most aspects of China’s changes through his hyperrealist visual creations and his unique cosmology that finds traceable movements in chaos. Contingencies and inevitabilities constitute Zhong Biao’s universe of myriad imagery, on which he relies to critique or comment on everything from ubiquitous consumerism, China’s suffocating political atmosphere, Hong Kong’s handover, to the Beijing Olympics. His immensely rich images reflect China’s realities, but they also go beyond these immediate realities into the infinite universe and deep historical times, which he calls “unreality”.   


Zhong Biao idolizes Jorge Luis Borges, whose work was enthusiastically embraced and widely read in China during the 1980s and 1990s through Chinese translations. He learned the expression “unreality” in Borges’ writings. For Borges, unreality does not refer to the “unreal”; rather, it points to the fact that many aspects of life are excluded from common reality as we conceive it. We do not understand something, and therefore we exclude it from our thought processes. We do not understand death, the infinite universe, the “dark” material that is invisible but nevertheless fundamental to life, or nonlinear time. Borges’ “unreality” is not so much a concept of space as it is a concept of time: time, when running circularly instead of moving forward eternally, captures these “unrealities”. Zhong Biao’s artistic creation is intended to bring out these unrealities. While Borges’ influences are palpable, there is a crucial difference between Borges and Zhong Biao: Zhong Biao has contemporary China’s realities as his main reference points. Far from a project that mystifies the universe, Zhong Biao’s is based on solid realities, which, to him, are “unrealities” because they are often unfathomable, difficult to understand or make sense of, full of contradictions and invisible undercurrents. Urbanization vs. preservation, commodification vs. genuine personal relations, hedonism vs. political suffocation, tradition vs. modern/Western, these pairs of contradictions find ways to co-exist and, as such, give contemporary Chinese society a strange and yet nervous energy.

Strange as it might sound, Zhong Biao’s fate and art career are closely related to his name. He was born in a hospital in the  heavy industrial city of Chongqing on November 11, 1968, just as the fiercest of armed factional fights was breaking out. Zhong Biao wrote in his autobiography:

Even in the delivery room, people could clearly hear the sounds of firefights between the opposing factions “815” and the “Rebels to the End”. My mother had been in labor for eight hours, and, then, finally, on the verge of her total despair, I was born. My father jumped for joy. At that very moment The Internationale was being played on the loudspeakers outside; the “Rebels to the End” were mourning their fallen comrades. The couplets on their wreaths read: “The song of The Internationale is for mourning, whirlwinds from heaven have reached me.” This gave my father an idea about my name. “Biao,” whirlwinds, thus dropped onto my birth certificate.

What a tragic yet heroic moment! Zhong Biao from the very moment of his birth has been imprinted with the sign of the times. It is worth noting that the same character, Biao, is used in Chinese to translate the German “Bildungsroman” movement, which was for educating or edifying youth in order to make them good citizens. It is no coincidence that the youthful Bildungs Romanticism has always informed Zhong Biao’s work.

Zhong Biao’s father was an army veteran, and served as a communications specialist during China’s Civil War (1945–1949). Both his father and his mother worked for the Chongqing government. Zhong Biao recalls how, in 1974, his father told him about his involvement in the war:

That day after we got home from seeing Shanggan Hill at the open-air cinema, my father described to me with excitement the fierce battles between two army battalions. “That communications solider is me!”, he claimed. “How come he doesn’t look like you?” I was suspicious of his story. My mother explained, “Silly, your father is one of the characters the film is based on.”

A war hero father did not bring Zhong Biao any privileges. His life was rationed in everything, just like everyone else’s. His sense of pride remained, however, and gave him confidence in handling difficult situations.  


In 1968, Zhang Xiaogang (born 1958), one of China’s leading artists, was already ten. He vividly remembers his school being closed, and enjoying a period of freedom with his friends while their parents were sent to forced labor camps in the countryside. Zhang Xiaogang’s generation had already reached school age during the early years of the Cultural Revolution, separating them from Zhong Biao’s generation. This separation played a decisive role in the differences between Zhang Xiaogang’s worldviews and Zhong Biao’s. For Zhang, the world was orderly, and restraints were needed in order to survive increasingly alienated interpersonal relations. For Zhong, all orders were broken and existing structures reorganized. From a very early age, Zhong Biao became intuitively aware of the necessity and joy of chaos.

On October 14, 1976, shortly after Mao’s death, the “Gang of Four”, led by Madame Mao, were arrested. To celebrate the smashing of the “Gang of Four,” every Chinese school was mobilized to create a large quantity of political cartoons and blackboard literature. As a second grader, Zhong Biao actively participated in poster design; this is when he discovered his artistic talents. In 1983, he entered the middle school annexed to Sichuan Fine Arts Academy and was determined to become an artist.


Everything seemed to go smoothly for Zhong Biao from this point on. In 1987 he was admitted to the highly competitive China Academy of Art, located in the city of Hangzhou. In 1989, Zhong Biao’s sophomore year, China entered the turbulent spring that climaxed in the killing of protestors in Tiananmen Square. While Zhang Xiaogang and his generation had already established themselves in the art world and participated actively in the protests, Zhong Biao sold his first group of paintings to a Taiwanese collector. It was only three years later that he would see Tiananmen Square for the first time. 


To say that Zhong Biao’s generation is not as politically engaged as Zhang Xiaogang’s generation is probably justified. But it is not accurate to say that Zhong Biao’s generation does not care about politics. Their politics have a decisively urban nature. Zhang Xiaogang and his peers all had extensive contact with rural environments, even if some of them had strong urban backgrounds: many of them were sent to villages. And urban was not much different from rural during the Cultural Revolution. By contrast, artists in Zhong Biao’s generation have rarely stepped outside the city at a time when the city is being increasingly urbanized. From the very beginning of Zhong Biao’s academic training, his political focus has been on topics such as urban vs. rural, history vs. present. The present, for him, is urbanized, globalized, and thoroughly penetrated by consumerism. His generation, undeniably, is the urban generation.


It makes perfect sense, therefore, for Zhong Biao to have worked on a three-panel painting entitled “City Passers” for his graduation project in 1991. To prepare for this project, he traveled extensively in Fall 1990 to the Yellow River Valley, also known as the “cradle of Chinese civilization”. He visited Yongle Palace on the shore of the Yellow River in Shanxi Province, a Daoist temple famous for its 13th-Century Yuan Dynasty murals:

Throughout the trip, I was overwhelmed by the weightiness of “history”. When I stood awestruck before the murals at Yongle Palace, only one word could describe how I felt: time! Decaying, windswept, faded, peeling, blasted and chipped, damaged by war, eroded by the passage of time, the murals were constantly recreated by the hands of both man and nature. Over time, the murals have acquired more meaning than what was originally intended. They are like a giant diary, recording the passing of time to no end.

By the age of 22, Zhong Biao had already sensed the layered nature of recorded history. To use an analogy, these records resemble palimpsests, which allow us to write layer upon layer. Peeling off the top layer does not cause total destruction; rather, more layers are exposed underneath.

The idea of the palimpsest is what makes the three City Passers panels so interesting. What remains of Qianling Mausoleum and Zhaoling Masusoleum of the Tang Dynasty, and of Yongle Palace, is juxtaposed and mixed with contemporary elements such as Coca-Cola, World Electronic Communications Day, bicycles, and modern clothing. The pictures are a thorough pastiche, because the artist has done a fabulous job of seamlessly interweaving the ancient with the contemporary. And these images are not without cynicism: between the truly ancient and the truly modern are kitsch imitations of the old or awkward hybrids of the two. The lion trashcan is one example. This cynicism foretold what was to come during China’s unprecedented urbanization in the two decades after 1991.


The graduation work won Zhong Biao instant critical acclaim. He landed a job as a studio instructor at the prestigious Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in his hometown of Chongqing, where his colleagues include Zhang Xiaogang, Ye Yongqing, and Luo Zhongli, all pioneers of contemporary Chinese art. And in 1992 he married his college sweetheart, whom he labels “K” in his autobiography. The marriage, however, only lasted for three years. In the meantime he developed a new hobby: collecting antiques. In the 1990s almost every dealer in Chongqiong’s antique district could recognize Zhong Biao’s car. Every time his car rolled into the district, every shop immediately brought out their finest treasures. Many of these antiques are fakes and Zhong Biao knew that; he nevertheless kept going back because he was fascinated by the archaic feel of those places.  


These fake antiques began to appear in Zhong Biao’s paintings in 1994. In his Nostalgic Series: Youth, a Han Dynasty musical doll is juxtaposed with a dilapidated building, a section of highway, a car, a McDonald’s sign, and a young woman in the foreground who poses as if she were scutinizing the camera or the painter in front of her. On the surface, the pastiche of these seemingly irrelevant images is a postmodern play on serendipity. But on closer examination, we understand that the building is one of the famous buildings near Sichuan Fine Arts Institute frequented by students. The car was Zhong Biao’s old car, the doll belonged to his collection, and the woman was his wife. In this painting alone, Zhong Biao reflects his life experience. The dilapidation hints at the impending break-up of his marriage.


Even in his most private moments, however, Zhong Biao thinks about transcendence. The giant moon in the background signifies time’s passing and adds a surrealist element that allows the artist to go beyond his immediate realities. The ability to seamlessly combine individual experience with celestial perspectives is what separates Zhong Biao from most other artists of his generation.


Zhong Biao became increasingly skillful in combining a variety of elements to create stunningly rich images. In 1997 A.D., we find a crowded city scene that includes high rises, a giant Deng Xiaoping billboard touting Hong Kong’s return, a one-child policy ad showing a young mother holding a boy, fashionable girls jumping high in the air, an old couple from the countryside marveling at the cityscape, a Caucasian man running a marathon, and a man wearing a long gown and pigtail walking away. The scene undoubtedly refers to Hong Kong’s handover, China’s most significant event in 1997. However, this momentous event and China’s increasing urbanization are put into perspective by the inclusion of an ancient terracotta figure in the foreground. The sculpture’s eyes have been worn out by time, making it appear blind, with a mocking smile. While this painting may not be a pointed criticism of contemporary China, the mocking terracotta figure in the foreground makes it allegorical at the very least.


This painting is a good example of Zhong Biao’s hyperrealism. This style is not surrealism, because the juxtaposed elements have coherent logical links or visual associations. When all these vividly realistic elements are added together, however, the synchronicity of a contemporary scene acquires a temporal depth: time both freezes and moves. And this temporal depth helps create a heightened sensitivity to the fragility and impermanence of contemporary success and hedonism.


This heightened sensitivity continues to intensify in Zhong Biao’s works, from 1997 to 1998 to 1999 to the 21st century, from Hong Kong to Beijing to Shanghai to Paris, and from the ubiquitous “tear down” signs to glistening skyscrapers. The intensification culminates in his 2008 painting, Gwangju: Setting Out. This work is nothing short of epic,in scale (300 x 800 cm), depth of meaning, and richness of images. At first sight the painting has little to do with the Gwangju Incident, the main reference of the title. We can only vaguely make out the protestors, holding Korea’s national flag, buried deep in the background. Against this background are images associated with the artist’s personal memories in particular and contemporary life in general. For instance, framed in one of the three frames is a still from the film In the Heat of the Sun (1997). Directed by Jiang Wen, this film is about the coming-of-age experience during the Cultural Revolution. Zhong Biao has confessed that this is one of his favorite films because it represents the experience of his entire generation. Other prominent images include birds in the sky, China’s pop stars, Michelangelo’s Pietà, a boy holding a Canon camera, and a giant fist. Color images are mixed with black and white ones, and seemingly irrelevant elements are yoked together. The empty frame in the middle of the painting, however, brings everything together and expresses the artist’s chief message. As Zhong Biao has repeatedly said, “Everything has already been in existence and will only reveal itself when paths are crossed.” The emptiness in the frame is precisely “everything that has already been in existence”, which has yet to reveal itself. The happening, however, is about to take place, something we can deduce from the protests, the child witness, and the angry fist. It is not a stretch to say that this painting hides a strong political message that calls for democracy. Though democracy has yet to come to China, it is an inevitable outcome of all the changes that are occurring in contemporary China.       


The richness of Zhong Biao’s images has made him a darling of art critics. Wang Lin writes about “the lies of the metropolis” exposed in Zhong Biao’s hidden morals. Pi Li notices a “visual archeology” in Zhong Biao’s paintings. And Paul Manifredi contends that Zhong Biao’s global imagination is intensified by an emphasis on local commodification.


None of these readings, however, goes beyond the apparent and the superficial to focus on the most significant of Zhong Biao’s contributions: questioning the logic of the present and making invisible time visible. 


The American artist Bill Viola, who represented the USA at the 1995 Venice Biennale, thinks that time is invisible: “Time is the ultimate invisible world. It’s all around us. It literally is our life. We live in it like fish in water, then regard it as something slipping away, that’s being lost. But if your interest is transformation, growth and change – wanting to ride the wave as it’s cresting – then there is no problem. You are immersed within the flow of time, and you are dripping wet!” Viola is able to “spatialize” time by focusing on its duration in his video art. His idea of time’s invisibility, however, is only one way of looking at time. Time is invisible to us because we live in the present: every moment of our life is abstract and invisible unless we associate it with the people, the feelings, or the events in our life. What if, one might ask, time does not equal the present?


The notion that we only live in the present is a contemporary one, after “history” is supposed to have ended. In Francis Fukuyama’s well-known proclamation, at the end of the Cold War we witnessed “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” History no longer moves forward. Without the imagination of a future of different forms of governance, we are forever “stuck” in the present and can only fine-tune identity-related issues in art and in humanities in general. This notion of history and time, however, is too shortsighted when we leave the context of Western democracy. In the mountains and deserts, where human traces are rare, time flows according to the spinning of the Earth. The timeline of our planet and nature is what I call “deep time,” which is measured in billions of years and makes human history insignificantly short.


To bring up the notion of deep time is not to trivialize humanity or human history. Rather, its unimaginably long duration puts human life into perspective. If natural time seems an eternity, then shouldn’t we rethink our desires, our anxieties, and our propensity to cling to material wealth? In the logic of the present, these human desires seem crucially important and unavoidable; in deep time, however, these desires amount to nothing.


For Zhong Biao, the most appropriate way to visualize deep time is to go into the universe. The immeasurable planetary distance is in essence the deepest of time. In 2009 he began painting in a new style that combines abstraction and hyperrealism. The abstraction is what he calls the “energy masses” of the universe (FIG 1). This is not only a figurative way of speaking: he is also employing a real technique. He now starts his paintings by smearing paint all over the canvas, spinning out the “masses” in all directions to depict people, figures, signs and symbols both compatible and incompatible. In Football Miracle (2009), for instance, a football player emerges from the masses of color. His head is still invisible but his football-kicking feet become the focal points. This magnificent painting was selected as one of the official posters for the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa (FIG 2).

The “energy masses” are turned into one giant painting after another. The 2010 painting For the Future, which was the centerpiece of his solo show For the Future that welcomed in the New Year of 2011 in Shanghai, features a variety of positive images spun out of the masses. The exuberance of the figures flying toward the audience, however, is checked by the somberness of those with their backs turned. Zhong Biao is particularly skillful in handling giant epic scenes, which are crowded but not out of control, complex but deeply meaningful. (FIG 3) One of his secret weapons is his control of emotions. Nostalgia, happiness, melancholia, shame and joy are often mixed together but clearly distinguishable.


From palimpsests to hyperrealist juxtapositions, from concrete images to abstraction, Zhong Biao uses his immense energy and creativity to document China in the process of rapid transformation. His work is simultaneously personal and public, aesthetic and political; his youthfulness and innovative spirit augur more marvelous images for years to come. 

Gary Xu is a professor, art curator, translator, and columnist based in the United States. He is currently Head of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Institute of Arts and Humanities of Shanghai Jiaotong University. A native of Nanjing, China, he earned a doctorate from Columbia University (2002) and has written extensively on Chinese art, film, literature, and critical theories. His recent curatorial credits include Looking Awry: The Unconscious in Contemporary Chinese Art (Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, September 2012), Thermalux: Yang Maoyuan’s Paintings (Ping Gallery, Beijing, November 2012), Shanghai Style: Xue Song Painting (Singapore Museum of Contemporary Art, April 2013), and The Universe of Unreality: Zhong Biao’s Visions (Venice, June 2013). In addition to numerous articles, he has written or edited four books: Looking Awry: The Unconscious in Contemporary Chinese Art (2012), The Cross-Cultural Zizek Reader (2011), Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese Cinema (2007), and Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Popular Culture (2007). He was awarded a US National Endowment of Humanities Fellowship in 2012.

 For instance, one of China’s greatest contemporary writers, Yu Hua (1960–), the author of To Live, wrote an essay on “Borges’ Reality” in 1998, recalling fondly how Borges impacted him and his generation. Yu Hua, “Borges’ Reality,” in his anthology Can I believe Myself. Beijing: People’s Daily Press, 1998, 53-65.

 Zhong Biao, “Setting out from 1968,” in Peng Li, Zhong Biao. Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2011, 1. 

 Zhong Biao, “Setting out from 1968,” p.2.

 Gary Xu and Jonathan Fineberg, Disquiet Memories: Zhang Xiaogang. To be published in 2013.

 Zhong Biao, “Setting out from 1968,” p. 8.

 My interview with Zhong Biao on March 3, 2013, at his Beijing studio.

 My interview with Zhong Biao on March 3, 2013, at his Beijing studio.

 Quoted in Lu Peng, “The Tendancy of Events,” in Zhong Biao, 319.

 Wang Lin, “The Morals of Life and the Lies of the Metropolis,” in Zhong Biao, 68-75.

 Pi Li, “Visual Archeology,” in Zhong Biao, 76-80.

 Paul Manifredi, “Zhong Biao and the Global Imagination,” in Zhong Biao, 110-131.

 Martin Gayford, “The Ultimate Invisible World: Interview with Bill Viola,” Modern Painters, no. 16 (Autumn 2003): 22-5.

 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press, 1992.