Zhong Biao is the first Chinese artist to be invited to give a solo show in the country of Montenegro, a small territory which nonetheless stands importantly at the crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe. As such, Zhong Biao’s exhibition is a rare and entirely momentous event.Bordering the Dalmatian shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Republic of Montenegro could re-establish its independency as society and culture only few years ago, in 2006.


Actually, it’s not the first public solo show at all of Zhong Biao in Europe. Last year, 2013, he was invited to share with “The Universe of Unreality: Zhong Biao’s Visions” the Biennale di Venezia as Collateral Event. But this show was realised as a solo work, a large multi media installation in the Venetian Renaissance church “Santa Maria della Visitazione”. Interacting in a marvellous way with the architecture and its interior room setup of artworks that ranged from sculpture to painting, and from times of the Renaissance to Baroque, it was a unique interlacing of different cultures and of different times.


This event gained Zhong Biao the invitation to the actual venue, Porto Montenegro’s exhibition hall with its Naval Heritage Collection, and this time it’s a retrospective solo show, an overview of his work, concentrating on the last nine years, 2006 to 2014. This show will give the audience an insight in the most decisive epoch of Zhong Biao’s work, and the artist the chance for a recapitulation at a crucial turning point in his questioning of the relations and transitions between the latent and the apparent dynamics of cosmic and mankind’s energies.

      

To give a hint for this questioning, we should start with some clues on the artist’s biography in relation to China’s unequalled inflow in the contemporary global market and mass culture.


Born in 1968 in Chongqing, the centre of Sichuan Province and already 800 years before densely populated by a million of citizens, like Italy’s Napoli, Zhong Biao was eight years old when the Chinese Cultural Revolution ended shortly after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. Zhong Biao’s youth was marked by an enormous curiosity and an early interest in art, yet also by the critical economic endeavours of Deng Xiaoping and the moderate liberalizations on the cultural fields.


The Nineties and the first ten years of the new Millennium brought that storm of capitalist industrial development that pushed China within two decades in an overwhelming urbanization, a sharp split between rural sides and cities, an all-embracing establishment of net communication systems - all in all a modernization wherefore the European countries and the United States needed more than 250 years. And most critical for the individual souls and feelings was the in sync establishment of a cultural industry, modelling desire, taste and social behaviour by media and commodities. The propaganda of Mao Zedong’s popular art of Socialist Realism turned in a propagating by media and ads, the Pop Art of consumerism, while angry, sad or desperate contemporary Chinese artists melted both into a rebellious Pop Art on the coat-tails of Western Pop and Photo Realism, yet also with a specific Chinese panoply of moods.


Zhong Biao’s paintings went from the beginning of his mature works in 1994 a different way. He renounced on mocking or deploring. Instead he built up constellations of inconsistencies between icons of the past and present, artworks, electronic media and billboards, assisted by oppositions in scale and optical appearance, and marked the contrasts by a sharp and clear photorealistic rendering of his motifs within urban outdoor or indoor surroundings. On the surface, it was a cool or neutral presentation, on a deeper level a serious questioning of subliminal relations between an abiding past and the present, where the present acts as hinge to its looming future. The inconsistencies, avoiding any formalistic harmony, gave way to yet unknown possibilities.


A signatory motif in Zhong Biao’s optical vocabulary to confirm this latent potential in apparent realities was his image of the woman. The artist worked in his ladies’ representations with a subconscious insight in the as well subconscious drive at work when the idolatry of woman is taking the desire of mankind as hostage. For, the society of consumerism had exchanged the former iconic centre of desire, Mao Zedong, fixing the masses on him as its heroic liberator in lots of paintings and graphic advertisements. Now the woman came back as the iconic centre, be it as longing for love or being searched for love.


Zhong Biao’s painting of 2005 showing a woman’s leg with fashionable high heel sandals, outstretched in the air and over the façade of Beijing’s Forbidden Palace is not by chance coined “Dynasty”. And the canvas with the telling title “Stride across 2000 years”, exactly from the millennium’s turn, combines two extreme frog perspectives, that of the viewer from outside and today, and that of a Han Dynasty sculpture from inside and the past. They have the same vanishing point in the sex of a sharply shortened perspective on a woman, except that the small Han figurine is moreover a vanishing point in itself by way of the composing. Hence, its perspective is not so much acting as a gimmick, but rather as a kind of intuitive counterbalance.


Insofar as behind the exploitation of desire by modelling ads of consumerism is still desire alive, it can find its way in other possibilities. Zhong Biao’s images of women oscillate like when spreading-out the hidden surfaces of a fan, opened at its centre of rotation, confirming a centre as un-extinguishable as nature itself. The relation between the inner infinity and the outer cosmic boundlessness acts as an axis of hidden and sometimes revealed mutuality, virtually transcending all attempts to take it in exploiting charge.

 

There is a sequencing of Zhong Biao’s paintings from 1994 till about 2008, the artist himself strongly felt. A first mature working period comprised the time from 1994 till 2004, a second one lasted from 2004 till 2008. Yet from 2007 on, what was announcing itself in the former times in his paintings, broke now through, when he first conceived a large canvas frieze “Beyond Painting”, followed in the next year by two friezes “Revelation I & II”, both works linked to an installation with mirrors, video projections and sound, making the audience or single viewers to be a part of an immersive situation, while the canvases itself lost their representative isolation as a painting. “Beyond painting” was a summing up of all former experiences how to disturb the concept of a self-sufficient painting, framed by the cut between its existence and that of the viewer, even though pretending to mirror back the viewer’s world or situation.


To mark his former optical devices how to disturb an out-dated concept of painting as unity of time and space, we refer to his early painting “Sports” from 1990, ‘resurrecting’ the flesh of Greek stone Gray sculptures partly to bodily tinted life. This startling melting of times, he than transformed to another optical disturbing of time orders when using for some of his characters the Gray to simulate black & white photographs, caving in coloured realities without any clear historic sequencing, and this method of decolouring was not yet established as simple Photoshop command.  Since 1998, what normally started as a preparatory drawing, raw charcoal sketches, became part of the finished canvas, mixed with black & white ‘photographic’ representations and colour painted parts.


Thus, what is normally understood as photorealism or hyperrealism was early undermined by Zhong Biao as too narrow a concept. Breaking through the fixed “here and now” time and space relation of a painting, he already, maybe still subconsciously, paved the way to what he later conceived as new relations between the past, the present, and the future, the present already being a nanosecond in the past, yet loaded as an emerged reality with all the past – and future – possibilities or potentialities.


Henceforward, it was – since 2001- only a step to break down the framing concept of painting, to push frames backwards inside, and to blur the difference what is inside and outside, to free the space from its perspective limitations and in the same moment from it’s a priori reference to gravity. By now, Zhong Biao’s characters can move around following their own centre of gravity and levitation, a liberated energy where the question whether it is a liberation of repressed sexual wishes or not, seems superfluous, given that all animal motions are emanations of spontaneous drives.


Thus, the most significant singularity of the above mentioned large frieze compositions, “Beyond Painting” from 2007, “Gwangju Setting Out from May” (2008), “Revelation No.1 and 2” from 2008, consists in the feature that they free the audience from its absence or voyeuristic clandestine presence. There are the visitors and the public here and now. And where they are encapsulated in a painting’s frame on the surface, it’s a reference on the time of memory, the tension of the own past or that of the past of other people. With the voided frames, the “Revelation” compositions turn the direction of the past to the virtuality of the future, a not yet realised – or revealed - potentiality.


Of course, any painted-on surface remains flat. And in this understanding, the method of Zhong Biao follows what we call trompe l’oeil. But his methods of combining painted frames with or without a distanced painted reality breaks by its conceptual complexity of the form through the frozen time-space logic of conventional paintings, shared by the conventional logic of trompe l’oeil as well. The fluidity of time and space opens the relations between the past, the future, and the present, and not as a calm continuity, but as a dramatic tension. Every present is a revelation, caused by a specific constellation of the past and the future, in Zhong Biao’s Chinese terms: the Hun Dun, the not yet form, passes to Xian Xing, the manifestation of form. Yet this manifestation out of a cosmic – or subconscious – “unreal” is loaded with what is out of control as long as it has not passed to form.

 

Therefore, it’s not by chance that from 2008 on, Zhong Biao was concerned with the problem how the realities of our tangible world are linked with the un-tangible beyond of cosmic energies, and the notion of Hun Dun, actually the not re-presentable, confronted him with the question how it might be possible to give it a ‘representation’. This lead him to what is called in Western pictorial grammar: the abstract, or since long as art form: abstract expressionism. Yet different from Western artists, Zhong Biao was not concerned with isolating this abstraction from representational forms. His endeavour was to find a way to the passages between the not yet form and the form as able to represent. This question marked his artistic production and lead to his big multimedia installations with large canvases, “Mirage” from 2009 in Denver/Colorado, “To the Future” from 2010 in Shanghai, artistic side event at the opening of the World Expo, and in 2012 to his big canvas titled “Everything is pre-existent, revealed only in passing”.


What is revealed is part of our world, able to be represented in a tangible form. What is pre-existent, as cosmic energy, is only able to be represented in a mostly dark, violent, abstract way, called chaotic, yet hold together by a beautiful energy to build a – non representative – form! This you see in an impressive large canvas of 2009 “The Possibility that Cannot be Shown”, where the “Possibility” means a painted void picture frame inside the canvas, while what is shown is a painted metaphor of the state of the “Possibility” before its passage to a form in our world.


The conflict between the Hun Dun and the Xian Xing, as far as the passage from one state to the other is concerned, has Zhong Biao occupied for several years not only in large installations but also in lots of single paintings, shown in his installation for the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione in Venice like an effusion from heaven, echoing the form of the cupola, yet as disintegrated fragments. And the relation of Hun Dun and Xian Xing seems to be still his theme in his newest works from 2014, canvases and large paper works.


Yet in these new works, based on complex mixed media processes, with a lot of technical inventions by the artist, there is a totally new sensitivity at work, a sense for the beauty of space and surface, colour and rhythm, a magic tenderness and breath. As if in a reality in between - subconscious or not yet revealed - we follow the non eruptive, but patiently slow-motion unfolding of form, Zhong Biao has all of a sudden discovered the poetic natural history of form, an enduring past that is even palpable in those forms culture can reveal in its own works.   

 

                                                       

Ursula Panhans-Bühler

Bern/Switzerland, June 30.th 2014

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