Over its long history, China has absorbed the influences of myriad cultures, from Central Asia, India and the Himalayas, Mongolia, and from the many nomadic races which have made periodic incursions. These influences have been incorporated into Chinese cultural quite fluidly, with later historians (seeking to preserve the idea of “The Middle Kingdom”) coming to refer to as “Chinese” the elements that sprang from what are in fact alien cultures. The Yuan and Qing dynasties, for instance, were founded by foreigners, while in the present century the Communist government looked to European philosophy for its definitions of culture.
Similarly, the objects of contemporary Chinese art that are flooding galleries worldwide exhibit little of authentic Chinese culture, but rather evidence a keen ability to make just what the market desires.
The explosive quality of art from China in the international art market, combined with old-fashioned Orientalism, explain the presentation of From Beijing to Atlanta, the exhibit currently on view at Whitespace Gallery. The attempt to place the works in this show in a Chinese context is largely marketing. As physical and cultural objects, they seem to have a far stronger relationship to the international art world than to Chinese culture.
The exhibition presents works on paper by three Chinese American sisters. While Hong Zhang and Bo Zhang are professional artists, Ling Zhang has chosen a non-art-world job and paints in her free time. The differing professions of the three sisters provide an approach to examining their work.
Since 2004, the paintings and drawings of Hong Zhang, who lives in Lawrence, Kansas, have utilized hair as a source and symbol. Three Graces, for example, comprises three charcoal drawings on long, narrow sheets that skillfully illustrate the Zhang sisters’ glossy, lengthy hair. These have a high sheen—charcoal on lush paper—and seem designed to emphasize the luster, flow, and silkiness of long, black Chinese hair.
The artist told me her reason for choosing hair as a theme relates to the special significance this physical attribute has for Chinese women: It is an object of power and an expression of personality. Some artists might consider the deleterious aspects of a cultural construction that encourages and values women who grow their hair to an extreme length (e.g., transforming women into objects/dolls, the impracticality of having hair that reaches the floor, etc.). Hong, however, pursues either very simple metaphors (e.g., hair drawn as a tornado) or purely sensual representation.
When an individual chooses to work in the same metaphor for a very long time, I wonder why. If the work is intended for the art world, I suspect the reason has less to do with the richness of the concept than with a sort of brand management.
Bo Zhang’s lithographic prints pair antique Chinese bowls (in color) with pieces of Western plumbing (in gray) on a white background. One is immediately reminded of Duchamp’s elevation of everyday objects to “art” status, a reference Bo acknowledges. The dichotomy between classic examples of Chinese porcelain with mundane bits of plastic is meant to convey cultural conflict: a beautifully hand-made bowl contrasts with repetitive, soulless PVC piping. The representation of these bowls in a litho print, however, seems to move them from the unique, antique pieces Bo intends to convey to the mass-produced, garishly-colored plastic ware that one finds in budget Chinese restaurants—a more likely association for most viewers in the West. That is, if she intended to present an object whose pleasure is its uniqueness, then why produce prints in frames behind glass? Intentionally or not, by virtue of operating in the art world the artist comes to occupy a place of similar tension between a unique cultural object and a thing repeated for the sake of commodification.
Ling Zhang’s paintings on rice paper have the common title Dream of a Butterfly and share common elements: Buddhist monks, butterfly wings, and Chinese landscapes from traditional painting. The title alludes to the well-known Taoist anecdote from Zhuangzi, who lived in the 4th century CE, in which the philosopher dreams that he is a butterfly, then awakens wondering: Was I Zhuangzi dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I in fact a butterfly dreaming it is a Zhuangzi? Ling shows Tibetan Buddhist monks with butterfly wings rendered in a soft, somewhat child-like manner. Her works are the most narrative and illustrative of the three, and her intentions are more immediately clear, as well as more philosophical and introspective.
She described to me her experience some two decades ago of visiting the Tibetan region and feeling drawn to the life of the monks there. She recognized the sharp divide between life as a monk and a life more actively involved with the material world: Buddhist monks discern that love and beauty are qualities associated with human desire, something that the religious renunciant seeks to move past. For individuals still enmeshed in the world of desire, a conflict arises when encountering spirituality as one realizes the divide between the sacred and the profane. (We also discussed the conflict between being an artist and making a living. Ling prefers to maintain a regular Monday-Friday job and pursue her art part-time, since being a full-time artist can in fact a kind of bondage rather than the freedom that many working artists claim it to be.)
To any viewer familiar with the art world, which places materiality, conceptualization, and trendiness at the top of a list of desired attributes, it is obvious that Ling does not operate in this realm. In this sense, she strikes me as the most authentically linked to Chinese culture of the three sisters. Her works proceed from a distinct experience within both the presently physical and perennially philosophical boundaries of the country, rather than seeking motivation from the international art world.
Jonathan Ciliberto is the editor and cofounder of Buddhist Art News, an online journal dedicated to reporting on Buddhist art, architecture, archaeology, music, dance, and academia.