Past Exhibitions

Zhang Xiaogang: Mayflies


Artist Zhang Xiaogang
Curator Li Jia

From March 4th to May 7th, 2023, Long Museum West Bund will be showcasing Zhang Xiaogang: Mayflies, the first exhibition to present the artist’s new paintings of the past three years. Zhang Xiaogang's artistic career and output have since made him one of the most important figures in the world stage of contemporary art. He has witnessed first-hand the socio-cultural transformation in China and the world over the previous decades, a phenomenon to which he has responded with keen insight and penetrating wisdom, producing visions that reflect this inconstant age and its coming future. His imagery zeros in on the intersections between the individual and the collective, the private and the public, imagination and memory, gradually exploring and remoulding these categories so as to inscribe the historical experience of generations into contemporary allegory, and giving it genuine emotive force and current relevance. This exhibition gathers over eighty of his works, which include oil on paper, oil on canvas, installation and preliminary sketches, with a view to presenting the artist’s commitment to expanding the limits of possibility in painting and his incisive response to the present situation as an individual caught in the tides of history.

A brand-new series of works, Mayfly Diary, forms the main line of presentation and narrative of the exhibition. Continuing his exploration of oil on paper since his solo exhibition in New York in 2018, the artist unleashes the expressive potential contained within the artistic medium with which we are most familiar, which produces the most emotive associations – paper. Its malleability and cultural properties have allowed him to delve into the ambiguous zones where the pictorial converges with writing and carving, thereby consolidating image, trace and narrative into a single immanent space.

Each artwork in Mayfly Diary is formed of pieces of hand-torn paper that have been subject to a complex process of recombination, puncture, engraving and dying. These allusive transformations impede the gaze’s natural desire to see through paper; they rob paper of its quasi-transparent quality as that which merely serves the artwork it sustains. Paper thus reveals its material and symbolic quality, its history as an artistic medium, and metamorphoses into a “supplement” of sorts to the very traces of writing, a physical extension of the painting’s narrative.

The seeds of the creative instinct that would culminate in Mayfly Diary – with its unique approach to medium, its continuous and cyclical structure, its confessional character, the dramatic conflict it presents between the real and imaginary in memory – were already visible in a piece Zhang Xiaogang created as part of his 1984 series, The Ghost Between Black and White. In this series of sixteen pencil sketches, the young artist transformed his daily experiences recovering from illness in hospital into a phantasmic dialogue, “the figures disintegrate almost into non-existence, describing their fleeting hold on being with a unique lucidity” (Jonathan Fineberg). These two sets of works, separated by almost forty years, will be presented together in this exhibition, acting by way of the reciprocity and dialogue between them as a point of reference for the path the artist himself and his life have taken.

The Stage and Light series, both of which consist of oil paintings on canvas, are another focal point of the exhibition. While echoing Mayfly Diary in terms of content, the paintings that make up these two series form a stark contrast with it in terms of size. Stage: Castle No. 3 takes on and develops the theme of unreal landscapes explored by Zhang Xiaogang in his work around 2008, incorporating partial elements from myth, imagination, fiction and reality into its six-metre-long canvas to reproduce that vast structure of recollection into which the passage of time shapes the inner lives of humans. The artist has described his role as more akin to that of an architect, attempting to piece together from various components a kind of spaceship, a remote world in which the vastness of epic and the disorder of absurdity co-exist to form a response to a well-known modern fable. Meanwhile, in his Light series, presented for the first time in this exhibition, Zhang Xiaogang has meticulously captured the images our era produces in the individual psyche, which he unflinchingly presents here in distilled, succinct form.

For painters today, to continue to paint means confronting the dual challenges of the historical avant-garde (and its “deferred action”) and the crisis of representation. In an age that blindly worships the “new” and routinely fetishizes the image, perhaps a painter’s only means of attesting to the significance of painting is through a practice of self-interrogation and restraint, a constant re-assembling of the conceptual apparatus that inform the expressive logic of the canvas. As a contemporary painter, Zhang Xiaogang continues to work in this more “traditional” medium to probe into and reveal the difference and togetherness, the fracture and intermingling, the poverty and potentiality of contemporary temporality. With his exceptional acuity and precision, he paints for us psychic images and landscapes of memory as they fold and overlap in all of us.

As the exhibition title Mayflies implies, Zhang Xiaogang sees the transience of human life as a brief flicker in the great movement of history. However, in this long night, people, small as we are individually, can still turn to the light of art for comfort and meaning in life. In this sense, we can see Zhang Xiaogang’s work as an earnest commitment to giving voice to human experience, stories and emotion, thereby preserving these ephemeral moments through his art. His work invites viewers to reassess how they look at the world, and through this to re-establish their relation to their inner life and the past, finding there new moments of truth. On the plane of his paintings, the real lives of innumerable people find their place, a place in which they are free to linger, unfold and see one another. 

About the Artist

Zhang Xiaogang, graduated from the Oil Painting Department of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1982, now lives and works in Beijing, China.

Since the 1990s, Zhang has resorted to a somewhat grim, introspective, and surrealistic artistic expression to convey collective memory and psyche characteristics of the time. The paradoxical representation and simulation of society, the collective, individuals, families, and bloodlines are in fact a reinterpretation through the lens of art, emotion, and life. Profoundly contemporary in nature, his works epitomize the intricacies deeply embedded in the Chinese context.

His works have been featured in international group exhibitions including Venice Biennale, Italy; Sao Paul Art Biennial (winner of the Bronze Prize in 1994), Brazil; Gwangju Biennale, Korea; Asia–Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Australia; and Shanghai Biennale, China. And he has presented solo exhibitions at prestigious art museums and institutes worldwide. His work is held in the collections of important public and private museums and institutes, including TATE Modern, UK; Center Pompidou, France; Deutsches Historisches Museum, Germany; MoMA, US; Queensland Art Gallery, Australia; Tokushima Modern Art Museum, Japan; Fukuoka Museum of Art, Japan; Shanghai Art Museum, China; and Long Museum, China.

About the Curator

Li Jia is an independent curator and author based in Beijing. She graduated from Peking University with a double major in Law and in Economics in 2005, and received a M.A in Art History from the same university in 2008.

Her recent curatorial project includes Meet You at the Corner! Dangxia Young Artist Award 2022 (Dangxia Art Space, Beijing, 2022), In the midst of it all (G Museum, Nanjing, 2021), Hometown Series No.1: Hai Bo’s Northland (Pingshan Art Museum, Shenzhen, 2020), A Geography of Resistance (Taikang Space, Beijing, 2019), Genders Engender (Taikang Space, Beijing, 2018), Precariousness (Hyundai Motor Art Center, Beijing, 2018), Day Light Pavilion Series (2016-2018) among others. She was awarded the first Hyundai Blue Prize (Creativity) for achievement in curatorial practice in 2017. Li is the recipient of the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) Individual Grant in 2020. Li is a regular contributor to Artforum, Leap and Randian. Her articles were also published in ArtAsiaPacific, Flash Art, YISHU, etc. 

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