By Gary Gang Xu
Reviewed by Paul Manfredi
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2014)
The book Zhong Biao: The Universe of Unreality by Gary Gang Xu promises a great deal and largely fails to deliver. The failure is less the fault of the author who—as I discuss below, is not actually an author—and more symptomatic of a condition of writing about contemporary Chinese art generally, and about the artist Zhong Biao in particular.
Zhong Biao (b. 1968) is a Sichuan artist born and raised in Chongqing. He is also currently a faculty member in the Department of Painting at the Sichuan Academy of Art, and owner (or lessee) of one of the largest studios in Blackbridge Art District in northeastern Beijing. Zhong Biao: The Universe of Unreality(Charta, 2013) is a work ostensibly about Zhong but is in fact at least co-authored if not largely composed by Zhong’s own autobiographical hand. The particulars of the book are as follows: an introductory essay; a series of roughly 150 reproductions of Zhong Biao’s paintings ranging from his work as a student at the China Academy to his most recent paintings (2013); an excerpt of forty-three entries from Zhong’s Zhong Biao Dictionary; some excerpted autobiographical writings; and a section titled “Biography,” a curious title, given the fact that it is a list of exhibitions ranging from 1990 to the present. Interspersed throughout are photographs of Zhong ranging from baby pictures to recent shots of him at work in his studio.
The fact that Gary Gang Xu did not write the book is clear enough from the book’s back flap which reports: “The book’s editor Gary G. Xu is a professor and art curator based in the United States” (italics mine). What Xu has done is to contribute the introductory essay and edit, translate and/or re-translate much of the material included in the volume. It is worth noting at the outset that Xu has done substantial and important work as editor and translator. While a significant portion of the material included in Unreality has appeared elsewhere in Chinese and even English, these are by far the best translations of Zhong’s writings that have found their way into English, and Xu is responsible. Moreover, the entire volume has been put together in a manner that is coherent and accessible, a huge improvement over previous English-language works on the artist.[ 1 ]
The major strength of the volume, apart from a convenient index—provided by Zhong—to an important selection of the artist’s oeuvre is in fact Xu’s essay, which by and large is very well written. In particular, Xu apportions an impressive balance of judiciously selected biographical information—childhood during the Cultural Revolution, early exposure to art and the study of painting, etc.—with information about the present-day Zhong Biao as a restless creator, innovator, and even philosopher. Xu’s willingness to take seriously Zhong’s process as an intellectual endeavor is evident throughout, and he is at pains to lend needed clarity to Zhong’s thinking about “deep time,” among other subjects, all the while elucidating in ways not explored in the extant literature just how Zhong’s ideas about the universe and his art merge into one coherent whole.
Xu’s regard for Zhong’s ideas is a bit too high, though, and he fails to step outside of Zhong’s rather powerful influence, something that would be necessary to in fact “[provide] comprehensive examination of Zhong Biao’s life and work” (back cover), as the book promises. Instead, Unreality is another occasion for Zhong’s own ruminations on art, life, and the essence of being. The disconnect between a book purportedly about Zhong and a book by Zhong is emblematic of much scholarship that attempts to analyze or even just describe Chinese contemporary art. It is a curious genre whose rhetorical features share much in common with academic writing, but whose actual context and function appear to obey the imperatives of art commodification within China and in the broader global marketplace. In writings about Zhong Biao this predicament is particularly acute, as can be seen in essays by veteran critics from the likes of Pi Li and even to some degree my own.[ 2 ] Xu’s book isno exception, as the final promotional blurb-like sentence of his introductory essay makes abundantly clear: “his youthfulness and innovative spirit augur more marvelous images for years to come.”
Part of the reason Unreality is so completely hijacked by the artist it purports to be about is because Zhong Biao is so generous with his own material and personal information, writing and re-writing himself grandly to the point of over-exposure, as his gallerists have been anxious to point out. Nevertheless, the Zhong Biao advocacy in Xu’s and other writings on Zhong does not entirely serve the purpose of inflating the market value of the artist’s work—a charge that might otherwise be leveled against faux academic writing cum propaganda machine. In fact, serious analysis of why an artist like Zhong feels so compelled to constantly puff himself up to ever higher degrees of grandiosity is a subject well worth pursuing but one not that is discussed in the book at all. And this is but one of the major lacunae inUnreality. The next would be some exploration of Zhong Biao’s social world. Like many contemporary Chinese artists of some success, Zhong now operates a “studio,” a word that means not only a physical space to work but also an expansive network of individuals collectively engaged in the production of his art. Appropriately, the “Zhong Biao Studio” t-shirts have just been issued, and are worn by his entourage at gallery openings and other events. The members of this network include former students, friends, and colleagues, people acting as cooks, framers for his works, drivers, exhibition installation specialists, and even painters. This network is, collectively, as important to the generation of any given Zhong Biao artwork as the artist is himself, and yet completely escapes Xu’s attention when discussing Zhong’s “universe.” Of course, in this respect the Zhong Biao Studio is not distinct from those of other artists active in China today. What does distinguish Zhong and his milieu from others, I believe, is the informal or even amateurish quality of the group, an impressive fact given the record of accomplishment in selling his artwork at home and abroad.
These gaps are unfortunate because it is clear that Xu is a good person for the task of taking the next step in researching an artist like Zhong Biao. Xu’s discussion of Zhong Biao’s intellectual orientation in particular is superior to anything that has been written so far in English or Chinese (much of the latter, while occasionally penetrating, is always on the order of short catalogue essays). Sustained inquiry into Zhong’s methodology as an artist, with his heavy reliance on digital photographs transcribed (usually with charcoal and then acrylic paint) and—since roughly 2005—ensconced in a wide array of abstract forms, could reveal a more profound vision than the crass commercialism with which Zhong is most typically charged. It could, in short, undermine the frequently encountered simple dichotomies of commercial versus serious or academic versus popular, which may be too narrow and inflexible for contemporary Chinese art anyway, at least in the case of Zhong’s work.
I say “could” because in my own mind this remains the greatest question where Zhong’s work is concerned. The fact of Zhong Biao’s talent, namely that he possesses superlative drafting ability and a very keen eye for uncanny juxtaposition, are not in question. Whether or not he marshals this talent to the singular goal of selling as many paintings as possible is the question yet to be addressed, particularly as his own theory of artistic expression could actually serve as a rebuttal to those who would accuse him of such crass commercialism. Xu’s work takes us no further with regard to answering this question. In fact,Zhong Biao: The Universe of Unreality is something of a step in the wrong direction. By choosing—or capitulating to pressure—to produce another glorified advertisement, Xu has in fact missed a chance to undertake the very analysis he promises.
Pacific Lutheran University
[ 1 ] The most prominent being the 2010 Zhong Biao, edited by Zhong Qing and published by Timezone 8 books, a work which is longer and contains more material, but is marred by poor translations and organization.
[ 2 ] See for instance Pi Li, “Visual Archaeology,” in Zhong Biao: Ubiquity (Shanghai: ArtScene China, 2004), pp 4-6; Manfredi, “Zhong Biao and the ‘Grobal’ Imagination,” Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 6/4 (2007): 72-83.