Connecting Chinese Artists to the World Has Always Been a Hope of Mine…
Series: Leading the Way
“Going to the world means to interact with different races, cultural backgrounds, generations, so you wouldn’t merely think about Chinese, or China, or the small circle you are in, but to have a global point of view, and the ability to create art in an “international language”. — — Xuewu Zheng
Meet Mr. Zheng
Mr.Zheng is an international artist and curator. He is among the first group of professional artists in China. In the 1990s he became a contracted artist at the Red Gate International Gallery in Beijing, and later he was invited to the University of North Carolina as a visiting professor. While being a professional artist, Mr.Zheng is now running an international artist residency program in New York, helping Chinese artists to connect with the world.
Fell in love with Printmaking
I started my professional career as a printmaker, but strictly speaking, I was not trained to be a printmaker because I studied graphic design in college. The art college I went to was on the upper floor of a printing factory and there were always print block letters randomly scattered on the ground. I found them really beautiful and fell in love with this almost 900-year-old traditional block printing technology — movable type printing. Though block printing has long been replaced by electronic publication, it is super interesting to use this method to create printmaking art.
Printmaking is very simple. It is nothing but “printing and making”. No matter it’s characters or pictures you carve, they are all considered printmaking, like traditional Chinese seal is also a miniature print. Printmaking came into existence as early as the invention of book printing in China. The copper printmaking and lead printing invented by Westerners later also has its origins in China.
Modern Chinese printmaking has only a short history. Since the time when Xun Lu introduced the western woodblock prints to China, the style of printmaking had been largely influenced by socialism. From the 1960s to 1980s, there were various printmaking groups with strong political purposes (against Japanese invasion or celebrating the founding of New China); all the art forms then were at the service of the country, the party, and the society, meaning that there was no such thing as “pure art”. From the 1990s to now, the development of Chinese modern art has become relatively healthier — a new image and new momentum has emerged.
Went to Beijing and Became a Contracted Artist
After I graduated from college in the 1990s, I first worked at Harbin University for a year as a teacher and then went to Beijing. Modern art and avant-garde culture were new in China then, actually it’s still new today as it’s only about 30 years since it emerged in China. At that time I and my peer artists often met up at the Summer Palace and it became a meetup spot for most of China’s earliest professional artists.
Among these artists who were trying to make a living in Beijing, I was lucky enough to be a contracted artist at the Red Gate International Gallery, China’s first foreign contemporary art gallery founded in 1991 by Brown Wallace (an Australian). It is revered in the art industry as it facilitated Chinese contemporary art to go onto the international stage. At that time, it represented about eight to ten artists and I was one of them. We held exhibitions regularly every year and that was when I had the opportunity to get in touch with some foreign collectors, critics, curators and so on.
Journey into the Western World.
I and my peer artists experienced different periods and various artistic activities in China through the early 1990s to around 2000. We were the witnesses and participants of the formation and evolution of Chinese contemporary art. Through the international gallery we were recognized by many collectors from the United States and other Western countries. Later, some professors from the University of North Carolina came to China to collect my works and invited me to teach as a visiting professor at the School of Fine Arts. Since then, I started traveling to the U.S. every year to give lectures and exhibitions in different universities and museums.
There were a lot of constraints in China then, which set barriers for creating art as a freelance artist, so I decided to move. It wasn’t easy when I first arrived in America, but again I was among the lucky ones who got to collaborate with local galleries at a relatively early stage. Referred by a Swiss critic, I established a long-term collaboration with an international gallery in New York which specializes in modern Asian art.
Dance of Dragon
The largest exhibition I held in the U.S. was an exhibition about Beijing's contemporary art — the Dance of Dragon. The exhibition was held at North Carolina University and lasted about 3 to 4 months. It was a very successful exhibition. Many people came from other cities and there were about 20 artists who exhibited their work and four or five of them sold their works. There was one piece, a picture of Beijing Olympics and London Olympics, that drew a lot of attention locally. A lot of people went to watch it and I got great feedback from the university.
I was surprised at how much Americans were willing to invest in art, and how much they valued Chinese art, like for this exhibition, they paid a lot for the artwork transportation and insurance, and they provided nice hotel accommodation for the participated Chinese artists, which impressed me very much. Also during the exhibition, the audience was very attentive when I was introducing the Chinese artists and their work.
International Residency Program
Now besides being a professional artist, I also run an artist residency program. I started doing this because I myself benefited a lot from such programs when I just started my career and I want to help other Chinese artists as well. I can still recall clearly the first program I attended. It was about 20 years ago, I left China for the first time for the program at Vermont Art Center in the United States. It was the largest international residency program in the U.S. at the time, gathered about 60 artists including painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, and writers. We learned about and from each other; it was an eye-opening experience for me and made me realize how great it is to open up myself to the new possibilities unlocked by different ideas.
Currently, you could see only a few Chinese artists participating in contemporary art activities through international residency programs. I want to help Chinese artists, especially those who have the desire to broaden their views, to come outside the circle, to go to a bigger world to learn, and to become international artists. In the past five or six years, I have helped almost 200 Chinese artists come to New York. For some it was their first time in the U.S., and for some it was their first time even going abroad. Through the program, many artists had their first solo exhibition abroad, and they also attended others’ exhibitions at local museums and galleries, getting to know how international residency program works, how to learn from others with a humble and open mind, how to have in-depth conversations, and how to understand the world through the window of New York.
Connecting Chinese artists to the world has always been a hope of mine and I’ve worked a lot on it, but it’s difficult to make a real impact by working individually. We need more people to take part in this.
If Mr. Zheng hadn’t come to the U.S…
Art-wise, actually there wasn’t any dramatic change in my ideas about or style of art after I moved to the U.S., nor was there any particular re-adaptation or self re-positioning, because I already saw myself as an international artist when I was still in China. Being here is just getting closer to the so-called world center of art so I get to see more and learn more.
But there are significant changes happened with how I view the world. If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t think or understand why international communication is such an important thing — it connects people from every corner of the world, crossing the barrier of time and space, allowing people to know things that are happening outside their own area. What’s most important is the change of mindset — I would no longer arrogantly think what we have, including the history and culture, is the best. Going to the world means to interact with all different races, cultural backgrounds, generations, so you wouldn’t merely think about Chinese or China, or the small circle you are in, but to have a global point of view, and the ability to create art in an “international language”, so you could articulate yourself and get recognized by others.
“I’m always exploring to find an international language.”
I’m always exploring to find an international language to present my work, to let the audience understand me as a Chinese artist, or as an international artist from Chinese cultural background. I think the best kind of art is to express your own thoughts and ideas about art, meanwhile possessing your cultural inheritance. In this way, the art will not be bland. For example, the abstract art, which might be just some color or a hole, but it’s not as simple as it seems — it invites people to feel the cultural heritage, cultural emotion, and maybe religious ideas, philosophies, and traditions.
As China is drawing more attention on the international stage, there seems to be an increasing interest in using Chinese symbols/elements/concepts in art, design, commercial, etc., what’s your perspective?
I’m not optimistic about or expect Chinese artists or artists with Chinese cultural background to play “too much” with Chinese elements or symbols in the art field. I even think the concept of “Taking Chinese art to the world” is silly to some extent. If one was born and raised in China, growing up under the influence of Chinese history and culture, it is a natural thing for them to incorporate or intentionally present something Chinese in their art. However, to typicalize Chinese style with simple symbols and make a big deal out of it in the international art world, I don’t think it’s really about art anymore. Of course, there is nothing wrong about using Chinese elements to express an artist’s personality, personal style, and personal artistic language, but whether to use them is not necessarily relevant to whether an artwork is “higher” or “lower”, nor does it necessarily prove Chinese culture is more recognized now.
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