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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Zhang Xiaogang "Amnesia and Memory"

Zhang Xiaogang
Amnesia and Memory
Water Color
38x29 cm

Acquired from the artist in 2009

To understand this painting, we must first pay attention to several key visual motifs: the truncated man's body, the traditional-bulb emitted white-light cutting a swath through the flesh-color, the notes on which the body sleeps, the wall painted half-way in green. These motifs all point to the 1980s. In China, the 1980s is a decade of cultural liberation when large quantity of books in Western philosophy, literature, politics, and economics were introduced into China and enthusiastically embraced by the Chinese college students and graduates despite the uneven quality in translation. It was also an important decade for Zhang Xiaogang personally: a struggling artist at that time, he drifted in Southwest China, fell in love as often as he got drunk, devoured Sartre, Kafka, and Kierkegaard, and almost died of a severe illness. These were his formative years: finally, after all these struggles, excitements, and existential angst, he grasped the fleeting serenity behind the surface of emotional disturbance. When he reversed the order, making the surface serene and flat and the disturbance deeply hidden, he created his "Big Family" masterpieces. While the "Big Family" series was the result, not the reflection, of his struggles during the 1980s, his "Amnesia and Memory" was the direct reflection on the 1980s.

I should note at this point that Zhang Xiaogang is never an artist of concepts: he does not simply co-relate certain concepts or issues with his artistic creations. He always begins with concepts, such as "family portrait" or "amnesia and memory," but he quickly goes beyond simple concepts. He conceptualizes and aestheticizes concepts. This notion becomes clear after we examine two seemingly excessive visual motifs in this painting.

The first excessive motif is the heart sitting on the chair at the top of the painting. The heart is connected to the truncated body, presumably keeping the body alive. This heart image does not correspond well with the previously mentioned motifs because it takes the painting out of the mimetic mode. The light bulb, the green wall, the notebook, even the truncated body, are still confined in the mode of mimesis: they do not venture beyond "common sense" or everyday things. But the heart, in its bizarre isolation from the body and its sci-fi arrangement, is no longer mimetic. To use a term from narratology, the heart is "diegetic": it "tells" instead of "shows"; it tears open a struggling individual whose only comfort is in the book he buries his face in; it tells a story of agony, of existentialist inquiry.

The second excessive motif is the camcorder sitting on a tripod. The camcorder is connected to an outlet on the light bulb. Well, the immediate reaction, upon seeing this image, should be "anachronistic." There was no mini-camcorder in the 1980s, at least not in China. Because of the anachronism, this camcorder instantly takes the time-setting out of the 1980s and into the present. Simply put, this camcorder is the tool by which the present-day artist observes himself in the 1980s. Time overlaps. Memories become layered. Amnesia becomes a palimpsest of remembering: erasing one layer to expose yet another layer.

The dialogs and tensions between the obvious (or straightforward or memetic) motifs and the diegetic motifs give this painting a profound meaning as well as a level of colorful and aesthetic harmony based paradoxically on the visual tensions.

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