Propaganda messages are everywhere in China. Out in the countryside, the white writing on blue or red backgrounds congratulate villages on their low birth rates, promote growth targets or even promote gender equality. The message in a small alleyway in Wu Jiang, a suburb outside Suzhou, is a typical example: readers are commanded to ‘love your country and obey the law’. The entire message spans about three storeys. Yet in the strange logic of China, it doesn’t seem to stand out: years of accumulated dirt have transformed the words into something of a timepiece, just part of the daily semiotic pollution that comprises daily life.
When I pointed out the propaganda to Zhonghao Chen, the Kiwi-Chinese painter, he laughed. He’d never bothered to read the message before—or indeed even noticed it—even though he’d walked past it every day for the last few months on the way into his painting studio.
Following the death of his grandmother, Zhonghao cleared out his childhood home and transformed it into his personal art space, albeit one heavily suffused with the past. This is not a white box/New York Loft, filled with phantasms of metropolitan chic, but a very personal journey back into childhood and a very different China. Every morning, after walking up the stairs that he ran down as a child, he lights incense to pay his respects to his departed family members, drinks tea, and contemplates the state of his work. The bottom line of the message he never bothered to read, 敬业奉献 (‘hardworking and selfless’), sits just centimetres away from his paints, brushes, turpentine and air compressor.
There is a certain serenity up in the studio. The two main rooms are now dedicated entirely to Zhonghao’s practice, with canvases in various stages of completion lining the walls. He tells me that since his return he has been working twelve hour days or longer in the studio. He has abandoned regular mealtimes, instead keeping himself going with a diet of nuts and tea.
I personally wonder if he has been working off nothing but the smell of incense, turpentine and paint.
Yet for all the action of the studio, the conservatory overlooking the alley and the Suzhou skyline is an island of calm. After the grand tour, Zhonghao invited me to sit down, boiled the jug and set up two pots, two small drinking bowls and two narrow cups (‘just for smelling’). The smell of Tie Guan Yin, so familiar for those who have had it, washed over me and drifted out the window; taking the first sip of his tea, he explained that the conservatory is an antidote to the artistic frenzy that lay behind us.
Looking out over the alley I notice a few restaurants selling Suzhou style food, soupy dumplings, pork dumplings and fried bread sticks. Directly opposite are a few clothes shops and light construction stores. The nearby apartment blocks are poorly whitewashed if they are painted at all, and advertisements for ‘办证’ services (counterfeit certificates, diplomas and permits) are stencilled onto any available space. Private cars swerve around the old men selling fruit off the back of their tricycles, while the women who years ago would have failed to sell boot cleaning services now fail to sell cellphone accessories.
For me, the work Zhonghao displayed in Uncanny Valley, Phobia Phobic, was the high-point of the work he completed prior to his return to China. The painting represented an indistinct body in the moment of mortality; it was a work of abjection, in both senses. Yet I felt that the work shared more with the grand scale of representations of Greek myth than with the Chinese tradition of Shanshui (山水). Perhaps Zhonghao felt then that the scale of struggle and mortality is unrepresentable in the strictly Chinese tradition, which is aimed more broadly at freezing beauty and stabilizing it.
The work that currently lines the walls from floor to ceiling in his studio, however, seems to connect contemporary Chinese environments to Shanshui, its technology of representation. The works are more Chinese somehow, as water, mountains, and modern technology creep back into focus, sometimes in absurd and unexpected ways. One seems to feature an electronic box (television? DVD player?) sitting atop a river; another a bright, multicoloured swirling plastic object lauding over the landscape in flux. The Chinese sublime here meets the New Zealand cultural nationalist aesthetic—the Romantic sublime, perhaps—to construct a frightening, empty landscape that is at once a point of origin and a nightmare.
Design elements seem higher on his agenda here. They invade the work, setting up an antinomy between the finely crafted, high-brow painterly textures and the interpretive vacuum of designed blank canvas. Perhaps we are to shade the gaps with the accoutrement of consumer culture; promotional stickers, logos, price tags, packaging and so on.
Yet his new work is no formal game: these different artistic traditions are subject to the Zhonghao’s individual artistic consciousness, as he refuses to play simple intellectual or political games. Again, there is nothing to just get, it’s all there, awaiting our interpretive shading, refusing to simply resolve.
Zhonghao’s new work continues and updates those we have seen recently in New Zealand: again, he is again experimenting with bold colours alongside darker atmospherics, textures, blank canvas, and sometimes grotesque, indistinct figures. Yet he seems to have rediscovered the most paradigmatically Chinese aesthetic, but not as we know it. In his new art he seems to have found China anew just as he has returned the past; this is the work of a man who has spent much of his adult life in New Zealand, but is now beginning to more obviously re-engage with his artistic inheritance. He has found a country in the midst of another very different cultural revolution—explosive economic growth—that was only just beginning to take hold when he was first tall enough to see out the apartment window into the alley below.
对于我来说，钟昊在基督城国家美术馆的展览Uncanny Valley中的作品Phobia Phobic是他在回中国前所创造的作品中的一个新高度。绘画描述了一个在死亡时刻中无法确认的身体；从各方面来说，她都是一张充满悲剧的作品。同时，相比起中国的传统山水，我觉得这张作品更多地传递了古希腊神话中的悲伤和崇高的美。可能，这是钟昊对更加侧重于捕捉和稳定住静态美的中国山水作品中对表现存在的针扎与死亡痛苦的忽略和不足而感到的不满。
中国的崇高在这里与新西兰的文化国家主义美学崇高相遇：一种浪漫的崇高，可能 – 去构建一种恐怖的，曾经是初始点和噩梦的空洞山水