Text by PAUL PAUL for the 2013 paintings of ZHONGHAO CHEN, MAY I SUBSTITUTE YOU WHILE YOU ARE AWAY shown at JONATHAN SMART GALLERY.
They say you’ve got the Beautiful River and the Ugly River, and the Ugly is better to look at. Maybe it’s because it’s more rugged.
– Hiking advice in Kahurangi National Park. 2013
Now that purple is put to use on our walls … there is no longer noble painting … Everything was better when we had fewer means… Now we only appreciate the richness of the material.”
– Pliny the Elder Naturalis Historia, Book 35. Circa A.D. 79
From under clouds of persistent drizzle, amongst the miles of concrete, stone, tiles and small plants, crackling gunpowder intermittently bursts a dour and endlessly flat spring morning in WuJiang. I ask if there is something special happening today. With mild scorn ZhongHao replies that whenever anyone wishes to celebrate anything these fireworks are set off, a rattling semi- militant punctuation that becomes just another meter of hometown monotony.
I could never decide if ZhongHao’s paintings were ecstatic, snowballing utopian illusions or fraught dystopias of terrific viscera. You might call them Heterotopias, Foucault’s substitution of the imaginary vanishing points of Utopia and shadowy paranoia of Dystopia for a tangible real site that brings diverse and dislocated spaces together close at hand; “Real places … something like counter sites… (where) all the other sites that can be found within the culture, are represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.”1 In these paintings I started to reconcile the gulf between the idyllic familiarity of New Zealand and the massiveness of culture
1 Michel Foucault, Other Spaces. 1967.
and industrial spectacle in China. They also bridged the disparities apparent within China, between cultures emanating from such a ferment of lives and the heavy industry and governmentality that frames them.
Our breakfast that morning in WuJiang was exquisite: bad roads, good conversation and guotie dumplings among worn canals and whitewashed soviet-style housing blocks of WuJiang’s precarious old sector. Our steamy breath mingling with the billowing kitchen vapors, drawn out to the open street and up through balcony fingers that hang with perpetually damp laundry. Circuitous, elbowing, undulating alleys that had acquired a lifetime of movements, cement ramps built over steps like poorly decorated cakes, windows hacked out where views were wanted, bricked up where others encroached. ZhongHao points out his childhood home, its empty turquoise windows looming over the canal, the tale of an old ghost hand still knocking about within. In another of these apartments is ZhongHao’s studio, converted from the tiny residence once belonging to his grandparents. The stairwell is patched recently with white paint over the stenciled phone numbers of countless plumbers and electricians, though now showing the first signs of a new bloom of digits. At the top corner of the studio door is a tiny aged plaque
declaring citizens. elsewhere The whole of years.
that behind this door resided dutiful, civic-minded
The residents of these blocks have been offered housing and most have left except for a few literal die-hards. area is scheduled for demolition within the next couple
Some sites, for instance the cinema house, have waned in cultural prominence in light of new technologies, while others such as the mirror, have surprisingly withstood these developments without loosing any allure. As for painting, a friend who is a film director once told me he thought painting was now becoming more relevant than film. I was surprised when he spoke about it in terms of access and popularity, saying, “The problem with a film is you have to get people to sit down for two hours, take two hours out of their day. That’s hard. But a painting doesn’t demand anything like that. It can tell you everything instantly, or you can spend the whole afternoon with it.” Painters understand the flattening of spaces things and time to such a degree that the increase of screens isn’t necessarily their antithesis. However, what painting adds to the mix is a sense of material.
Probably the thing most pressing about China is its mass. Backstage of the supposedly immaterial information age is a whole nation where computing is explicitly linked with heavy industrial process. The forty minute bus ride that links the satellite suburb of WuJiang and Central SuZhou drives through miles hard reality in the form of live-in industrial complexes where iPhones and various other Hi-tech is manufactured. Accompanying all this production is perhaps an even more pressing sense of transit, movement of unfathomable weight. This revealed something in ZhongHao’s painting
that I’d not fully comprehended before. The life of these landscapes – always in motion, pouring, sometimes racing with futurist elan, swallowing and spitting up, pulled together from disparity. Where smaller bodies appear they too are streaming or swept by action, while larger ones loom like warehouses, masses where other masses pass through.
The conditions of industrialization are not of course exclusive to China. Though industry may be experienced more at a remove in New Zealand today, as a colonial resource mill this past is evident to enquiry. For me there were moments in China where a kind of stilted, well-synchronized singlemindedness reminded me uncannily of the manners of my grandparents, a shared mindset from an age before de-industrialisation and de-regulation in New Zealand shifted life toward the more middle-class experience of my parents generation. Today, as high-end developers vie to convert the remaining spaces of quaint artisanal ‘old towns’ into boutique malls of ersatz vintage, the next site reclaimed as cultural grist clearly shifts to the industrial. Within the reworking of Christchurch, the recent move by Jonathan Smart Gallery into the old industrial back-lots of Sydenham simultaneously nods to its history and introduces the question of gentrification for sites of former industry. Here ZhongHao’s painting might offer, as it has for me, a site to collide the disparities between locality and abroad.
Back to WuJiang, inside ZhongHao’s studio there is an old dining room littered with books and some chairs, paintings hung low and paintings hung high out of sight. There is a bathroom that won’t close and a kitchen separated from the dining room by a finely squared cupboard unit that ZhongHao is wanting to save, painted in the Pthalo green tones intimate to wooden structures of a particular era across China. The two larger rooms overlook the street through grimy panes, dripping cold in winter, tin hot in summer, one filled with finished paintings, the other for those
still in progress, watched over by a portrait of the building’s old occupants. Outside looks upon the antique tiled roof of a tiny low-
lying building filled with cellphone shops across the street. To the right and a few storeys higher is a smokestack that has blasted an adjacent building with a mushroom silhouette of shining black pork grease. ZhongHao puts on tea and we talk about painting.
ZhongHao says he has been reading about James Ensor and experimenting with the colour purple. The mythology of purple and its synthesis has a strange resonance with these paintings and the times they are product of. When first extracted from nature, ancient Tyrian Purple was squeezed from thousands of small mollusks for only a few grams of prized dye, as a concrete symbol of material excesses2. Aniline Purple, the first mass-manufactured synthetic dye, became so pervasively used during the 1890’s that the
decade is now known as The ‘Mauve Decade’. Coincidentally, it is also the decade James Ensor is most active, involving himself with the Les XX group and the masquerades of the ‘Dead Rat Ball’. The accessible mauve of new wealth stripped purple of its previously rarified connotations and became synonymous with the decadence that masked the terminal social ills of nascent industrial society. It’s hard to now imagine an entire decade so saturated by a single colour, lost at the far reaches of fledgling colour photography,
the mauve we know today – a sort of muted, reddish shade of purple – became such only as the shocking magenta violet of the Aniline dye faded over the years. As the ancient status marker dissolved and became a signifier of its own synthesis, purple undercut the attributions bestowed to it and became free to withdraw from value altogether. Wassily Kandinsky describes this move in a studious natural science of the dimensions of purple:
Violet is red withdrawn from humanity by blue. But the red in violet must be cold for the spiritual need does not allow for the mixture of warm red with cold blue. Vermilion is quenched by blue, for it can support no mixture with a cold colour. More accurately speaking, such a mixture produces what is called a dirty colour, scorned by painters of today. But “dirt” as a material object has its own inner appeal, and therefore to avoid it in painting is as unjust and narrow as was the cry of yesterday for pure colour. At the call of the
Derek Jarman, Chroma. 1996.
inner need that which is outwardly foul may be inwardly pure, and vice versa.3
The “withdrawl” of purple has a mystifying air, but of all colours, purple can be also the most like dirt. Working within a ‘dirty’
palette, exemplified here by both Ensor and ZhongHao, you can recognize the very material quality of painting. What’s great about this kind of painting is that it throws up the basic materiality of the human condition, which I find as a welcome counterbalance to the ubiquitous immaterial visions of culture at large. “It’s about how you materialize” is something I have often heard ZhongHao mention in regard to his paintings, which says it all really.
After we finish at ZhongHao’s studio we go out to dinner at a featureless white box of a restaurant, almost identical to that of
another night, fronted by glass and condensation. We order two enormous plates, one stacked high with scarlet freshwater crayfish (The city of Nanjing is said to consume six tons a day) while from another rises a tornado of small crispy fried eels. We each don a pair of enormous plastic gloves and begin picking, talking and smoking our way through the morsels – exoskeletons, viscera, tissues and cigarette butts all dropped down to the tiled floor. The table next to us is breaking like a storm of yelled conversation above an atoll of garbage. A party member falls off their low plastic chair, smashing a bottle, which causes the table to erupt into a volcanic peak of laughter. The floor-staff are visibly repulsed and the matron begins yelling at the table. The table yells back. The floor-staff begin scuttling about, their pliant scratchings dissipating the bad air. When we arrive back at ZhongHao’s family home we take off our shoes at the door, slipping into thick soled blue and khaki plastic clogs. Before we take the stairs up to our rooms we change clogs again for the upper floors. We sleep very well.
Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1914.