Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Diamond in the Rough?
When I think of Shanghai, I think of colossal buildings that pierce into the sky as if Man desires to connect the sky and the earth once again. I think of waves of bustling people, trailing bicycles, rampaging cars, and fuming buses all clashing in the same environment to orchestrate a symphony of chaos. I think of immeasurable gaps between the wealthy and the impoverished. I did not think of art. When I see China, each time I only see the structural change of the city or the change and division in the living standard of the people. I never see art. However, this experience to M50 changed my impression of Shanghai. Hidden in the cusp of Moganshan Road, old factories that seem to have lost the care and favor of the city, old and broken, stand adjacent to traditional 2-floor Chinese buildings made from rotting wood and fragile brick. Decay and abandonment are all that reminds a passing pedestrian of this elusively small district.
However, the peculiar gathering of fashionable youths and foreigners to this seemingly desolate district arouses suspicion and interest, and the open coffe shop also seems misplaced. Stepping out of the cumbersome old warehouse lifts, the world opened up by the rusty old elevator door presents us with an entirely different atmosphere. Aesthetic works created by Chinese or foreign artists alike adorn the walls, branch across the floor, or cluster in rooms and corners of the warehouse. As a visitor I didn’t know if I felt more surprised by the hidden secrets of the warehouses or by each individual art piece present in the warehouses. To find contemporary art pieces that reflect emotional and intellectual struggle, understanding, and portrayal hidden in this quiet neighborhood is nothing short of finding lost treasure.
Of the artworks that we witnessed, none astonished me more than the works produced by Zeng Fanzhi. With strong brushstrokes and dark colors, Zeng Fanzhi collides colors and canvas. Each stroke he slashes onto the canvas tears another wound of ghastly beauty that pulls the audience into the aesthetic turmoil. Beyond the individual chaos of every stroke, a ghoulish image emerges from the dark colors and rugged outlines.
The picture of a female walking beside branching bushes and stretching grass forms from the depths and solidify into finality. Unlike other pictures that combine and contrast human and surrounding, the colors in this work create a hopeless darkness. Instead of a natural background of transcendence, in Zeng’s art piece, only abysmal darkness extends to the edges of the canvas. If the canvas does not trap the darkness, it would possibly shroud the audience with treacherous dismay. The grassy brush intensifies the despair of the piece and specifically of the female. Complimenting the darkness beyond, the bushes present only an agonizing sense of decay. As if each grass has a soul, they scream and rip at the canvas in desperation. Seemingly trying to escape inevitable suffering, Zeng masterfully slices the darkness with lone strokes of putrefied grass. As if trepidation caused by darkness is not enough to satisfy his apocalyptic presentation, the grass accentuates and extends this horrific sensation. The illustration of the lone female contrasts immensely with the rest of the picture. Dressed in a silky white dress with youthful pink flesh, the female is the only focus in the artwork that pacifies the tension of the environment. However, as the female is the only subject in the entire painting, her calm is only complimented by her solitude. Hiding her face from the audience, Zeng conveys to us the suffering and gloom that this female has endured and the faith and optimism that she represents by the lightening darkness left in her wake and the rigid darkness ahead.
Tragedy is beauty. Without knowing pain, suffering, sorrow, or grief, it would be hard to understand the struggles of others. Perhaps Zeng is trying to show the destructive history of China on the land and the people, to foretell of their persevering spirit. Or perhaps he wishes to exceed national and cultural borders and resonate his personal experience among humanity. Only Zeng Fanzhi himself knows. As a witness of his aesthetic despondency, I may only yearn for happiness and grip faith tightly.