Zhu Laoshi: Zhu Jinshi, An Education
The Chinese honorific term laoshi (老师), meaning ‘teacher’, best encapsulates my thought-provoking meeting with the renowned Chinese-born, Beijing-based contemporary painter and Xuan (rice) paper installation artist, Zhu Jinshi (朱金石), over WeChat earlier this year. Zhu is a practitioner of Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism – which, he explained, necessarily “refuses any methodology, even any literal explanation or writings” – and this context deeply influences his work. Yet his responses to my questions were rich in reflection and generously proffered, revealing moments of great insight into the mind of a leading, internationally-established figure in the Chinese contemporary art scene and former member of the radical Stars group (1979-1983).
Today, Zhu is most widely recognised for his thick, solidly daubed abstract oil paintings. Interestingly, though, he actually attempted to sever ties with this aspect of his practice earlier in his career (shortly after moving to what was then West Berlin in 1986 and becoming heavily influenced by German Expressionism), as a counteraction to what he viewed as the inexorably Eurocentric basis of the abstract art movement at the time. Instead, he made an important decision in 1988 to switch medium and begin working with perhaps one of the most ancient and explicitly ‘Chinese’ of materials: Xuan paper. Made from the tough bark of the Tara Wing-Celtis or Blue Sandalwood tree and rice straw, the pale white material is an early form of paper that matured during China’s Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and can be folded repeatedly without breaking. It received UNESCO protection in 2009.
For Zhu, “concept is synonymous with material” and “to find a material and translate it into a language is a quality that an artist must possess,” he told me. The decision to begin working with Xuan paper, with its historical ties to the Chinese literati traditions of writing and painting, was therefore very significant. Laced with his own understanding of Chan Buddhism, his work seeks to find “solution in destruction” – the very core of Chan. Hence the misleadingly plain Xuan paper, Zhu explained: “destroy the Eastern tradition with [traditional] Xuan paper; challenge the West with [Chinese] Xuan paper.” (Throughout our conversation, Zhu was keen to draw a distinction between what he perceives to be ‘Western logic’ and what he described as his “Eastern Chan Buddhism mode of thinking.” In this way, Zhu’s work skilfully collapses meaning.)
During the 1990s, Zhu’s practice grew to include performance, video and photographic works. It wasn’t until he moved back to China that he returned to painting in 2000; developing an extreme impasto technique that means his thick, sedimentary oil compositions can each take up to 20 years to completely dry, accruing by extension an aged ‘patina’ akin to that of Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) porcelain ware, as Zhu describes it. The abundant differences between his two primary media (Xuan paper and oil paint) are, for the artist, decidedly confrontational; though Zhu actually finds this self-imposed historical provocation between materials, writ large across his oeuvre, relaxing, he tells me.
For his installation Wuchang (1996), Zhu purchased 500 dao of Xuan paper (a dao being a Chinese classifier for sets of 100 sheets of paper) – probably the most significant order placed at Beijing’s famous Liulichang art materials market in a century, he conjectures. Zhu estimates that this quantity of the material is probably around the amount that 100 traditional Chinese ink and brush painters of the past would have used over the course of their entire artistic lives. Composed of countless neatly arranged stacks of rectangular Xuan paper, piled to varying heights, there is an air of the geophysical to Wuchang. Its sparsely coloured, densely populated layout feels reminiscent of the excavated foundations of a ruined temple – divided into two ‘rooms’, with what could be a narrow walkway in-between, leading to a small, water-filled Song dynasty bowl positioned on the floor.
Though an impressively monumental expression of his creative intent, the artist now views Wuchang and other of his earlier Xuan paper works, such as the colossally-feathered The Tao of Xuan Paper (1997), as relatively elitist and self-oriented for how they deliberately rebuffed outside translation or rational explanation. Nevertheless, viewing images of Wuchang and The Tao of Xuan Paper (a tall, solid cylinder of crumpled Xuan paper, almost resembling a grossly distorted, elongated beehive, which spanned multiple stories of the Vancouver Art Gallery) more than 20 years after their conception, I find myself marvelling at their unadorned spiritual potency. Both command the spaces in which they are presented – and my retrospective gaze. While I may not be privy to the intended ‘meaning’ behind either work, the silent reverence that they reputedly drew from audiences is palpable.
By contrast, Zhu’s more recent Xuan paper installations, including the nautical-themed, world-travelling Boat (2012) and The Ship of Time (first edition, 2018) – both catalysed by the enthusiastic support of Pearl Lam Galleries, a driving force within Asia’s contemporary art scene – are more accessible; quite literally enveloping the viewer in a deeply immersive, highly visual sensory experience. Zhu recalls how some visitors actually meditated inside Boat, and commentators have described cocooning themselves inside one of Zhu’s maritime sculptures as a profound spiritual experience; Pearl Lam even going so far as to describe it as akin to a personal enlightenment. It still remains hard to determine the exact ‘meaning’ behind these works, however. Do they invite dialogue on notions of cultural exchange? An artistic, spiritual, physical or symbolic journey? Zhu prefers for viewers to draw their own conclusions – “the Chan Buddhist idea is for everyone to find their own answer,” he explains, adding; “maybe because of this, [Chan] is closer to aesthetics”. Themes of time and moon-regulated tide certainly appear to provide key ‘jumping-off’ points, though.
The monumentality of Zhu’s Xuan paper installations has also grown alongside their accessibility. The Ship of Time, larger than Boat, but dimensions variable, required 14,000 sheets of Xuan paper, 1,800 pieces of fine bamboo and 2,000 cotton threads, each seven metres in length, to create. In preparation for its first presentation in Beijing, Zhu’s team travelled to the ancient village of Xiaoling (part of Xuancheng city, after which Xuan paper is named, in Jingxian, Anhui Province, China) in order to develop a special fireproof variety of Xuan paper and select bamboo pieces during summer 2017. Zhu’s studio has been doing this since 2012, before which time the artist had no detailed understanding of how Xuan paper was made. Since Beijing, the piece has also travelled to Melbourne, where it is presently docked at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and took 20 assistants, plus Zhu’s own brother, over three days to install.
Zhu’s own affinity with the material is clear. He is showing two new colossal Xuan paper works this year, Wave of Materials (2019) and Moonlight Back-to-Back (2019), at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) and Jining Art Museum in Shandong Province (China) as part of the latter institution’s inaugural exhibition, ‘Spirit of Ink Art’. Discussing Moonlight Back-to-Back, Zhu tellingly reflected that, although Xuan paper had not yet been invented during Confucius’ (551-479 BCE) lifetime, his inspiration in making the work stemmed from Jining Art Museum’s close proximity to Qufu, the great philosopher’s birthplace and home. “Somehow,” Zhu has been quoted, “I felt…[Confucius] is connected with Xuan paper.” Stretching the material’s potential spiritual, symbolic, intellectual and expressionistic potency back millennia in this way, the installation mastermind has created new space(s) for contemplation.
So, what is it about Xuan paper? Any answer to this question must be rooted in the very Chinese-ness of the material and its tactile, ‘blank-canvas-like’ qualities. Its rich cultural history in Zhu’s home country, alongside its extraordinary ordinariness. For me, it is also about feeling and feelings (your own, as Zhu emphasised; not the logically-deduced conclusions imparted in accompanying gallery interpretation). Disarmingly unembellished, it is possible to project a vast range of thoughts or emotions onto the work – Zhu has simply suspended and literally wallpapered an ideal, protective, cloudlike dreamscape in which to do so. These titanic installations privilege a degree of privacy as you individually travel through them, while telescopically magnifying the fabled light at the end of the tunnel for each and every entrant.
The Ship of Time is currently on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, as part of its ‘A Fairy Tale in Red Times: Works from the White Rabbit Collection’ exhibition (on until 6 October 2019). Wave of Materials is installed in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum for the duration of its ‘The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China’ exhibition (until 5 January 2020).