Painting and the Times
By Wang Min’an
Though his paintings appear to be outdated, Zhong Nai never bothers to adapt to the times. He seems to accept only one truth about painting, probably the same one he has learned and held dear as a painting student. Judging by their appearances, his paintings are by no means contemporary as they all revolve around the 1980s. He lives in those times despite the many developments in contemporary artistic trends and various thrilling artistic experiments. He has never forsaken his initial experience as an artist in China, even after migrating to Europe. When the times change, people change as well, fearing that they may otherwise be left behind. Like all his contemporaries, Zhong Nai has experienced this change, in more aspects than just geographic location (from East to West) resulting from his migration. Amazingly, however, all of this has not altered his works. Although he divides his works into early and present, these two divisions are quite similar.
In some sense, Zhong Nai may be considered an immigrant or nomad. Nomads have no history, as is generally believed; they only have geography. As a nomad (immigrant), Zhong Nai does not reveal anything oriental or occidental in his paintings. His works do not contain typical Chinese elements, nor do they contain European ones. They do not contain traditional elements, nor do they contain contemporary ones. He is a unique artist that eliminates all temporal, geographic, and ideological traces from his works. When working with the same subject matter, many other artists always change themselves somewhat. They always try to twist some contemporary elements into their works so that they can resonate to the special style of the times. Thus, they adapt their works to the times intentionally or otherwise. Zhong Nai, on the other hand, does not follow their lead and says no to the contemporary times. He wants nothing to do with such times and geography. By eliminating history and geography, he has reduced the temporal element to zero for good.
How should we evaluate an artist like Zhong Nai who disregards the times? According to Nietzsche, “A philosopher should go beyond his times and become a timeless man, which is the lowest but also the highest requirement of a philosopher.” This holds true for Zhong Nai as an artist, for his works are truly timeless. He has no regard for his times and has gone beyond it, becoming a “timeless” man.
By “timeless”, we are talking not only about his style, but also about the elements in his paintings. A painting of him indeed captures a landscape, a plant, flowers, and grass, or some forest. Alternatively, it is a young girl with a blurry face vaguely hidden by a plant. We do not know where she comes from, but we notice that she has all the personalities a girl like her should possess: a little bit of melancholy, desire for love, loneliness, and sadness…This is the girl in Roland Barthes’ myth. The flowers and grass are exuberant, colorful, and full of life. These are characteristics of spring (and Zhong Nai simply names them as “Spring”) as well as what people imagine it to be; it is a look that best responds to human feelings (thus Zhong Nai names such works as “Feelings”). These plants (flowers, grass, and trees) are an expression or representation of both beauty and feelings. As for Zhong Nai, girls or plants never go beyond the form and shape they should take. They are part of a myth that humans have made over the centuries, and Zhong Nai reproduces them without any intention to change or modify. All other contemporary artists, however, are seeking to demystify the myth. While all are attacking or breaking away from beauty and feelings, Zhong Nai is maintaining and strengthening his myth, which seems somewhat out of touch with reality. However, when all are busy tearing down an old myth, are they not making a new one of their own in the process? Certainly, with the world of contemporary art based on experimentalism, a new artistic myth and convention have been created. Zhong Nai, on the contrary, upholds this old myth. It seems that he is unique and exceptional. By simply living by such myth, he thus isolates himself from contemporary art. He relates to his times by not changing, not experimenting, not keeping abreast of his times, and alienating himself from it all.
Where did Zhong Nai’ s style originate? Better yet, when did he develop his own style? Perhaps he had this style set and fixed from the very beginning – a style that is abstract but aesthetic and that seeks to mix the East with the West. Maybe its origins date back to the 1980s at a time when the blending between Eastern and Western cultures was being majorly discussed and carried out. His works can be said to have combined Eastern abstractionism with Western abstractionism and Eastern realism with Western realism. Probably owing to this hybrid feature, Zhong Nai’ s abstractionism does not derive from radical modernism, nor does his realism derive from realism in a strict sense. Instead, his style is moderate; it is as poetic as it is realistic. Whether in China or Europe, the 1980s or now, this feature of his style allows him to perform with ease. In his artistic pursuit, Zhong Nai has succeeded by persevering and refusing to change with the times.
By deviating from the times, won’ t Zhong Nai’ s paintings inspire people to think, “What on earth is the temporal trait of art?”
汪民安(文学博士, 首都师范大学教授, 博导)