Desolate Flight
Source:Artintern Author:Lv Peng Date: 2008-11-20 Size:
 Zhang Linhai, Paradise, Oil on Canvas, 175 x 200 cm, 2004 It is very difficult to make out why certain images linger on one’s mind for many, many years. In Zhang Lin Hai’s works, we see a boy, flying, in various poses. We see him, and the "pluralized” form of him, in

 Zhang Linhai, Paradise, Oil on Canvas, 175 x 200 cm, 2004

It is very difficult to make out why certain images linger on one’s mind for many, many years. In Zhang Lin Hai’s works, we see a boy, flying, in various poses. We see him, and the "pluralized” form of him, in many series including Dust (2000), Joyful Time (2001), Radiant Sunshine (2002), Clouds (2002), Paradise (2003), and Reminiscent (2007). It’s a rather different view that Zhang wants us to see, not what we would normally expect. Through the boy, Zhang takes us from barren villages to urban cities and all the way to desolate nature. In this voyage we witness explicit emotions of melancholy, fear, and anxiety, summoning a deep sense of concern and compassion for that flying being.

Based on Zhang Lin Hai’s own description of his early years, his adoptive father carried him in a manure basket, all the way from a big city into the mountains of Tai Hang, into a small village in the Autumn of 1964. “The village was so tiny that if you were to sneeze in a nook, everyone could still hear you.” (Zhang Lin Hai, Accounts of the Past, 2002). Critic Li Xian Ting once talked about this place. He said that the natural scenes here are so beautiful that teachers and students from the Central Academy of Arts often come to do sketches.

“Whenever I see Lin Hai’s works, or even Fang Li Jun’s, I think of the mountain villages in She County. Houses here are built leaning along the mountainsides, layers upon layers. Resourceful villagers use local stones to make walls. Although the stones look wildly different from one another, the walls blend effortlessly into nature. Mountains here belong to the Tai Hang mountain range, and unlike those in the lush south they are bare with rocks. As a result, stone walled villages encased in the hillside fuse with nature and become one. And then, there are the rock-looking bald heads. Water scarcity and excess sunlight in this region explain why villagers here rarely shower and why most men shave their heads; at the end of the day, instead of washing their hair, they can just rub themselves down with a wet towel. Thus, rock walls and bald heads became a distinctive image of this place.” (The Dejected Sorghum – Li Xian Ting, 2002)

Up till 1986, the village and the mountains, had been Zhang’s entire world, and was his most fundamental form on his “blank sheet of spiritual paper”. The image and texture of our physical world could evoke any emotions. But, its propensity – whether optimistic or pessimistic, happy or sad - depends on one’s psychological and physical genes. In November 1967, “I was at the mercy of a fever, septicemia, emphysema, suppurative arthritis, and stomach dysfunction. Death was performing a soul seizing dance by my bed.” (Zhang Lin Hai, Accounts of the Past, 2002) In the hospital, no one called him by his name, because “everyone knew who ‘skinny kid’ was”. Sickness had an enormous impact on Zhang. It always reminded him that life is difficult and unhealthy. Upon returning home from the hospital in the spring of 1968, Zhang said: “I was staring at the hornets hovering around the roof beams in the day, listening to gongs and drums screaming and shouting in the night. My parents seemed confused and my personality was distorted, becoming morbidly sensitive. Though solitude was still a word too big for me, I had a taste of it as time passed by and the broom in the house turned into the friend I talked to. Maybe my inspiration and desire to draw were fostered then.” (Zhang Lin Hai, Accounts of the Past, 2002)

Now, we can see the third factor that has influenced Zhang’s way of observing the world: the cruelty of life. During the Cultural Revolution, even in a remote mountain village, people still couldn’t escape from harsh political struggle. As village intellectuals, his parents were the targets under dictatorship. In spring 1969, he saw his mother, after receiving the “dictatorship treatment” from the “Revolutionary Committee”, lying in bed, unable to move. He witnessed his father with “a pointy hat on his head, a wooden board around his neck, head pressed down low, staggering along in front of a mad crowd.” “When I saw this sacred sheltering fortress being trampled and invaded, the sense of loneliness and helplessness was nothing less than the end of the world.” (Zhang Lin Hai, Accounts of the Past, 2002)


One’s experience will not be rewritten simply because new definitions such as “Post Modern” came about. No one can evade the reality of physical being. By the end of the 1970s, people came out of the cruel dictatorship and regained the opportunity to relax and break away from the intensity. By then, Zhang’s health problems became the predominant factor that influenced his personality once again. Painting had always been his innate passion. He painted the world that he saw and imagined, even under severe physical pain. In the beginning of 1980, Zhang met three teachers: Shi Guo Liang, Zheng Jin Dong, and Li Nai Zhou. He then began his studies under Mr. Zheng in the Handan Masses Art Museum. He started sketching plaster statues and meeting his drawing ‘buddies’. Fang Li Jun was among them. Once, in 1981, during a sojourn at Beijing to pursue art, he visited Xu Bing. These teachers and friends provided the most propitious environment in which he continued to paint. In September 1986, Zhang Ling Hai enrolled into the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts to study engraving art. During his junior and senior years, Zhang made it into the 7th National Fine Art Exhibition and the National Youth Engravings Exhibition with his two bodies of work: The Strange Northern Mountains and Plains, and Preaching of Buddha.

Due to his poor health, Zhang wasn’t able to find a job after graduation. He had to undergo another operation in 1992, which was unsuccessful. “The ‘accomplishment’ of this failed operation was that for years I had limited mobility and was extremely weak. My spiritual world was on the verge of collapsing.”(Zhang Lin Hai, Accounts of the Past, 2002)

Zhang Lin Hai’s memory of these days is bleak and desolate: “It was 1992, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. I stood with my crutches on the balcony of my fourth floor apartment in rural Tianjin. Everything was quiet. I was a man without a job, with no income, no housing, and even my girlfriend has left me. As if in a trance, I climbed over the railings. With great effort, one of my legs managed to get across to the other side. It felt like throwing out a rotten tomato... Then in a flash, something hit me, something I could not give up, or let go. I only realised afterwards that it was the ‘painting career’ that I had devoted my whole life to. Having failed to kill myself, I began my early painting series - ‘Sound of Heaven’; colors were dark in the most sincere way, so dark that it’s suffocating.” (Zhang Lin Hai, Accounts of the Past, 2002)

In the following few years, Zhang Lin Hai recuperated, and suffered. Days went by with no sleep but plenty of hallucination. “I was utterly disheartened, sometimes I felt that my soul would escape from my body. The flying objects later on in the paintings were a recollection of this vivid retreat.” (Zhang Lin Hai, Accounts of the Past, 2002)

Now it is clear to us why images of painful, bleak, and desolate flying are present in Zhang’s works. In the Dust series (1992), we see details of the bright sky and houses in the village. We see bald heads as merely images of villagers. Zhang Lin Hai’s understanding of painting during this period was still simple, even though those dense, nonsensical, and repetitive bald heads make viewers feel uneasy. Just like Fang Li Jun’s bald figures during that time create a bizarre and evil ambiance. Then again, Zhang’s teacher Xu Bing emphasized the importance of repetition as a useful method in engraving art, and so the repeated rocks and bald heads remind us of the standard practice in engraving art works. In a piece from the Dust series finished in 1999, we see three exhausted boys. We know then, it’s the painter himself - bald young boys are no longer villagers. The painter understands his own situation: the sun is right on top, high noon, yet the mountains are quiet and people are exhausted. In another Dust piece of 2000, a “dust” in form of a human body struggles to fly. Through twilight moments, mountains, villages, and sorghum, the boy flies towards the horizon, towards the sinking sun. Nothing tells you how far the boy can fly. Looking at the painting, it seems that the boy in the front will be crashing into the sorghum fields very soon. The absence of expression on the boys’ faces does not bespeak a similar absence in the painter’s mood. The painful flight over a mountain village at sunset reveals everything.

We don’t know what Zhang’s life was like in 2001, but based on records, he held a solo exhibition in Beijing Hanmo Gallery in the fall of 1998, participated in the Tianjin Youth Oil Painting Competition Nominee Exhibition in 1999, and in the fall of 2000, he did another solo exhibition at Stanley Gallery, Shanghai. Zhang told us that in his Shanghai solo show, he exhibited three series: Narrative, Dust, and Drama. All thirty pieces were bought by private collectors and galleries. The same year, he started working with the Schoeni Art Gallery. And of course, these events didn’t happen in the sorghum fields in the mountain village. The artist, by then, had reasons to be happy.

In the summer of 2001, Zhang Lin Hai became a father, a turning point for him, allowing him to see the world and life in a new light. In a complicated mood, he completed both series - Joyful Time and Radiant Sunshine, avoiding the melancholic blue hues. However, on the earth of Radiant Sunshine, the flying boys are the same as the ones seen earlier. Only this time, the sorghum is grotesquely growing out of an imaginary borough. In Radiant Sunshine Series No.9, climbing on top of the window, the boy is looking out the window at the sea of bald heads. This unrealistic view is purely the artist’s imagination: something might be happening outside of the window or farther away. But the fact is, inside the room – which by understanding is a classroom - the fluttering feathers reveal everything about the other side of the window.

Sometimes, the artist becomes obsessed with the clouds that he used to see in the village. Zhang created a series titled Clouds. We can already see clouds in the Dust Series of 1992. These clouds hark back to the earlier “dusts”. In Radiant Sunshine Series No.9, clouds firmly float in the sky. In the Clouds series, sometimes the appearance of clouds is frightening; sometimes it is the excuse for not being able to come up with a conjecture; or, sometimes the clouds purely symbolise a hope which lures the boys to chase after it, in a goose-like flying formation. Just like in the Cloud Series No.2, further back in the dark, reflecting the setting sun, the clouds are extraordinarily beautiful. The flight, resembling that of wild geese, seems so magnificent. In this painting, old and arid villages are associated with glittering mountains. However, these mountains basking in the afternoon sun do not necessarily provide the viewers with a more gratifying sensation. This is because people have always harbored hopes of a better future. Rosy clouds in the horizon represent hopes of better days to come. At least images of wild geese evoked by the artist easily make us feel that way.

From Zhang’s works, past and present appear in front of us in a strange and transcendent form, whether they are depicted by red flags, towns and cities, or even the very familiar Tiananmen Square. In such an environment, the boy always seems to be lost, puzzled, frightened, and helpless. Often, the artist places thousands upon thousands of boys in his world; this, however, does not give the viewer added strength nor make him feel more secure. Under the influence of any evil force, and in the absence of perpetual guidance for the soul, all being is one, and one’s destiny is the fate of all. In Evening Bell (2004), at the most beautiful of moments - the last glimpse of sunset - the boy looks at the rest of his kind, bewildered. The mountain ranges, unique to the northern part of China, are breathtakingly captivating bathed in sunset, and the rosy clouds are so beautiful that it’s almost painful.

We all know that one’s destiny is one’s own responsibility. Instinctively, Zhang tries to show us what he has to bear through his paintings. Being someone from an arid village, with painful memories and bodily torment, Zhang has only one story to tell: the story of a dejected boy. We can certainly relate to what Li Xian Ting feels when he talks about Zhang’s paintings:

“His works have always been depressing and gloomy with a little bit of hope seeping through that darkness. We have all been there. When I was sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, my most heartbreaking moment was when I heard the whistle from an approaching train in the middle of the night. To me, as a young intellectual living in the mountains, that sound was my inexplicable connection with the outside world. A little touch of hope in my despair, or rather, this tiny touch of hope gave me the shattering despair.” (The Dejected Sorghum – Li Xian Ting,2002 )

Equipped with the modernism from the 1980s, Chinese painters are no longer restricted by ideology or perception. Zhang Lin Hai benefited from the concept of modernism and post-modernism that emerged in the 80s and 90s. He is simple and believes art is pure, so he was never concerned with the changing trend. He adheres to what he believes and expresses what he feels the most. It is precisely this same stubbornness that gives him the wings to fly from villages to cities, from present to past. In the Reminiscent series that Zhang started in 2007, the boy flies to a deserted ancient land. In the painting, what the artist was thinking no longer matters, the flying is so tenacious and so remote that it clearly conveys life’s innate irresistible force. However, as the artist expresses time and time again, what is to become of humanity? All living things are equal. Each individual’s fate may vary in form, but the end will always go back to the same. Despite the mournful beauty of the flight depicted by Zhang, it is desolation to the extreme.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo