Nightmares of Childhood
Source:Artintern Date: 2008-10-08 Size:
——A Dialogue between Li Xian Ting and Zhang Lin Hai Li: It's the image of rows and rows of baldheads in your paintings that capture my attention in the beginning. The baldheads in your paintings, as well as Fang Li Jun's, are associated with the days in She County. It is a visual memory

——A Dialogue between Li Xian Ting and Zhang Lin Hai

Li: It's the image of rows and rows of baldheads in your paintings that capture my attention in the beginning. The baldheads in your paintings, as well as Fang Li Jun's, are associated with the days in She County. It is a visual memory that is hard to be erased. However, the feelings conveyed are very different in that Fang's "baldheads" carry a touch of humour and sarcasm, whereas your "baldheads" symbolise pain and suffering from the painful memories of your childhood and adolescence. Yet, it is more than just the memories of childhood that have been haunting you like a nightmare leaving you feeling unsettled and restless. In some way your art is an attempt to provide relief from these nightmares. Your pictorial language contains several elements. The first one is the barren hills with rolling dark clouds overhead, representing the place where you spent your childhood and therefore producing symbolic feelings. The second element is the closely packed rows of baldheads, as they could be closely packed sorghum plants that only look like baldheads. The third element is the person who is always distinctive in that either he is brooding amongst the crowd, looking in a different direction than the others, or flying away from the crowd. He is always different from the rows of the baldheaded crowd... Is that person supposed to be you? Or is it a kind of psychological state projected by you? Does it point out your certain views of life? You always yearn to leave this place...(laughing). I remember a paragraph in an article I wrote about you earlier and it went like this: your works "are permeated by a sense of boredom and melancholy that is unveiled by the hope within. Each one of us has had such an experience before. When I left the city and joined a production team in the countryside, the most heartbreaking moment was when the trains would whistle deep in the night. It became a strange link between the outside world and me, creating a tiny bit of hope against despair. Perhaps this tiny bit of hope made the feeling of despair even stronger .?

Zhang: Yes.

Li: Can you explain in detail how your visual language is formed? The rows of characterless baldheads are an important vocabulary of yours. Also, please talk about the relationship between that distinctive person and the mountain village environment.

Zhang: The rows of baldheads come from the idea of the somewhat special education we have from a tender age. Each person seems to have come from the same mold. We are taught to act and think in the same way. There is no need for special thoughts, and it is better still to have no special character traits. I am kind of a rebellious person, but my rebellious sentiments are not backed by much force. This is why my paintings always feature a unique baldhead depicted in a different posture. It's certainly a reflection of the state of conflict I am in - whether to be someone with a distinctive character, or to be drifting with the mainstream. I am often still trapped in this kind of conflict. Another factor is the desire to leave that dreadful living environment - you just talked about the train whistles, whenever I heard this sound as a kid, I considered it to be the most beautiful and touching sound of all. (Li laughing.) It's true. Just like you, I thought the whistles could take me to another space, as if the sound itself provided a link to the outside world; it can reduce or extend space infinitely. These train whistles have a special meaning for me. Afterwards, when I moved to the city, I especially wanted to live near the railway. The back of my house in Tian Jin was actually on the railway itself. When I moved to Sung Zhuang painters' village I heard very few train whistles.

Li: Then you are not old enough, or you have not had enough of the buzz of cities and the boring competitiveness. I have spent most of my life in cities. Now, I like to stay away from the buzz of cities.

Zhang: Perhaps. But I still feel intensely when I hear the sound of train whistles. Maybe it's a kind of nostalgic hang-up from childhood.

Li: When did you learn that your adopted parents brought you from Shanghai to the village?

Zhang: When I was small, I heard the village elderly reveal a few words in their discussion. However, I could not understand what they said and dared not ask my parents. I didn't know the truth until I was 15 or 16 years old, my elder sister told me the truth. Yet the details of my biological parents are still an enigma to me... but it is no longer important.

Li: But this may be very important in my understanding of your works. I've noticed that you have written "Shanghai" as the "Place of Birth" in your resume. This enigma, as you described it, is like an unresolved nightmare haunting you. I believe it provides some hints in understanding your works - your personal tragedies brought you to this small mountain village. You were born in Shanghai, therefore you did not belong here. So where do you really belong? It's another enigma that cannot be fully understood. Spiritually speaking, since the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese culture has been constantly in the process of breaking up, and losing faith. To each one of us, the spiritual homeland has become an enigma that can never be fully resolved.

Zhang: Yes.

Li: I've lived in She County for more than half a month. When I see your paintings, I will remember the mountain villages of She County. The village houses are built along slopes, layer after layer. The walls of the houses are made of local materials with stones piled up together. Unlike the hills in the South where there is a lot of greenery, the hills here contain mostly barren rocks. The villagers fit well with the barren slopes. Water is sparse on the mountain and the sun is strong; washing is a luxury. Most men will keep their heads shaved, so that after work, there is no need to wash your head. This is why the stony walls and the baldheads have become distinctive images of the area. Is the symbol of the baldhead related to the environment you grew up in, as well as those stones?

Zhang: Yes, indeed. It is the principle form. I want the picture to contain no trees and no grass. The feeling of childhood is a stony hard one. Besides stones, it's men's baldheads because they are so monotonous. We did not have proper hair-cutters until the 1970s and used to scrape the head with a shaving knife. When I had just moved to the village from Shanghai, my head developed lots of festers due to not being able to acclimatise.

Li: Infectious festers?

Zhang: Not really. Using alternative medicines cured me. Now, I have got my nice hair back. In those days, adults and kids all had baldheads due to convenience. The visual experience of childhood provides material for my paintings. I just put baldheads and stones together as they project similar kinds of feelings. I allow no trees to be in my scene. The only softening touches are the costumes on their bodies, and also the sky. When I was small, the sky looked pretty barren and without expression.In other words, it is simple monotony.

Li: Although there are lots of people in your paintings, I often feel a sense of threatening quietness; as if all of a sudden no other sounds can be heard. Perhaps this is related to my own experience. It traces back to the days when I was working for the production team in the countryside. On sunny afternoons, when everyone has gone to work in the fields, the soundless village is like a dehydrated wasteland. That feeling is very scary.

Zhang: Yes, yes. Sometimes you wonder if there are any living beings there at all.

Li: The serenity is the result of the way you arrange the pictorial elements. For example, the rows and rows of people seem to have been frozen there, so do the hills. Only the dark clouds are rolling. Then, suddenly, one person appears completely different - such contrast makes the scene look even more serene. Also, this figure projects a very quiet demeanor. This soundless feeling is what I think is the most meaningful part of your work - a quietude that is about to set off something.

Zhang: Sometimes I feel that too. The more crowded the place is, the more isolated you feel. With more isolation, more feelings of quietude will emerge. Have you seen the very large paintings that I did last year?

Li: Are they the ones with the zigzag rows of crowds?

Zhang: A few of them have been included in the hanging calendar that I gave to you?

Li: Your hanging calendar is here.

Zhang: These two snowy scenes were painted during the SARS outbreak in Tian Jin.

Li: Oh, here is the one of sorghum. Is it the sorghum from She County?

Zhang: She County grows sorghum but the production is low.

Li: Is this Evening Bell?

Zhang: In May last year, two people passed away - one was my father; the other was Schoeni. They passed away in the same period of time, and their funerals were on the same day. The episode touched me so greatly that it took me 3 months to finish this painting.

Li: Two funerals on the same day?

Zhang: Yes. Schoeni was cremated, whereas my father was buried.

Li: Do you have any special thoughts on technique?

Zhang: I haven't thought too much about technical matters, but I have started to think about them more over the past two years. Sometimes I feel that an object has to be rendered in a special manner, but I am worried that the technical tone will overshadow my original message.

Li: Yes. This is basically a type of symbolism, imagery, or emotional narration. Many Chinese painters are used to this form of expression. Nearly all Chinese painters grow up with Realism in their background training. The result of this is the tradition of realism from the Chinese May Fourth Movement early last century. At the same time, this tradition blends miraculously well with the classical tradition of expressive creation.

Zhang: Yes. Do you think there are any differences from my previous work? There were also baldheads a few years ago.

Li: Your way of handling the picture is now more mature than before. The previous ones are cruder. Besides, your new paintings are now very grand and project a more epic mood. The earlier ones are not as grand. Now you include all the elements: sky, earth, man, huge mountains, rolling dark clouds and a diversity of living beings...Later when you were in Tai Hang Shan, did you do sketching or photography?

Zhang: I rarely sketched. I took a lot of photographs. I grew up in that area and I liked drawing. All the elements of the place, such as its hills, stones and houses, are deeply marked in my memory. If I have to draw a stone without seeing it, I only need a pen, I don't even need a photograph. I started working with the production team very early on, when I was something like 13 or 14 years old, and had to handle stones again in the terraced fields.

Li: The same with the human head.

Zhang: Yes, exactly. Most rivers in She County are dry and without water. The riverbeds are full of villagers working with stones. The plain-looking villagers are all baldheads. Sometimes you have difficulty telling which are the human heads and which are stones. Sometimes it is such an optical illusion.

Li: You have described it wonderfully.

Zhang: It is especially true in winter when the hills are all bare and without a single trace of green. From afar, sometimes you can see when a girl passes by because of her red attire. I usually push the mountains behind very low, otherwise they will create a suffocating feeling.

Li: That's right. This composition of distance allows you to have an emotional longing for the land that is pushed into the distance - it is the only place for hope in your imagination...

Zhang: Yes. I try to push down the horizon. You may not have a significant memory of our small village. When I was young, there was only a total of 300 to 400 villagers there.

Li: Perhaps I have not been there, but I have been to Wang Jin Zhuang, which is not far from your home.

Zhang: Our small village is very close to Zhang Jia Zhuang, which is about 20 li from the village you visited.

Li: That place is especially good for cursory line sketching.

Zhang (laughs): Yes. Lines are very powerful. There is also an episode you may know of - the damage of the Cultural Revolution to our family was a great trauma to me.

Li: So your father was...

Zhang: Yes. Both my father and mother suffered because they didn't have the right backgrounds. I was about 4 or 5 years old during the Cultural Revolution. I lived in horror each day. There was a period when my parents were being attacked and were forced to go to the repenting classes on a daily basis; I was put in the care of another family. I didn't evoke this episode in my paintings as so much has been said about the Cultural Revolution. But this trauma has always lived with me.

Li: Sure, that is realistic; most people simply narrate on the event of the Cultural Revolution. But for you, it's more of an internal feeling - the nightmares that have been built up by the episode of the Cultural Revolution and other factors. This cannot be expressed by simply putting forward a narration of the Cultural Revolution.

Zhang: That's why I want to do it through an alternative way.

Li: Was it during the same time as when your parents were being attacked and criticised that you fell ill with fever?

Zhang: Yes, it was during the same time. I was gasping for life in the Handan Hospital. With a dying son, my parents got the permission from their working units to look after me. So, they took turns; when one looked after me in hospital, the other one went back to be criticised. We did not have a penny in our household at that time. When I recovered and came back home from Beijing, the fight was still not finished.

Li: How old were you then?

Zhang: I was a little older than 5 years old. After being confined in the cooperative for over 20 days, my mother was carried back home. She just lay on the brick bed and dared not let me see her. One day at noontime she asked me to stay at home and not go out. I did not know the reason. It was exceptionally busy outside. Out of curiosity, I snuck out to the street and saw my father wearing a very tall hat and a large sign was hanging on the front of his chest. People were yelling at him. I was so shocked, as if suddenly my spirit was gone. It was so horrifying, like the end of the world. I could not imagine why people would act like that. From then on, I dared not go out of the door - for even children would bully you, especially if you had a limp. Therefore, my entire childhood was associated with a sense of fear. Even now I am not able to run away from it.

Li: Which year in the 1960s were you born?

Zhang: I was born in 1963.

Li: The basics of your art come from the shadows of childhood, which have become the motivation and source of inspiration for your works.

Zhang: Yes, my childhood had a great impact on my entire life. It has played a role in forming the flaws in my character such as timidness, helplessness, melancholy and inconsistency. I have resorted to escapism as the best way out.

Li: That's good. This psychological state allows your art to become an accomplishment. In a way, art has become a religion that enables you to get freedom from many issues.

Zhang: Yes, I thank God for letting me fall in love with painting.

Li: Painting has provided salvation for you.

Zhang: If it was not for painting, I would have gone mad, or died from depression.

Li: (pointing at Crossing Series No. 1) This looks a bit like "The Raft of the Medusa"...Do you still feel that there are things that you want to paint?

Zhang: Always. I always feel I have things to say.

Li: That is great.

Zhang: The original thought for Crossing Series No. 1 was about the personal ideals we developed in our childhood through the education and the revolutionary propaganda we received. However, this kind of ideal later turned bizarre. When this ideal collapsed, I experienced the most dreadful sensation - as if your heart could rest nowhere, and nothing could be relied upon. You could feel your spirit roaming like a pack of wolves on a wasteland.

Li: (Crossing Series No. 1) People can be connected. Would it be better if the group of people continued and blocked the edges of the painting?

Zhang: At the time, I thought if it was blocked, it would feel very suffocating and look very inconsistent.

Li: If the crowd goes on and the rim crops it off.

Zhang: Yes, that would look magnificent.

Li: Your painting is getting grander. Talking about areas for improvement, is there a need to get more personalised technically? Generally speaking, your technique is still kind of realistic. When you just look at parts of the works of Zhang Xiao Gang, Fang Li Jun, Liu Wei and Mao Yan, you will still be able to tell who the artist is apart from the subject matter and the personalised technique. Technique and brushstrokes are the elements that are the most sentimentally associated. The painting tradition of the Chinese literati highlights the fun of ink and brush. Personalised feeling is conveyed through the brushstrokes of the artist and expressed in the picture, creating the so-called "taste" of the brush. This is the most wonderful part of traditional Chinese aesthetic. You will surely find it. Now, when compared to my first time in...

Zhang: in Hou Hai?

Li: No. It was in that antique city. You were doing small paintings at that time and the colours were still quite crude. Now your use of colours is very nice. Your rendering carries a mysterious feeling; as if something is about to happen. This is the kind of imagery emphasised in traditional Chinese culture. It's intensely quiet, so quiet that it seems something must be going to happen at anytime. This sort of projection is great.

Zhang: Actually this kind of feeling prevails - perhaps due to so many mishaps before. When there are one or two days of quietness, you will wonder if something may have happened to the body or family. In spring last year, it was particularly serene. It was a kind of non-descriptive feeling. Soon later, Schoeni was murdered and my father passed away. Two men from She County who were more or less my age also passed away. Another 38-year old Tian Jin fellow died in a car accident on Christmas Eve. These traumatic incidents last year have revealed our helplessness in the matters of life and death.

Li: This is a very metaphysical and universal feeling. You should try to express it in your paintings.

Zhang: I don't know if others have ever had such disastrous premonitions...

Li: It is a distinctive kind of sensitivity. You can also use it to express our awesome respect for nature. The unlimited greed of mankind and the looting of nature's resources result from a lack of an awesome and fearful respect for nature.

Zhang: Very true. This is also another big issue I am very interested in. The complaints and disturbances of an unbalanced nature have brought us greater fear.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo