Zhang Xiaogang - Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Saturday, June 28, 2008 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Shanghai Gallery of Art, Shanghai

  • Exhibited

    Shanghai, Shanghai Gallery of Art, Three worlds, 10 December, 2004 – 9 January, 2005

  • Catalogue Essay

    Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (see from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them. - Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes the Memorious' (1942)
    Zhang Xiaogang is internationally celebrated for his artistic commentary on the individual and collective character of contemporary Chinese memory. Born in 1958 in the province of Sichuan, he was an early progenitor of the ‘Sichuan schoo' of painters that includes Ye Yongqing and Zhou Chunya. As a youth he was heavily influenced by Impressionist painters such as Van Gogh and Gauguin. His Bloodlines and Amnesia and Memory series invoke traditional forms of twentieth-century Chinese studio portraiture, undercut with subtly harrowing stains and fissuring bloodlines that symbolize the random, underlying pressures of reality.
    Amnesia and Memory (One Week) is a monumental work that comprises seven panels, one correlating to each day of the week. It is the first and only work of Zhang's to date that unites every important symbol of his art: the lightbulb, the haunting face with lustrous eyes, a hand inscribing an unseen text, the infant, the unplugged television set, a lone loudspeaker in a landscape, the disembodied hand grasping an unplugged lightbulb. Although the majority of Zhang's oeuvre belongs to the ‘Cynical Realist' school, this masterpiece distinctly shares the Symbolist qualities of the artist's work from the early 1990s. Like Zhang's early work, the elements of Amnesia and Memory (One Week) extend beyond human portraiture to incorporate a medley of quotidian objects that summon up a surreal, half-remembered life. In comparison to the early works, the present lot is significantly more serene, less abrasive in both composition and tone, as if reflective of a turbulent collective consciousness that has lately softened through forgiveness or nostalgia.
    The most popular frame of reference for Zhang's portraits is the family studio portrait, exceedingly popular in China during the 1960s and 1970s, upon which the acclaimed Bloodlines series draws. In the artist's more recent In/Out series, his focus moves to interior and exterior landscapes, real or imagined, and devoid of human presence. Amnesia and Memory (One Week) presents complete facets of the critical transition between Bloodlines and the In/Out works, incorporating both portrait and landscape in a Symbolist fashion that places the viewer in a dreamlike sequence. Looking upon these seven panels, our psychological constructs of time and space are left without anchor, highlighting the inevitable discontinuity that has become an accepted part of postmodernism narrative.
    For many contemporary Chinese artists, amnesia is memory. Time is an essential element of traditional Chinese painting, particularly scroll and landscape paintings that require the viewer to "read" the work from beginning to end. Continuity was rendered in entire narrative frames that chronicled affairs of state, skirmishes and full-fledged wars, and various intrigues in the form of sociopolitical liaisons and love affairs. Even during the Cultural Revolution, the integrity of neither time nor narrative was questioned by the artistic forms of studio family portraits and propaganda art. In the past two decades, the velocity of economic and technological change in China has given rise to entirely different conceptions of time and space. Speed and dynamic space is most easily reflected in the mediums of photography and video. The more difficult task of painting, like Zhang's, combines nostalgic imagery with disjunctive elements that underscore the power and inherent hazard of collective memory.
    The construction of the present lot more closely resembles a modernist poem than seven paintings: like Eliot's poetry or Proust's musings, it resembles a shifting curio box within which fragments of memory shift and twinkle in the light. The core of the painting lies in its untold tale: Zhang's everyday objects, writ large, become imbued with a mysterious significance beyond themselves. Each scene is part of a story that has never been fully told, and never will be completely remembered. The subjects of the painting itself are vessels of their histories, mute to the viewer yet tantalizingly alive, as if one, by scrutinizing them long enough, could discern the tale unfolding in the diary or what the child had seen. In this imagined fiction, amnesia becomes almost as important as memory. The artificial period of a week is composed of random periods of implied, abortive, or unforeseeable time – an infant's future, the interrupted activity of unplugged appliances, unseen accounts in a diary. Like all of Zhang's work, the personal is also political: "sometimes an ancient building that has existed for thousands of years gets in the way of a road and it just disappears... In China history is like water, it flows and disappears." (X. Zhang, quoted in J. Macartney, ‘Meet Zhang Xiaogang, China's Hottest Artist' in timesonline.co.uk)
    In this vein, Zhang's constant repetition of a series of quotidian motifs attempts to mine his own memory as well as that of the collective consciousness. "I don't want to plant a forest, but a single tree that I hope will grow to be very big. I really have just one strand of thought and I dig deeper and deeper until I can't go any farther." (id.) Amnesia and Memory (One Week) is the monumental culmination of Zhang's exploration of history and its telling: a poignant commentary on the sirens and shadows that float just beneath the surfaces of our daydreams.

  • Artist Biography

    Zhang Xiaogang

    Chinese • 1958

    Relying on memory and inspired by family portraits from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Zhang Xiaogang creates surreal, subtle artworks that explore the notion of identity in relation to the Chinese culture of collectivism. Using a muted, greyscale palette, Xiaogang repeatedly depicts a series of unnervingly similar figures, often dressed in identical Mao suits, to create an endless genealogy of imagined forebears and progenitors. Their somber, melancholy gazes are interrupted only by thin red bloodlines intimating familial links as well as occasional pale splotches of color resembling birthmarks.

    Xiaogang investigates how to express individual histories within the strict confines of a formula. His sitters, while appearing muted and compliant, are given physical exaggerations: oversized heads, tiny hands and long noses. These distortions imply stifled emotions and give a complex psychological dimension to the artist's work.

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Amnesia and Memory (One week)

Each panel: 110.5 x 130.2 cm. (43 1/2 x 51 1/4 in).
From left to right: Signed and dated ‘Zhang Xiaogang 2004/11' lower right; Signed and dated ‘Zhang Xiaogang 2003/4' lower right; Signed and dated ‘Zhang Xiaogang 2004/11' lower right; Signed and dated ‘Zhang Xiaogang 2003/4' lower right. Signed and dated ‘Zhang Xiaogang 2004/11' lower right; Signed and dated ‘Zhang Xiaogang 2004/11' lower right. Signed and dated ‘Zhang Xiaogang 2004/11' lower right.

£1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

29 June 2008, 5pm