Rebecca Catching

Excerpts from “A Book of Passages/ A Preface to Shengtian Zheng’s Interview Project with Chinese Artists”


Hou Hanru


In his lifelong work as a curator, Shengtian Zheng has not only been a bold supporter and strident advocate of Chinese Contemporary art, but he has also endeavored to integrate it into various kinds of tolerant, and broad-minded global visions. But for those familiar with his practice, what arouses the most admiration, is that he has always maintained intimate relationships with the artists whose careers he has helped nurture, treating them with the utmost care and consideration.


Amongst these 51 artists, there exist several who have become famous along with some green and youthful new arrivals. There are some who constitute the “old guard,” engaged in traditional painting, alongside the trail-blazers carrying out “radical experiments.” Amongst these artists, we find those sailing through the troubled waters of politics and those braving the storms of the markets. There are even those who go so far as to stir the pot or fan the flames of disorder and rebellion. At the same time, a large proportion of these artists prefer a more hermetic lifestyle, remaining in their corner, pursuing an ascetic life cloistered in the walls of their studios; “individual practitioners,” spending their days grinding persistently away at their practice. 


In brief, their life experiences and artistic practices are all quite distinct, and thus by employing their unique, individual methods, they contribute vastly different hues to the rich and varied tapestry of the Chinese/global art fabric. Shengtian Zheng in his interactions with these artists always goes beyond the limits of his professional duties, building deep bonds of friendship and forging deep relationships which transcend age and generational differences.


Therefore, in this collection of dialogues, what we find is not an “objective” discussion of the issues surrounding art, but rather through the gaining an understanding of the artist’s experience, we can unearth some hints of the cause-and-effect relationships with have shaped their creative practice. Often we may encounter an anecdote or misfortune which may, on the surface, seem insignificant, but often there is more than meets the eye. Just as Huang Yongzhen has mentioned, these anecdotes can occasionally reveal or re-interpret the direction of the artist’s practice, as well as the inevitability of the artist’s personal life trajectory. But actually what is more meaningful or significant is that these “randomly-occurring events,” which accumulate through space and time, form an illustrative scroll painting which depicts not only the relevant historical events of Chinese art circles but also those of the international art world. Within the space of these thirty years, we can witness a rarely-encountered “great era” of artistic production, and in this view, we can see this anthology as a kind of “grand narrative” comprised of smaller individual narratives. These narratives are sufficient to provide a glimpse and a feeling of the energy which has pulsated through this great era—an era which is also understood as an era of grace and elegance.



In terms of methodology, Shengtian Zheng employed face to face interviews—a method which I and others of my generation continue to adhere to because of the intangible, universal and almost magical feeling created through one-on-one conversation. This kind of “communication,” “tong” 通 helps construct an additional layer of “tong,” 同“ commonality”—a common connection or familiarity which is forged through shared ordinary life experiences. In an environment characterized by power and oppression and restricted flows of information, every socially-conscious family will do everything in their power to allow the next generation to achieve spiritual freedom through providing for their intellectual and creative needs. This generation strives to find contentment and joy in the most difficult of circumstances, to knock on the door of the prison, and eventually tear down the walls of the fortress. Artists should not ignore the efforts of the previous generation which, in the most difficult times, still managed to seek out, encourage and support the pursuit of knowledge and beauty. With this “family inheritance” or background, the choice to become an artist was more or less a question of taking a stand, choosing to engage in confrontation. Yet in reading these dialogues, what is most striking is how, during their studies, the artists, managed to extract inspiration and courage, often through the most rudimentary channels—through, for instance, reading and re-reading shoddily-printed magazines, and books or struggling through some less-than-accurate translations. They spent hours studiously deliberating over the distorted colors of the images or the excessively-cropped reproductions. This kind of prosaic, unpretentious, diligence leaves an indelible impression on us. Showing us how we come to grasp the deep richness of knowledge, to understand what a worthwhile endeavor it is to express our freedom to “chiku” or “suffer hardships.” Whether it is political repression or the insidious allure of money, or drifting around abroad, enduring a lonesome existence, or enjoying great professional success, all approach it with a calm demeanor. Unflappable, they move dispassionately forward, relishing existence in a state of incomparable happiness and undiluted joy.

August 21, 2014, San Francisco