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Conversation about Art between Laure Zhou and Zhang Enli

Interviewer: Laure Zhou Translator: Wang Jie Aug,2008

I have known Zhang Enli for nearly a decade, almost as long as the history of ShanghART. Now I can hardly recall any details from our first encounterings, because Zhang is not the kind of artist who could impress you strongly on first sight. Each time when I visit his studio with the collectors, he just displays his artworks to us piece by piece with a smiling face. He seldom speaks, waiting silently besides us. Sometimes he would offer us a drink or show us a catalogue, which might disturb the whole silence at the studio. Strangely I would often stop talking at such moment, trying to retain the tranquility. Yet my heart is touched again and again amidst all the silence there.

Laure Zhou (Zhou): I have thought about this for several days and I have many questions. But I don't know how to start with and what we could talk when I am now looking into your eyes.

Zhang Enli (Zhang): Neither do I know how to begin.

Zhou: I am quite nervous.

Zhang: Tension, sounds good to me! Otherwise I will feel that I am rather something. A bit nervous, a little fear, the concern on whether I would fail on a certain art piece, all these enable me to keep a good condition in my creation.

Zhou: In fact, tension adds some pressures on an artist.

Zhang: Of course I have pressures, as I need to it to create my artworks at a certain standard continuously. Frankly speaking, it is not so difficult to create several good art pieces, but it is rather difficult to create many good ones, and it is even more difficult to move a step further.

Zhou: Thus an artist needs to keep himself in the process of thinking and creating. He also needs to have a clear understanding of himself. Like what you have mentioned, tension or pressure would force you to go deeper and further, even though there are risks or difficulties lying ahead.

Zhang: A good artist has a conflicting character, a mixture of conceit and fear.

Zhou: Yes, actually the conceit of an artist is a kind of self-confidence.

Zhang: Right, without it, you would fear to move a step further. Sometimes you need such conceit otherwise you would worry about this or that without any practical action.

Zhou: How many of your artworks come out from your tension?

Zhang: Many.

Zhou: There is one particular piece featuring mosaic and trees among your Garden series, are you satisfied with your Garden series? In the eyes of the others, you seem not to be so satisfied with it, right?

Zhang: It sounds so when I look back now. But I was actually quite happy on finishing it, because it is difficult to tell whether it is a good one or not when it has just been finished.

Zhou: So it needs to be proved by time.

Zhang: Right. Moreover, I will see whether the work will bring some changes to my following pieces. It's important, especially for me. You can't think of your next step without the existing step.

Zhou: In other words, the most important work doesn't need to be the most highlighted one. It only indicates a certain joint, a critical link. I could see you are changing following the Garden series. You extend your subject from figures to landscape and still-life paintings. Among them, the painting featuring the tree is my favorite one. It is so big. The Sink and Mosaic series are also included in it. Did you confirm your artistic thought after completing this piece or before beginning with it?

Zhang: There are many hidden elements that finally bring out these series including the big tree, sink, mosaic and paper-box.

Zhou: Right.

Zhang: Like scissors, but I was not very clear at that time. I was at a cross-road: to give it up? to continue or expand it? I created only several pieces in my early years and even fewer for my still-life paintings, because I didn't have a concrete idea of how to do it. It would be meaningless to create my works on the original still-life paintings. It was not until the completion of the Eating series did I realized that I possibly achieved what I had expected in my figure paintings. Then I painted the back head series in some of the figures under my brushstrokes, which was quite important for me. Because I am always thinking about one question: the relationship between human being and object. I feel that I disrupted the existing accurate relationship between human being and object through this back head series.

Zhou: You "dissolve" the figure image.

Zhang: Quite smart for me to use the back of the head? As it is also a kind of face. In other words, it is a re-recognition on face.

Zhou: Do you remember what is the first container you painted?

Zhang: It has been a long time, and I think I have it in my catalogue.

Zhou: It is a very small paper-box, similar to a transparent box.

Zhang: It was created in 2000.

Zhou: Yes, that one is big and black hued. It seems that you could see through it, but in fact it is a closed one.

Zhang: I have another better one, an opening iron-made box created in 2001. It is empty inside.

Zhou: Right, there is some shadow on it, like fragments of paper, but just some traces.

Zhang: Yes. Actually the relationship between this box with time and past is obvious. But it is harder to describe that transparent box.

Zhou: Mystery.

Zhang: It is difficult to describe it. It is transparent while it is namely still a box. Oh! Yes! I remember that I once said that I used a concrete or familiar image, and then I dissolved its original meaning to the viewers, sounds like that.

Zhou: In fact, it is a process of refining. You refine the objects or visual images in the real world. You choose the essence from the roughness, eliminate the false and retain the truth. Gradually, you give another creation from the surface to the core.

Zhang: Yes. For example, I have a painting that features a chair which leaves little imagination for the viewers. But the painting itself might generate something else.

Zhou: I know you appreciate Newton, why?

Zhang: Yes, I appreciate Newton and Russell. Newton is great as he worked out the problem of light while Russell is both a mathematician and a philosopher. Actually mathematics is the most classical philosophy. Russell was an unbelievable combination of the two.

Zhou: I remember once you mentioned about Newton's experiment on the dispersion of light. Newton dispersed the invisible light through a triangular prism, which was very interesting.
Zhang: It's so great that you can explain or prove something concrete through something abstract.

Zhou: Right, many objects on your canvas are ordinary or even ignored in life. But how will people see them in your painting? Many might be attracted by its outlook, its colors or shape.

Zhang: For ordinary viewers, they want to see something special or they are curious to see something special, that's the purpose for their going to an exhibition. But if one day they suddenly find what they see at my exhibition is nothing different from what they see at their home, they will be bored. So it is quite important where your attention goes.

Zhou: What kind of message you want to convey through all these ordinary objects in your paintings?

Zhang: Time. We talked about the problem of face before. Namely if you talk about a face, I will think anything is a face, because all the material on the world has an image. Such image is artificial. What I paint exists in the ordinary life with function. All I want to do is to refresh your memory. The objects in your memory actually exist all the time. For example, I did a piece in Belgium. It was an empty room, like any empty room that one just moved out. Of course, there were certain traces left, like the cracks on the wall or some trash on the floor. This, ah, I suddenly don't know what I am talking about, haha.

Zhou: Sometimes the creation of an artist is akin to a gambling game.

Zhang: In fact, gambling is stamped with some mundane meaning, while art is actually nothing, but it is still important. For example, I create many works with the theme of time. Maybe some will find them interesting and some not. Once you start to be a professional artist, you need to be prepared. Perhaps you would remain unknown all your life, but that's not important if you could still lead a very happy life. Sometimes an artist should be simple-minded.

Zhou: There is something virtual that permeates in your painting, like the oriental thinking towards Zen, but you just express it through a visual mode. It must cost you quite a long time in the pondering for an accurate and concrete method. Perhaps someone is unable to reach that depth all their life. In fact, it is a culmination of time, knowledge and some other elements. In my eyes, it is a "luxurious" process. Here luxury doesn't relate to money. You can spend thousands of dollars to purchase what you want. But spending so many years in thinking over one thing to create one work is also "luxurious thing". You put all your thoughts, your time and energy in this process. Many artists may have the same dream to make it happen, but some may never succeed.

Zhang: Art is no business deal.

Zhou: Today many artists rise early fames, which can be easily exhausted and consumed. Compared to them, those artists who make their achievements in their 50s or even 70s are really great.

Zhang: In fact, artworks created by these artists at their early age are already quite good. When you read their catalogue, it doesn't mean that their artworks created in their 70s are better than their early pieces. They are the same, only because now the artworks are recognized by the society.  

Zhou: Their pieces are actually a step ahead of the others, and nobody would realize its excellence at that time. Perhaps several years later, the value of these works would be unveiled.

Zhang: Now many people in the art community are only keen on the ongoing ten years. They might be perplexed or attracted by all kinds of social phenomenon. So sometimes an artist needs to be isolated, forgetting about what happens around, because it doesn't have too much close link with him or her. There are too many things happening on this world everyday. Yet they are not what we are trying to retain. We are trying to retain those things which have never appeared on television programs or newspaper. We are trying to find something different.

Zhou: Then how to find something different?

Zhang: Removing those things which influence us or which is useful, it is akin to a "dissociating" process.

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