A review of Back to Nature, Zhang Chong’s exhibition at Taipei Treasure Hill Artist Village
Updated: Jan 5, 2020
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Written by Maria Dolfini
Edited and translated by Chung Ying Ying 鍾盈盈
Scroll down for the Chinese version.
By proposing new approaches that combine historical research and natural resources in order to discuss unarticulated aspects of contemporary society and human nature, the Shanghainese artist Zhang Chong 張翀 presents his new works at Taipei Artist Village. On September 8th, 2019, his solo show Back to Nature 歸去來兮 spanning installation, sculpture and video art, opened in the unique exhibition space of an old air-raid shelter in Treasure Hill Artist Village after his two-months residency in Taipei. The exhibition unfolds in the form of a conceptual and material exploration, understanding and artistic rendering of the themes of parting, transformation and the opposing elements of ice and fire as found in Buddhist philosophy and Taiwanese unique history. The result is a poem woven through the threads of history, nature, philosophy, religion; but, foremost, it is an ode to human nature.
Zhang Chong found inspiration in Treasure Hill, a locus that witnessed the development of Taiwanese modern history as a silent companion. Firstly built at the end of the Qing dynasty more than 300 years ago, the temple of Treasure Hill was a centre of Buddhist devotion; the village then underwent an unstable history of Japanese colonisation, water conservation and military control during the twenty century. In the 1980s, the village faced the threat of demolition due to a fast process of urbanisation; it was eventually preserved and turned into a historical site, then an artistic and cultural project, called ‘Taipei Artist Village’. Fascinated by the history of change of this settlement, Zhang Chong conceived his works in response to the environment and in accordance to his long-standing personal interest in departure, change, contrasting natural elements and implicit emotions.
The title of the exhibition, Back to Nature 歸去來兮 draws from a famous poem written by the Chinese pastoral poet Tao Yuanming – also known as Tao Qian- during the Eastern Jin (317-420) and Liu Song (420-479) Dynasties. After years of official career at court, Tao famously decided to abandon his post and return to his homeland, living in seclusion surrounded by nature.
These movements of life and the chain of change are filtered through a Buddhist perspective and ritualistic lens in the exhibition. In fact, according to the artist, Tao Yuanming in ‘returning home’ detached himself not only from the socio-political affairs of the time, but more fundamentally from the endless pain and mundane feelings of samsara, reaching a ‘Pure Land’ of seclusion, meditation and potential enlightenment.
These ritualistic undertones are materialised in Zhang’s works into the elements of ice and fire, which are also essential marks of change and disappearance. The installation Vanishing Ice welcomes the audience at the entrance of the show. True to his research-based approach, Zhang found an eighty-year-old ice shop in Taipei that had gone through several historical changes, witnessing the development of Taiwanese economy and eventually falling into decay because of the raise of the refrigerator industry – thus in many ways similar to Treasure Hill Village. The installation features four ice cubes - daily transported into the exhibition space - that slowly melt through the support of an iron table. The transformation of the art piece throughout the day and the disappearance of its actual materiality are fascinating themes that recur in each of the artworks in different though correlated shapes.
Fire of Rebirth is an installation featuring flowers burnt and transformed into charcoal, finally displayed in a Japanese Ikebana arrangement which touches upon themes of rebirth, nirvana and endless disappearance. Fire is, in fact, inextricably related to Buddhism as worshippers, whether to pray the gods, communicate with their ancestors or celebrate festivities, use fire. Nirvana and the detachment from the cycle of samsara also takes place in fire. However, fire is also destined to live in the moment and disappear; if on one side the withered flowers reach eternity within their charcoal envelope, their extreme fragility and threat of disintegration invite the audience to question human perishability. Zhang Chong points out that – metaphorically as well as physically– his exhibition: “started with ice and ended in fire..”
These apparently diverse and contrasting materials reveal the underlying fluid thread of disappearance, departure and farewell – themes that Zhang Chong relentlessly researches and majestically displays in his oeuvre. Although on the surface separation is the central focus of the exhibition, Zhang Chong explores a range of emotions and physical sensations that include the lapsus of time before and after the farewell. He poetically gives structure and voice to the passion and warmth of the encounter, the silent confusion and insecurities of relationships as well as the cold vacuum and difficult transition that follow the goodbye. All these underlying, unavowed emotions construct our daily experience and interpersonal communication, but their subtlety is often difficult to pin down, impossible to express. In this sense, Zhang’s artworks seem to place relentless importance into the spatio-temporal frameworks of the ‘here and now’. Here is the place of encounter, the harbour of emotions and physical exchange, here can be a decision as well as a possibility; now is the separation between past and present, and the desire to break away from the cycle of samsara and reach freedom. Separation is thus a theme repeatedly addressed in Zhang’s oeuvre, but what makes his art so fascinating, in my opinion, is that this action is not judged nor solved; it comes for different reasons and is inextricable from human life. Departure draws lines between lovers, strangers, family and friend relationships, and, more existentially, it crosses the boundaries between life and death. In the artist’s words, “Parting can be seen as an end or a new beginning. It could be a sense of sorrow or a passion for freedom. It can be warm, and it can be cold. Parting is ice as well as fire..”
What is so impressive in the artistic practice of Zhang Chong is that he succeeds in rendering these cryptic feelings and ungraspable existential questions into concrete sculptural realisations. His approach to material also necessitates praise, since he relentlessly engages with different mediums in response to a specific topic or environment. However, in facing each material -it being metal, clay, video, ice or fire- he challenges himself to converse with it on a deep physical and psychological level, always choosing the most integral, experimental and, in many cases, less obvious process to realise his artistic creations. The result is a personal and elegant encounter between material and thoughts, art and philosophy which exist only in the restrained and unique time of its appearance; already destined to disappear.
With such a poetic and critical approach to his practice, Zhang Chong takes his art into a higher conceptual sphere which transports the audience to both their domestic emotional routines as well as to broader philosophical concepts of life, death and rebirth. There is definitely not one easy way to interpret Zhang’s art and its layered expression of human nature, but to let these artworks speak of their constant transformation and reflect the volatile journey that is human life in its fluidity and fragility.
Written by Maria Dolfini
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Zhang Chong is a multidisciplinary artist based in Shanghai, where he returned after completing a master’s degree in Sculpture and Installation at Alanus University of Arts and Social Science in Alfter, Germany. His practice includes a wide range of materials, ranging from installation, sculpture and sound art. Recent exhibitions include Danyszgallery, Shanghai 2019; Edmond Gallery GmbH, Berlin 2018-2019; Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf 2018; Galerie Kunstbroeders, "Rising Stars", Netherlands 2018.
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