An interview with Zhang Chong
Updated: Jan 5, 2020
Artist Leading the Way | Taipei Artist Village: Exclusive Interviews with Artists-In-Residence
This interview was carried out by Maria Dolfini (M)and Chung Ying Ying (Y) in conversation with the artist Zhang Chong (Z)
Scroll down for the Chinese version.
M＋Y:Why did you choose the air raid shelter of Treasure Hill Art Village as exhibition space? This is a particular space to display your artworks and it is inextricable from the history of Treasure Hill.
Z: I tend to like places with a story, but since in Treasure Hill each space has its own history, meaning and value, I decided to give the choice to destiny and let other artists choose their exhibition space first. Although there are many restrictions in this room – it is rather warm and humid, there is no natural lightning and I couldn’t drill holes for safety reasons-, it is very charming: the space is a work of art itself! I mostly focused on its history, the architectural structure, the lighting, terrain and also considered the artists who created art here before. These factors helped me to determine whether this space could convey the theme of my work; it also affected the choice of materials.
M＋Y:You thoroughly researched the history of Taipei and Treasure Hill. How did its history of change and relocation have an impact on you work? What does change represent to you and why is it important?
Z:Researching historical materials, I knew that Treasure Hill had experienced a period of prosperity and then the period of Japanese occupation. Subsequently, it underwent military control and the risk of demolition, which was eventually avoided thanks to active protests. Up to today, Treasure Hill Artist Village has witnessed many developments through Taiwanese history. So yes, relocation was a theme that emerged at that time. While change is a theme I have always liked to research and convey.
After taking relocation as the main theme, I found online an eighty-year-old ice shop in Taipei Xinfu market; this shop also underwent a period of rise, decline and relocation, just like Treasure Hill. Since the invention of refrigerators, the ice business is declining and new industries are now dismissing the old to bring forth the new. I decided to go to this ice shop as soon as I arrived in Taipei. So my exhibition started with ice and ended with fire..
Eventually, I found an ice shop near Treasure Hill, the owner helped me to bring four blocks of ice to the exhibition every morning. When the ice melt in the exhibition hall, it transformed into water and seeped into the ground, nourishing the plants of Treasure Hill and refreshing the air in the air-raid shelter. I also hope that the audience can value the important contribution of these old business which will slowly disappear under the pressure of modernisation.
M＋Y: Going back to the title of your exhibition, 「Returning Home」歸去來兮is the title of a famous poem by Tao Yuanming – also known as Tao Qian –, one of the greatest Chinese poets of the Six Dynasties. Tao decided to withdraw from public office in order to live in seclusion surrounded by nature; many of his poems represent familiar and intimate rustic scenes, thus they are categorised as ‘pastoral poetry’. What did you wish to highlight by recalling his poem?
Z:I think everyone sees different aspects, just like a person could have many different faces.So I don’t wish to emphasise my works in any particular way because you can never define an artwork nor a person simply.
The title「Returning Home」歸去來兮conveys a sense of change. Everything transforms: not only material objects, but also events and states of mind, beauty and ugliness, good and bad. In this sense, I don’t think the Buddhist concept of samsara merely refer to the cycle of life, death and reincarnation. In fact, every aspect of human life unfolds in samsara.So, although ‘來兮’ in the title is often interpreted as as modal particle in Chinese, I think Tao Yuanming used it to express not only the real physical place of his homeland, but more importantly the dream of a ‘Pure Land’. Tao understood the cycle of samsara and saw part of the truth behind it. So Tao decided to return to the idyllic pastoral life and yearned for a mental state of seclusion from society and politics, one which he masterfully expressed in the famous story The 'Peach Blossom Spring': “The villagers asked what era it currently was. It turned out they hadn’t even heard of the Han, let alone the Wei or the Jin (Dynasties)”. So the purpose of returning to the countryside is to imitate this mental state, by withdrawing from public office. This is a similar condition to the Buddhist desire to break away from samsara. Ultimately, it's the spirit, not the body, that detaches from samsara, so the one whose spirit has been liberated doesn't care where he goes or where he returns to. When a person gets the feeling of return, he is already in samsara.
On another point of view, it is also true that transmigration - that is falling into the cycle of samsara- is the necessary premise for eventually releasing from samsara itself and obtaining enlightenment. Only this cycle of birth, death and reincarnation can temper and discipline humans, make us aware of different phenomena, and discover the truth. The name of Buddha means Great Wisdom, that is, he who is able to see the Truth. Only those who achieve the Truth can break from the vicissitudes of samsara. Thus in order to detach ourselves from samsara, we need to experience and recognise it. Only after picking it up, one can truly let it go.
M＋Y:In one installation of the exhibition, the flowers are burnt and made into charcoal sculptures; can you tell us about the materials and process of this artwork? How do flowers relate to Buddhism and life in Treasure Hill temple? Moreover, how does Buddhism reflect your thoughts about separation and return?
Z:As I mentioned before, this exhibition started in ice and ended in fire. Whether in praying the gods, celebrating festivities, or in mourning ancestors, worshippers use fire. In Buddhism and Taoism - which are often interchangeable in Taiwan -, burning is a way of communicating with the ancestors and their spirits, or with the gods. There is also the saying: “Nirvana is Fire”. So drawing from the practice of “presenting Buddha with flowers”, which is also the original spirit of Ikebana, I put flowers into fire and refined them into fragile charcoal sculptures. In the exhibition I displayed the flowers in the form of Ikebana flower arrangement, also made of charcoal. When withered, the flowers turn into eternity. However the extremely fragile nature of the charcoal-flowers adds another layer of impermanence and perishability of life, including rebirth.
M＋Y:In 2017 you had an exhibition titled 「Glacier」, which drew from the Jewish Tree of Life, as well as including materials from the Bible and astrophysic arguments on the opposition between science and religion. The artworks you produce seem to reveal some subtle hints of faith, often in relation to issues of separation, life and death. Is religion often a main topic in your oeuvre? In short, what is your personal take on the relationship between humans, gods and art?
Z: Although I often use the concept of religion in my practice, I do not believe in any religion. I use some of its elements to reflect on our reality. If I believed in any religion, I would be immediately tied to a certain dogma, and that wouldn’t allow me to create art freely.
At the time of the exhibition「Glacier」I was still studying in Germany, and I had not yet found my own style of creating. But this show was a turning point for my practice because I started being interested in contrasts and using religious elements to metaphorically address reality.
The relationship between man, gods and art is a very broad question. Art originates from religion, so art is inseparable from the religious discourse. Religion is also linked to political and social sciences, which further complicates the field. I am mostly interested in the sense of ritual, which is an eternal question in art and can unfold in important poetic and aesthetic expressions. But we need to look at it dialectically. Man creates a sense of ritual to formulate standard rules for worshipping the gods, and get the feeling of approaching the sublime by following these precepts. For example, they set times and rites to offer sacrifice. The same is true in art.
Artists also create a sense of ritual around their oeuvre, which makes them more poetic and, to a certain degree, shocking. Good works always have a sense of ritual: whether Matthew Barney’s video art, Gregor Schneider’s room, or Marina Abramovic’s separation from her partner during a ceremonial performance on the Great Wall. Thus, the ritualistic practice does not only consist in the details of the work, but the ritual also implies the accurate control of the spatial position of each artwork, the precision of the images and the concept, the fragile balance between the logical and illogical narrative within the artwork, and the inseparable conversation between humans’ spiritual essence and ceremonies. These elements are all necessary to convey a sense of ritual and to transport the audience into the art. But what is most easily overlooked is the spiritual essence behind the ritual. Only if we are able to condemn ceremonies without spiritual essence, we can get closer to a real sense of ritual. Some ceremonies bring artistic sublime and poetic significance, but it does not mean that we can achieve artistic sublime by imitating those ceremonies. We should find the forms able to convey our spirituality in art and express a sense of ritual with genuine spiritual essence.
M＋Y: In the present exhibition, the installations ‘Ice of Disappearance’ and ‘Fire of Rebirth’ strongly visualise your thoughts in relation to parting and returning with the use of two opposing natural elements: ice and fire. Why did you choose these elements? Can you discuss your statement: “Parting can be seen as an end or a new beginning. It could be a sense of sorrow or a passion for freedom. Parting is ice as well as fire”.
Z: First of all, I like to bring forth opposition. When I decided to use ice, I naturally associated it with fire. As I mentioned before, this exhibition started with ice and ended with fire.
In regards to parting, although the whole exhibition seemingly talks about disappearance and separation, I actually wish to emphasise the residual warmth of meeting before parting, as well as the changes after, and perhaps those unsaid expectations and confusions during encounters. Because there are countless encounters and departures, the “Here” is very valuable. “Here” is the harbour of freedom, the pursuit of dreams, and a journey in life.
We obviously have various reasons to face parting. So leaving is not only a kind of affection, but also a determination or a form of goodbye to the past and a new beginning. In the same way, Tao Yuanming said goodbye to his disappointing public office career, returned to the fields and wrote pastoral poetry. Separation may also be the boundary between life and death, for example, when facing the death of a loved one. So parting can be warm and can be cold.
M＋Y:At the exhibition opening, you also held a separate ceremony: after keeping two parrots for ten days in your studio, you gave them the choice to leave and return back to nature. They eventually chose not to leave, what does this choice mean to you?
Z: There were many complications in this ceremony! At the beginning, I made clear that the project was not about releasing captive animals, but about giving them a choice. There is a video in my exhibition about a man releasing a fish into the water; however, in the end, the fish gradually decomposed. Although it is rather ironic, this is also a theme related to separation and disappearance. Release is also a Buddhist concept, but there are two sides of the coin: release is a form of respect, but on the other hand, unreasonable release is also an act of destroying the equilibrium of the environment. The double-faced character of this act has definitely unfolded in my performance. I was trying to express the contradiction of this act.
During the exhibition, a person in the audience raised strong objection towards my intention of releasing the parrots. They believed that Xuanfeng parrots can only survive as human pets and would never be able to resist in the natural environment. Xuanfeng parrots are actually wild birds native to Australia. The viewer not only denied that each parrot has a different personality and capability of survival, but also opposed their freedom of choice. However, after living with them for several days, we built an emotional connection and I was also reluctant to let them face the cruel natural environment, questioning my decision and postponing the act. Anyway, I have eventually opened the cage to give them the choice to fly away but they decided to stay. So I eventually decided to help them to find a good host and wrote a letter to their new owner in a parrot perspective, explaining all those things.
M＋Y: Besides the installations in the air raid shelter and the ceremony with the parrots, you also held an interactive workshop titled 「Parting」, where the audience was invited to choose a custom song and create their own punch card to be played into a music box. As soon as the machine played the symphony, those cards automatically shred; thus addressing the themes of vanishing and separation again. I admire the way you use multiple materials to explore one broad and fluid topic diversely, it is just like reciting a poem in different languages! In this sense, it seems to me that 「parting」is about separation as much as interaction. In fact, in your work you address interaction between humans, the relationship between humans and animals, humans and nature, religion etcetera. Thus, I would like to ask you if the interaction between materials is another way to express your interest in interaction/separation? What do these interactions leave behind?
Z:Yes, there are continuous conversations between different materials. Making installation with various materials can be seen like making a puzzle. Every material is a piece of the puzzle, so what an artist has to do is to give each material an irreplaceable position and value it. Different materials have different meanings. For example, iron can be divided into wrought and pig iron. Wrought iron is softer, easy to deform but hard to break, while pig iron is more solid, but easier to break. Each material has its own characteristics and conveys a specific feeling, so only those who really understand the material they are working with can handle very skilfully their creations.
I happen to come across new materials every time I prepare a new exhibition. Normally I don’t like to replace a material with another in order to imitate the texture of a material. For this exhibition, for example, I chose not to spray black paint on the dry flowers - even if it would have been much easier -, but I preferred going through the difficult process of burning the real flowers and turn them into charcoal. I deeply feel that every material is irreplaceable, so the reflective surface, texture, fragility and colour transition at different temperatures of charcoal simply cannot be conveyed with spray paint. I think this is also a form of artistic integrity.
M＋Y:Last question, what are your future plans? Are you interested in continuing to research the theme of 「Parting」and its implications?
Z:I hope I can preserve the personality of what I like to explore and keep exhibiting contradictions and new changes. The concept of ‘parting’ will gradually penetrate into my practice; in fact, I believe that every important insight is accompanied by departure. Individuals also need to constantly bid farewell to their former selves in order to move forward.
藝術家帶路 | 台北國際藝術村: 駐地藝術家專訪
藝術家也創造儀式感使作品具有詩意和給人帶來震撼的感覺。我們可以看到很多好的作品是具有儀式感的。無論是馬修巴尼（Matthew Barney）的影像作品，亦或者是格雷戈爾·施奈德（Gregor Schneider）的房間，又或者是阿布拉莫維奇與男友分手時候把走長城作為一種分手儀式。不僅僅對作品的精緻的細節處理是一種儀式感，對於作品每個部分空間位置的精准把控，影像音畫，以及觀念的精緻度，在作品的邏輯與非邏輯中找到精准的平衡，人的精神實質與儀式的緊密融合，這些都是帶來儀式感的必要條件，也是把觀眾帶入到作品的重要基礎。不過在這之中我們最容易忽視的就是精神實質。通過對於無精神實質儀式感的批判使我們能夠更接近去認識真正的儀式感。我們可以說某些儀式帶來了藝術的崇高和詩學意義，但並不是說都去模仿這種儀式就能達到藝術的崇高。我們更應該去看到每一個不同的儀式背後的精神實質，應該在藝術中找到能夠傳達自己精神的形式，表現真正具有精神實質的儀式感。