On 13th August, 2022, “Restart | Unlimited: Zhang Yanzi, Wang Xiao, Yu Yu Trio Exhibition” officially commenced at Minerva Gallery Hefei, featuring recent artworks by Zhang Yanzi, Wang Xiao and Yu Yu. The exhibition is curated by Minerva Yiqian Zang, the Director of the Minerva Gallery, and Sun Xin serves as the academic director.
On the occasion of the opening ceremony, CAFA ART INFO specially interviewed three artists, Zhang Yanzi, Wang Xiao and Yu Yu, as well as the curator Minerva Zang. In the following article, they will share their opinions on three themes, namely, “‘Restart | Unlimited’ and Women Art Exhibitions”, “Art Creation and Its Healing Power” and “Traditional and Contemporary Reflective Dimensions”.
* The following texts are abridged brilliant opinions of the four interviews regarding the three themes mentioned above because of the word limit. The full interviews are available via:
Interviewees: Zhang Yanzi, Wang Xiao, Yu Yu and Minerva Yiqian Zang
Interviewers: Emily Weimeng Zhou and Mengxi
Translated by Emily Weimeng Zhou and edited by Sue.
Image courtesy of the interviewees and the Minerva Gallery.
I. “‘Restart | Unlimited’ and Women Art Exhibitions”
- “Restart | Unlimited”
Minerva Zang: From the perspective of the curator, first of all, the exhibition “Restart and Unlimited” aims to discuss the way to embrace diversified changes in the post-pandemic using art, bringing inspiration and motivation for resuscitation. Secondly, in the cultural context of globalized cosmopolitanism since the 20th century, female artists at home and abroad have been recognized and transcended like never before. Particularly, since the 21st century, Chinese female artists are increasingly inclined to the “transcendence” of the inner spirit. They created art based on individuals and towards the common attitude of people instead of simply imitating and reproducing a daily experience. Thirdly, the exhibition would like to return to every individual. Different changes, such as social changes brought about by the pandemic or the developments of the times brought about by women, are rooted in each individual's way of thinking and dynamic thoughts regarding different things. Therefore, the most important thing is how an individual can accept life changes, and have the courage to step out of his or her comfort zone and accept fresh stuff from a new perspective. The world is unlimited, and so is the potential of every individual. Through the exhibition, the viewers are expected to achieve self-transcendence while constantly changing rapidly around them.
Zhang Yanzi: “Restart” is a high-frequency word after the outbreak of the pandemic. A closed restaurant needs to be restarted; the work-at-home status needs to be recovered; the “circuit breaker” of airlines needs resuscitation…Restart generally means that although our habitual life and production methods are suspended for various reasons, we will eventually return to the original rhythm at an appropriate time. However, can art be restarted? In my view, art should always be in a state of rebooting. When artistic creation has entered a state of inertia, we should reflect on the role and significance of our creation. For the exhibition at the Minerva Gallery this time, I assume the title also implies the restart of art exhibitions after a long suspension due to the pandemic. The exhibition appeals to the re-encounter between art and the public.
Wang Xiao: The pandemic has profoundly changed people’s perception of the world and life. Whether active or passive, the way we view and create art is constantly being refreshed. The combination of online and offline models is an example of such a refreshment. Moreover, the working environment is constantly restarting due to the pandemic. The state of working-at-home and lockdown has made me yearn for the natural things and the realm of freedom. Therefore, my creations are more detached from the present world to obtain a woyou (卧游, “lie down and travel”) experience of the spiritual world. In addition, I have acquired a different understanding of the concepts of time and space and life, which are naturally reflected in my works.
Yu Yu: The pandemic in the past few years has made people extremely depressed, and I suppose everyone urgently needs a restart. However, when it is not possible to achieve the restart in reality, it resorts to the spiritual activity of art.
Exhibition View of “Restart | Unlimited”
- Women Art Exhibitions
Minerva Zang: There have been many group exhibitions of female art at home and abroad in recent years. However, the Minerva Gallery was not inspired to plan this exhibition under such a trend. Instead, a group exhibition featuring female artists had been planned at the very beginning of the establishment of the gallery.
Zhang Yanzi: I did participate in some group exhibitions featuring female artists. But I do not have much knowledge regarding the significance of such exhibitions. I think that is the curator’s responsibility in research and practice on “gender”, “identity”, “feminism”, etc. The invited artists should create their research data.
In 2020, Zhang Yanzi was in New York.
Wang Xiao: When I was invited to participate in this exhibition, I was not particularly aware of the gender of the three artists. I have been fascinated by Zhang Yanzi's work since I met her work in Art Basel Hong Kong many years ago, and I keep following the development of her creations. Yu Yu is my friend and colleague, and we often discuss art and exchange ideas together. She has her own unique insights into art. As we all follow a similar path from traditional language to contemporary expression, and at the same time have unique and perceptual artistic expressions for the themes of "Unlimited" and "Restart", everything seems to be a natural progression.
Nowadays, not only the number of group exhibitions by female artists is increasing, but also the quality of the exhibitions is dramatically improving. As far as this exhibition is concerned, the participating artists, the curator Minerva Zang, the academic director Sun Xin and the Minerva Gallery’s executive director Tong Xiaoqin are all excellent women, which is a true reflection of the historical process.
Wang Xiao, “An Epic Poem of Water No.4”, 120x45cm, paper-based Woodblock printing(monotype), 2022
Yu Yu: The trend of female artists’ group shows is a manifestation of the achievements of the feminist movement in the field of art, reflecting the continuous advancement of social civilization. But as far as the exhibition itself is concerned, it still depends on the work and the concept of the exhibition. If the artist’s female identity is effective for the exhibition theme, it is definitely meaningful. However, if it is separated from the work and only emphasizes the gender of the participating artist, then I do not think it is necessary. What women’s rights appeal to are “equal rights” rather than “privileges”. The three cases involved in this exhibition are all women, which is just a coincidence. The exhibition preface has already explained that there is no deliberate emphasis on gender.
Yu Yu, “The Living Silk-5”, 40cm×88.5×5cm, handmade reeling of raw silk, embroidery, hand-painted on silk, 2017
II. “Art Creation and Its Healing Power”
- Discussions on the Participating Artworks
Zhang Yanzi: The works presented in this exhibition are basically a series of previous works regarding “aches and pains” and “the relief of aches”, and “The Remedy” is representative. I have been working on this series since 2013. There are several keywords in this series. First of all, “notes”, refer to manuscripts on silk. In ancient times, writing on cloth and silk is called a note. We have invitations, rubbings from stone inscriptions, models of calligraphy for practice, and facsimiles of paintings for copy. The inheritance of the traditional culture counts on these notes. Secondly, “aches”, which mean sickness. Headaches, leg pains, heartaches, everything that brings pain and sadness is an “ache”. The analgesic plasters, a traditional Chinese medicine, are usually pasted on the human body, bringing instant relief to pain.
In my opinion, whether it is physical or psychological, aches have always accompanied people since birth. We have various pains in different ages of our life, and the remedy used to relieve pain in each stage of life is also different. I have been looking for an appropriate remedy to soothe my restless mind. In 2022, I drew some one-piece paintings of this series in my spare time. I thought it would be similar to the previous ones, but once I started drawing, it seemed that I could not help myself. The images are slowly blurred after superimposing ink and color over and over, as if it will never return to the past.
In fact, the creation of each period should be the reflection and restart of that period of life, which also echoes the theme of the exhibition. I think the curator's selection of this series of works should stem from her consideration and choice from the current pandemic situation.
“The Breathable I & II” (details), 5x88cm, Ink and cinnabar on gauze, 2015
Zhang Yanzi, “The Remedy”, 13cm×8cm, ointments, ink, etc. 2022
Wang Xiao: In recent years, my creations started from Chinese woodblock printing, and later incorporated the contemporary practice of traditional media such as gongbi (fine brushwork) and ink painting. The participating work can elaborate on the theme of "restart" from three stages. The first stage featured my creative exploration of the ontology of Chinese woodblock printing when I studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The content is a surreal, metaphysical reflection on the relationship between the individual and the environment. The second stage is the gongbi (fine brushwork) works created in my spare time in the first few years of work. In this stage, I primarily focused on the more in-depth and subtle practice of traditional media and painting techniques. The slow-paced painting method of gongbi (fine brushwork) can urge artists to carry out good precipitation and baptism for themselves. The third stage is a comprehensive exploration of artistic methods and ideas based on the previous two stages. For example, “Slightly Expressive Landscape” originated from a travel experience in Pittsburgh, USA. In the corner of this once glorious steel city, I felt the decadent and desolate atmosphere of the declining industrial age, as well as the unease and hesitation hidden under the calm surface of the urban transformation period. In this work, the two mass-produced models were abandoned in a void and lonely realm, and a real-life form has grown in a long time and extended space. The complicated expressions on their faces are indescribable. It seems that they are mocking, helpless, and difficult to escape.
Wang Xiao, “Slightly Expressive Landscape”, 110x70cm, Ink and color on paper, 2021
Yu Yu: “Silk as Life” series and “36cm&2mm” series were chosen to participate in this exhibition. The two series of works represent the starting points of my two different creative stages, which also revealed a certain progressive relationship between them. They both record my breakthrough under the original creative framework, echoing the theme of “Restart | Unlimited”. Taking “Silk as Life” series as an example, I originally wanted to create a combination of embroidery and a painting on silk. In the process of researching the knowledge of silk fabrics, I learned that the process of silk reeling needs to kill the silkworm chrysalis in the cocoon to prevent the silkworm moth from breaking out of the cocoon and destroying the silk thread. I was deeply touched because I never expected countless fallen lives behind the delicate silk fabrics. Therefore, I destroyed the weaving structure of the silk and pulled silk threads from it to embroider the image of moths on the silk, so that this artificially interrupted state of life was visualized while destroying the silk. What I want to express is that when human beings use the saying “Till the end of life a silkworm keeps spinning silk” to praise the dedication of silkworms, silkworms may only hope to complete their own life course. Spinning silk is their own life needs rather than weaving silk for us human beings.
Yu Yu, “Silk as Life-7”, 62cm×52×5cm, handmade reeling off raw silk, embroidery, hand-painted on silk, 2017
Creative Process of “Silk as Life”
- The Healing Power of Art
Zhang Yanzi: Art always has its own healing effect, it just needs to prescribe the right medicine. Creating art is a process of analyzing society and the self. It may be very “painful” and “hurtful”, but the result can cure oneself or others. However, healing people is not the purpose of art creation. From the point of view of healing, whether it is the traditional art of cultivating one’s mind or the contemporary art of “scraping poison off the bones” to cure wounds, passion or calm, expression or venting, all different methods are ultimately a release of emotions.
Creating art must be sincere to the artist itself, tell the truth, and paint real pictures. We are all growing, maturing, and even aging, and our understanding of the world will be constantly updated. If my creation has “turned” and “transformed”, perhaps it is better to say that my attitude towards life has changed. As I mentioned earlier, all forms of healing are temporary. Every time a work is completed, one will get a temporary sense of satisfaction, but it will also be accompanied by self-doubt and denial. The exploration of new work is born from such a tangled process. So it can be said that art never ends, and there is no remedy for life.
“Excess”, Silk robe, capsules, 160×150cm, 2017
Zhang Yanzi, “Mask Series 26-50”, size variable, ink on cloth, 2020
Wang Xiao: The healing power of art acts first and foremost on the artists themselves. Genius and madness are often in one thought, and it is precisely because of art that many rebellious and nonsensical ideas have justifiable reasons to practice. The healing power in the creation of female artists is usually reflected in inner cultivation and the ability to soothe anxiety. Female artists often need to constantly balance traditional values with their own ideals, dealing with entanglement between the secular life and the spiritual world. In this process, art brings people a powerful “metaphysical” traction, which makes the heavy body lighter and the smoky soul clean.
In the post-pandemic era, the “healing” function of art for people stems from its ability to infinitely approach sincere and profound human emotions and the mystery of the chaotic universe. Therefore, it has become a very precious pure land in this unpredictable era.
Yu Yu: There is a saying in China that “sorcery and medicine never separate" throughout history. The so-called “sorcery” is actually psychological healing, helping patients alleviate their symptoms through psychological hints. Even some symptoms are originally “mental diseases”, which can be cured by psychological intervention. I think “art therapy” belongs to this category, but the method is different from sorcery or conventional psychological counseling. Instead, it uses visual principles or a kind of artistic thinking to carry out the effective psychological intervention, so that the viewer can empathize with it to gain some energy, and further to achieve the effect of healing. I also have a series of works regarding the notion of “healing”, but it was not included in the exhibition this time.
Minerva Zang: The three months I spent in Europe in the summer of 2022 had a real impact on me, and one of the most impressive moments happened at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. I am probably the only Asian here because of the pandemic prevention and control. There was an exhibition entitled “Tomorrow Is A Different Day”, which was very similar to the concept of “Restart | Unlimited”. I was attracted by a large installation “In the World but Not Know the World” as it reminded me of the pandemic and the alienation of reality and fiction under the rapid technological development in this era. I felt the unity of the human community when I saw countless pieces of elements with different styles still tightly spliced together. I was suddenly aware that a white-haired older person was also attracted by this work and quietly staring at it. I imagined the pictures in his mind when he viewed this work. At the moment when we were both stopped by this art installation, it seemed that we two transcended race, time, language, and even all distances to communicate. It is a very magical power that only art can bring. In the post-pandemic era, our society has experienced numerous changes, making people feel at a loss. I think art is the best medium to heal people’s hearts and bring energy and inspiration to everyone, which is also a vision that I want to convey through this exhibition. While art transcends the constraints of reality, it can encourage everyone to regroup and restart after constant changes.
III. “Traditional and Contemporary Reflective Dimensions”
Zhang Yanzi: The relationship and transformation between tradition and contemporary is a classical topic that would be discussed in every era. In my viewpoint, challenges will always exist in my creative process. Discarding the constraints that I give to myself should be the most significant. Traditions are rooted in our genes—we are born with them and cannot get rid of them. However, we may not really understand our genes and our traditions. Therefore, we should try our best to learn more knowledge to understand and appreciate how the ancient East knew the world and the self.
Nowadays, people are in an era of political, economic, and military power competition in a global context, an era of parallel multi-dimensional spaces such as virtual worlds and metaverses under the rapid development of the Internet, and an era of digital and unmanned artificial intelligence brought about by high technology. Undoubtedly, our traditional genes will be automatically upgraded in order to adapt to such an era. The same is true of artistic creation. I would say that genetic mutation may be a breakthrough (in art creation).
Zhang Yanzi, “Her 24 Solar Terms-Frost's Descent”, 24x30cm, mixed media, 2022
Zhang Yanzi, “Her 24 Solar Terms-Winter Solstice”, 50x50cm, mixed media, 2022
Wang Xiao: Different challenges will appear in various creative stages. The technical threshold of traditional art is relatively high. Once mastered, it is easy to get restricted by techniques. Thus, the game between technique and emotion will become a bottleneck. For example, woodblock printing pursue a magnificent and delicate effect, which requires elaborate and step-by-step design. However, by doing so, it is easy to lose the original feeling and spirit. So I think it is necessary for artists to escape from the technical restrictions when they are able to analyze and apply traditional techniques to a certain degree. Rather than giving up, "escape" herein implies a reflection from another perspective and a rediscovering oneself for further exploration. The following practices that I will carry out will take traditional art language as a dramatically dynamic fulcrum, so as to extend different issues and conduct a multi-dimensional cross-examination of history, culture and reality.
Wang Xiao, “Slightly Expressive Landscape: A Human-shaped Stone”, paper-based woodblock printing (monotype), 2022
Wang Xiao, “Surreal Landscape”, 70x90cm, silk-based woodblock printing (mono print), 2014
Yu Yu, “Not just Silk-2”, 118×80×6cm, hand-painted on silk, handmade reeling off raw silk, colored mirror, 2021
Yu Yu: My research interest of my postgraduate study was “contemporary transformation of traditional resources”. Achieving the connection between traditional language and contemporary spirit that requires creators to understand traditional culture in depth, experience and observe the present profoundly. To this end, a large amount of readings and thinking are necessary to ensure a quality output. But for me, the biggest challenge in creation is the visual presentation part. I usually choose the most appropriate medium and expressive language according to the needs of the creative concept, thus the visual presentation of my different series of works is dramatically different. Every time a visual language is practiced, the process from an idea to the actual operation, and then to the final mature performance, requires a lot of experiments, summaries and polishing. I am not the type of creator who has mastered a language of expression and has been using it to the end. Although the workload will increase exponentially, it is also a source of fun and fulfillment.
Zhang Yanzi, “Her 24 Solar Terms-Beginning of Summer”, 75x45cm, mixed media, 2022
Zhang Yanzi, “Her 24 Solar Terms-Autumnal Equinox”, 60 x42cm, mixed media, 2021
Zhang Yanzi, “Her 24 Solar Terms-Great Snow”, 60 x42cm, mixed media, 2022
Wang Xiao, “A Dead Stone”, 28x28cm, color on silk, 2017
Wang Xiao, “An Epic Poem of Water No.3”, 120x45cm, paper-based woodblock printing (monotype), 2022
Yu Yu, “36cm & 2mm”, 1’20’', single-frequency video, 2021 (video screenshot)
Yu Yu, “36cm & 2mm”, installation, 45×95×5cm, oocyte retrieval needles, balloon, 2021
Minerva Zang: I started to be concerned about the traditional Chinese culture under my parents guidance. They believe as Chinese citizens, it is significant to comprehend our own culture before we learn about other cultures. So I was deeply influenced and taught by them when I was young, and I also learned the golden mean in Tai Chi and tea culture.
I am currently studying at the University of Pennsylvania. The experiences of alumni Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin here in this university inspired me to reflect on traditional Chinese culture in a foreign land. During their studies at UPenn, they deeply explored the common characteristics between Chinese and Western art, trying to integrate Chinese and Western cultures and bringing what they learned back to China, which is exactly what I expect to do. At UPenn, two Taizong Horses (昭陵六骏, Zhaolinliujun) are in the Asian collection of the Penn Museum, and one of them is currently on display, which has received considerable attention from numerous scholars around the world. When they stood in front of Chinese artworks and admired them, they were intoxicated, a sense of mission and pride emerged in my mind spontaneously. Along with the trend of globalization, only cooperation can achieve mutual benefit and progress. Artistic communication could transcend language, race, and international aspects. Therefore, it is important to learn from each other, but we also need to take the essence and discard the dregs with a critical eye when confronting different cultures. Cultures are all connected, and learn about other cultures so they could help us understand ourselves better.
Minerva Zang was visiting exhibitions around the world.
From my viewpoint, I am attracted by contemporary art because it conveys feelings through the manipulation of time and space, rather than directly illustrating reality. I have visited many art museums in Europe, and the most exciting moment was observing Zao Wou-Ki(Zhao Wuji)’s artworks at the Centre Pompidou, the most unique museum of modern and contemporary art in France. I highlighted this moment because, previously, I would have long been accustomed to the works of the China Pavilion that only contain antiques from several hundred years ago while there are few modern and contemporary art collections. So a strong sense of cultural pride arose in my heart when I found audiences from all over the world could appreciate Zhao Wuji’s work. I think this is exactly what I want to achieve through the Minerva Gallery. I hope to bridge the culture and art communication between Hefei and the world through the gallery, attracting not only art scholars but also the wide range of people to learn the glory of Chinese art. I will put what I have learned from my overseas travels into the future development and construction of the Minerva Gallery, hoping to inspire more young art practitioners with a unique perspective and contribute to the development of Chinese art.