Discussion about Zhang Yu’s “Experimental Ink-and-Wash”

Gao Minglu(高名潞)

Zhang Yu(张羽)

Sheng Wei(盛葳)


Date: 6 August 2006

Venue: Gao Minglu’s apartment, Jiuxianqiao, Beijing

Translated by Wen Zai/AEMcKenzie



Gao Minglu (Gao): Since the end of the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’, ink-and-wash has been developing for thirty years now. Your involvement dates back to the beginning of the 1990s, I suppose?


Zhang Yu (Zhang): If you mean my overall exploration of ink-and-wash, we should go back to the mid-1980s. In 1986 I began my Fan series (《扇面系列》), an attempt to explore the modernity of ink-and-wash. You may or may not remember that you published my Fan works in Art Monthly in 1989. In fact, when I say that I began to explore modern ink-and-wash in 1985, it was in this year that I took part in planning the founding and editing of the World of Chinese Traditional Painting (《国画世界》) series of publications exploring Chinese traditional painting, and I presided over the editing work until the end of 1991. At the time this was the only publication in China that specialized in introducing modern ink-and-wash paintings of an exploratory character. Besides, its influence in the field of ink-and-wash was very significant in those years, and it was very highly rated. Numerous painters submitted material, and there were many painters who came from all over China to Tianjin specifically for me to see their works. Zou Jianping got to know me through The World of Chinese Traditional Painting. He sent me Painter (《画家》), and through this exchange of publications we started communicating and got to know each other. The World of Chinese Traditional Painting helped me understand the ideas of many artists as well as their psychological stumbling-blocks and aspirations.


Gao: Yes, at the time there were artists like this in Hubei and Xi’an. Art Trend (《美术思潮》) also did some work on this.


Zhang: Yes, periodicals such as Jiangsu Painting Monthly and Art Trend were very influential. Art Trend held a very important exhibition, the Hubei Chinese Painting Invitational New Works Exhibition. This exhibition served a significant purpose in developing modern ink-and-wash. In the World of Chinese Traditional Painting series I introduced many of the artists in that exhibition, such as Li Shinan, Zhou Sicong, Tian Liming, Lu Yushun, Chen Ping, Zhu Xinjian, Li Jin, Ding Liren, Wang Yanping, Yan Binghui. Later I again brought about the publication of Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting (《中国现代水墨画》) in which I introduced Gu Wenda, Shi Hu, Wang Chuan, Shen Qin, Chen Xiangxun, Zhuo Hejun, Pu Guochang, Yang Zhilin, Zuo Zhengyao, Liu Jin’an, Huang Yihan, Li Xiaoxuan, Liu Zijian and others.                                


Gao: It seems there was only one volume of Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting, but two of World of Chinese Traditional Painting.


Zhang: Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting was a collection of paintings that I compiled. At the time I felt it was impossible to demonstrate my new thinking in World of Chinese Traditional Painting, for it had already taken shape as a definite direction. Accordingly there was Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting, for which I specially asked Liu Xiaochun to write a foreword. At the time, he too was constantly thinking about the question of modern ink-and-wash. His article was called: “Setting New Norms” (创立新规范). When this book was produced, the new scholarly (new literati) painting was very lively. Although I too took part in several of their exhibitions, the trend of my thinking and the questions I was thinking about were different from theirs. I felt that their works lacked the factor of newness – that they were pouring old wine into new bottles. The purpose of my taking part in their exhibitions was to allow viewers to feel what sort of works involved experimentation with new meanings. To refute the new scholarly painting, and to present something ‘new’ and ‘modern’ was also the purpose of my bringing about the publication of Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting. However, the World of Chinese Traditional Painting was a series. I produced five volumes from about 1985 till 1991, basically one volume each year. Because the fifth volume was too modern, the publishers suppressed it and didn’t allow it to be published. This Volume 5 was the one I was most happy with. The World of Chinese Traditional Painting was the initial forum for my development of modern ink-and-wash experimentation. It also reflected my thoughts and ideas at the time and my understanding of the renewal of ink-and-wash, and to ensure the smooth publication of World of Chinese Traditional Painting I had to practice a lot of humility and hard work. When the time came to publish it, I also got Li Zehou to write the foreword.


Gao: But it seems that Li Zehou’s things didn’t feature in the book?


Zhang: True, they didn’t. They were removed later! I remember that I had not been an editor for long at the time. When producing the first volume of World of Chinese Traditional Painting, I felt that that issue was very important, and that I ought to get a rather influential person to write something for it, some views from an aesthetic angle. So I thought of Li Zehou. To get hold of him involved some twists and turns. I went to Beijing a number of times before I found out where he was living. I remember he happened to be resting at home. He was wearing very fastidious checked tan pajamas when he met us – that is, myself and a female recent university graduate who had been sent out from the editorial office – in his sitting-room. At first he refused to write it. I was in my twenties at the time, arrogant and blunt in my speech, and I was always talking about my ideas. Perhaps it was my persistence that moved this expert on aesthetics, for he ended up agreeing to write something. I received his article a week later and was very excited. The success of this request made me very self-confident in the subsequent management of my business. Indeed, that article was particularly well-written. The rough version was produced very quickly, but just after he had produced it, it was reported that Li Zehou had encountered some difficulties, and the article was removed. Afterwards I heard that he had gone to Singapore, and we had no further contact. It was very regrettable that such a good article was not used. The article disappeared, and though I have made several searches of the publisher’s files, I have failed to find it. Now all I can remember of it can be summed up in a few words, roughly: “I do not know what the overall effect will be of the publication of World of Chinese Traditional Painting, but it has a very good vision, and this vision was very well explained to me by the young editor of the Yangliuqing Painters Community. His explanation and his sincerity moved me. Exploration and innovation are not only his ideals though, but are in fact what is demanded by the age…” 


Gao: So you began your exploration of abstract experimentation after the departure of Gu Wenda and others in that group, with some other friends in the art world in China, including Liu Zijian. Yet your and Li Zijian’s work was rather different from the 1980s work of Gu Wenda and others of that group. I called them ‘Cosmic flow’ (宇宙流), but whatever we call them, they all were influenced by surrealism, along with some modern philosophical concepts, and besides, they basically all developed with the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts as their base. However, you and your friends’ works on the other hand are also different from the direction of the art of the new scholarly painting, for they are more like the Jiangsu artists who ‘play with brush and ink’ (游戏笔墨). To some degree, it also bears a certain relation to ‘cynical art’. I feel that you and your friends’ work is very different from theirs. I mean your ‘experimental ink-and-wash’ of the 1990s. By the way, why is it called ‘experimental ink-and-wash’ (实验水墨)? Are there any shared conceptions, ideas or pursuits?


Zhang: The phenomenon of Gu Wenda’s ink-and-wash was indeed a model, though I personally have no special feeling towards his works. But at the time it nevertheless generated a lot of emotion in us, a feeling of excitement and hope. In the 1980s I still didn’t know about Liu Zijian. I first saw his works after 1989. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I began to have more to do with him. In the 1980s my contacts were mainly with Shi Hu, Li Shinan, Li Jin, Zuo Zhengyao, Zou Jianping, Wang Yanping and also Yan Binghui. I remember that there was during that time a sense of collision with new scholarly painting, and I even wrote an article with the title “Down With New Scholarly Painting.” Thinking about it now, it seems amusing.


Experimental ink-and-wash only really took shape after 1995. It is inseparable from the publication of Trends (《走势》). At the same time as the first issue of Trends appeared in 1993, the concept of ‘experimental ink-and-wash’ was used in a related sense in the special column of the same name, produced by Huang Zhuan and Wang Huangsheng for the third issue of Guangdong Artists (《广东美术家》). However, the artists selected by Huang Zhuan for this column were very mixed, and I personally consider that it would have been more accurate to call them ‘exploratory’. They included figurative, non-figurative, expressionist, abstract, representational and folk artists, and included artists such as Li Xiaoxuan, Wang Yanping, Tian Liming, Deng Qiang, Nie Ganyin, Yang Zhilin, Liu Zijian and Huang Yihan. This was also the case with Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting, which I produced in 1989. Basically they were the same people. I think that using concepts in such a generalized way doesn’t do much for establishing academic standards, and this was a reminder for me. When I used the concept ‘experimental ink-and-wash’, it was in a spirit of cleaning and tidying, one of emphasizing goals and directions, of maintaining the aim of the construction of experimental ink-and-wash, and of high-lighting the directional meaning of ‘experimental’. As I know and understand the concept of ‘experimental ink-and-wash’, it has an avant-garde character, and can be distinguished from traditional ink-and-wash, which includes the format of figurative painting with its representational nature. Our ideal is to construct a new order of ink-and-wash, and I take my point of departure from the non-figurative, because the non-figurative format is vacant in the history of Chinese painting. At the same time I recognise that the reason why it is called ‘experimental ink-and-wash’ is that this term is inclusive, open and clear. It has a modernist attitude. Besides, ‘experimental’ in itself has a strongly modernist sense.


The general attitude of the shared thoughts or ideas of the artists working under the banner of ‘experimental ink-and-wash’ is to break away from the traditional norms of ink-and-wash by using a modern format. Of course there are also various painters who do not share this opinion. However, at the time when we were just beginning this activity together, we had not previously formed any shared conceptions, since the process had just commenced. People mainly shared some thoughts on artistic creation, and seemed similar in their ideas and slogans, but these ideas hadn’t matured. It was still building up. For instance, take one of the things we often said: ‘break with the traditional norms of ink-and-wash by using a modern format.’ What was this ‘format’? How were we to ‘break away’? What was to be our method of breaking away? What was to be the context? And so on. Thinking back of this as an idea today, we at the time spent some ten years before we could, relatively speaking, move on from breaking ground and theorizing about it to explaining its basic problems and relationships.


Gao: How did this group of people including you coalesce? You yourself were a representative of this group of artists, did a lot of work including publication, and may be considered an important organizer within the group. Can you say something about this question, whether there were any common pursuits in the formation of this group?


Zhang: I did bring people together. Of course they too had this aspiration. There are a couple of reasons why I could bring everybody together. First, I had published over a number of years and was ceaselessly promoting ink-and-wash. About this time I edited four issues in the World of Chinese Traditional Painting series as well as the compilation of paintings Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting. I also curated some exhibitions and had a lot to do with many critics and artists, so everybody was aware of me to some degree. Second, my ideal, and everyone else’s ideal too, was to produce modern ink-and-wash. They accepted my viewpoint that we couldn’t rely on just one or two people to promote modern ink-and-wash and achieve wide attention to it. To establish a problematic or phenomenon takes a collective force, a powerful battle-array. Thirdly, modern ink-and-wash was in a very awkward position. The world around us was indifferent to it. This included the critics, so self-help was the only option.


I had envisaged this collective prototype before the great China/Avantgarde Exhibition in 1989, beginning from the drafts for Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting, the book I had been editing from September 1988. For, two years earlier, I had produced an individual catalogue for Shi Hu, after which I had quite a lot to do with him. So I first agreed to have his works in it, and then also works by Gu Wenda, Chen Xiangxun, Tang Song, Zhang Jie, Wang Chuan, Shen Qin and others. In the event I could not use Tang Song’s works, because of his apparent connection to the famous gunshots at the China/Avantgarde Exhibition. During the extended editing process of the book, this collective direction became increasingly clear. Ultimately it took three years to complete the editing work for this book. Publishing was very difficult in those days, quite unlike today. The problems arose from the political situation of the time, and there were funding problems. The political situation meant the general environment was not ideal after the China/Avantgarde Exhibition, and there were of course objections from the publishing company’s leadership. There was also the problem that the subscription numbers for this kind of book would certainly not be very good, and therefore nobody would vouch for its funding. So things were repeatedly postponed. In desperation I thought of the device of taking second place after the leader of the publishing company as editor-in-chief of this book. Unexpectedly this succeeded, and by this stratagem I achieved my objective of publication. It was also because of this difficult process that I became even more determined to uphold the position of modern ink-and-wash. In the event, Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting was quite influential once it was published, and in particular it gave an emotional boost to some of the artists in the book.


When I had completed Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Painting in 1991, I accepted invitations from the Soviet Union Ministry of Culture’s Academy of Sciences (Social Sciences section) and the State Museum of Oriental Art, and I went to Russia to hold a solo exhibition of my works. It took half a year before my passport was approved, and I used this period to draft a new publication. It has always been a strategy of mine to promote artistic development. At the time I was firmly convinced that publications carried more credibility and were more professional and enduring than exhibitions. They also produced more effect within the field, and could be given more depth. During this period I often had telephone conversations with Zuo Zhengyao. I prepared to produce a series purely devoted to modern ink-and-wash, maintaining the tracking of individual case studies over several years, and employing a clear battle-array to explain our viewpoints. At the time I said to him jokingly: if you keep telling a lie, people will eventually regard it as the truth. He answered: Even more so, since what we are saying is true in the first place. So he was very responsive: “This business will definitely work, I’ll support you.” I then explained the subject of the series I had finished planning: ‘Tendencies in Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash in the Late Twentieth Century’. Later, when Zuo Zhengyao again raised the subject of the series with me when we talked over the telephone, he suddenly asked me in the middle of our conversation, as we were exchanging views: “What about ‘Trends’?” I suddenly realized it would be better, and so I replaced ‘tendency’ (趋势) with ‘Trends’ (走势). I felt that ‘trends’ was more active, more consciously aware. I settled on the details of the project in Moscow: I originally planned to make an abstract group the subject of Trends in Chinese Modern Ink-and-wash Art in the Late Twentieth Century, but at the time there were not very many artists of scale who were working in this field of exploring abstract ink-and-wash, and I also had to consider whether it would be possible to work together. With this in mind, I found it temporarily necessary to keep it somewhat more open. This is also why the first issue included Zuo Zhengyao, Huang Yihan and Li Jin, and why I myself had not yet published any abstract works.


At the time, there was no mention of experimental ink-and-wash. My feelings about the direction of my own plans were clear, but on the other hand I was somewhat vague about the specifics of getting started on them. It was a bit like Deng Xiaoping’s expression: cross the river by feeling the stones. Well, the theorists who were then studying this aspect were also not too clear about the thinking. They too were following the creation of the artists to develop their research and investigations. As for me, I’m an idealist. I have to proceed, think, and create simultaneously. 


I lived and worked in Russia for six months. The harvest of these six months was very rich. I visited the large and small museums, art galleries and commercial galleries of St Petersburg, Moscow and other cities, fully satisfying my visual and psychological needs. This was the first time I had left the country, and to go to the ‘Soviet Union’ was a dream of people of my generation. Since childhood we were so familiar with those two words: ‘Soviet Union’ (‘苏联’) – and felt an admiration for the place. Even more exhilarating was that Belyaevo Modern Art Museum was holding a solo exhibition of my work. Whenever I think about this experience, I feel excited.


The recruiting of this group was still begun through publications. After I returned to China in late 1992, I began to carry out my plan. It was, already then, to transform the format by using ISBN numbers, and to make use of the position I had achieved through publishing to compile materials for publication. In March 1993 I first came to agreements with Li Jin and Yan Binghui in Tianjin; Zhang Jin in Beijing; Zuo Zhengyao, Huang Yihan and Liu Zijian (through Zuo Zhengyao) in Guangzhou; and Shi Guo in Zhuhai. On 17 June 1993 I was to hold a solo exhibition in Hong Kong, and I used to opportunity to visit some friends in southern China. On the 9th I travelled to Guangzhou and stayed in the Overseas Chinese Hotel, and that evening I agreed to meet with Zuo Zhengyao and Huang Yihan. Although it was the first time we met, we got along very well, like old friends meeting after a long interval. We encouraged one another. A funny thing was that both Zou Zhengyao and I separately dipped a finger in wine and wrote ‘TRENDS’ (走势) on the table. I can’t quite remember why, but we were very excited that night, and Huang Yihan immediately recommended Fang Tu. After they left, because I was only in Guangzhou for one night, I arranged to meet Liu Zijian. Because we had never met, we first walked straight past each other when I went to meet him in the lobby. It was a happy meeting. He approved of my long-term plan and was more than willing to work with me. Although this was also the first time we met, our conversation was exhilarating. A week later, I returned from Hong Kong to the same place for a meeting with Wang Huangsheng, and I continued to communicate my views on the subject of Trends, hoping that he would support us in his criticism. This is how, where and when Trends got started.


Although our conceptions had not matured, but just amounted to a somewhat rough idea, we shared a pursuit and a dream: to produce a ‘modern ink-and-wash’ that was our own.


Gao: What did you understand the implications of this ‘modern’ to be at the time?


Zhang: Looking at the exhibitions of the time and, for that matter, the publications as well, all the traditional ink-and-wash was stereotypical, too conceptualized, too formulaic, lacking in shock value, incapable of moving the spectator – generally it felt boring. Therefore, my thinking was that I really wanted change, to make something new, to be different. My understanding then of ‘modern’ was very simple. Primarily it had to be different from the tradition, to establish a distance to it. The scope of expression needed to be broadened, and there must be some difference as well. It should refer to modern life, or even to the imagination beyond real life. It must not be superficial. It had to be deep, to emphasize psychological emotions and spirituality. It must dare to embrace the expressive methods of western modern art such as surrealism, expressionism, and abstraction. Then, with regard to technical aspects, it must definitely explore new expressive devices and stand outside the rules of traditional brush-and-ink. A common saying of mine during this period was: ‘all is fair in artistic creation.’ Besides, I felt very ambitious at the time. I considered an empty but real problem – the problem of art history and how to create something that didn’t exist already in art history. From the angle of the development history of art, each age has a direction and coordinates that are different from those of other ages. I feel that this is the real meaning and value, and that artists should work along these lines.


Gao: Meanwhile, you were producing books, dealing with other artists, selecting artists and consolidating your line of thought. Do you feel that between you and these other artists there were identical areas, or areas of dispute or discussion? For instance, about what precisely experimental ink-and-wash was?


Zhang: The experimental ink-and-wash painters were a very rational group. We were very clear about what we were doing, so everybody was ringing me frequently, on an everyday basis, and we were encouraging one another. Because many things were done by me together with the others, I naturally performed a lot of specific tasks in the course of this process. I regarded the question of experimental ink-and-wash as my own cause to undertake, and therefore I put all my energy into it. My ability to produce books was acknowledged by everybody. Very few people could do what I did, that is, plan a book from scratch, gather material, organise artists and critics, design, proofread it and see it through to its printing, binding and distribution. Although the distribution was not ideal at all, I managed every time to use some of the remaining money to mail books to many artists and critics, which really produced a very good effect. Even today, many critics say that if they have to write an article to do with modern ink-and-wash, they definitely read these issues of Trends. Therefore, at the very least it is a relatively concentrated and important documentary resource of the history of the development of experimental ink-and-wash of that era.


In the earliest period there were some minor compromises in the academic line of thought and overall direction of my editing, but later I gradually increased the emphasis on my personal point of view, enhancing the way the problem was targeted. Among this group of artists, Liu Zijian’s telephone calls were the most frequent. He was very positive. Accordingly, our contact of the late 1990s increased after about 1998, probably beginning from the Shanghai Biennale. On the whole, this group showed a lot of solidarity. Otherwise the group could not have worked together for so long, for more than ten years. Of course, at the time everyone was very clear that this format was the only way that we could make our mark. Perhaps some of the people wondered seriously about what this line of thought of mine really was, or maybe they didn’t. In the first few years, we were very close – one might say that we were struggling together in solidarity. Perhaps none of us were in an ideal situation, and we were all in a position where very high hopes were mixed up with academic ideals and individual circumstances.


In objective terms, everything develops through change, and the development of Trends spurred on the creative work of the artists and the gradual formation of artistic phenomena. During the production of the second issue, Wang Tiande looked at the Trends series and especially rang me and offered to join us. When I saw his non-figurative works, I sensed that a new phenomenon within non-figurative ink-and-wash would soon present itself. At the same time Chen Xiaoxin recommended Zhang Hao’s non-figurative works to me. Our team was growing. Psychologically, I found Chen Xiaoxin’s actions very heartening.


By the end of 1995, Fang Tu specially invited me to fly to Guangzhou to introduce me to Fang Tianlong, the General Manager of Dragon Property Development Co Ltd, and to let me get to know him. Fang Tianlong said that he hoped to invest in us. He had already done some preparatory work, and now he needed to negotiate directly with me, as success depended on me now. After two excellent long conversations, I secured his support for experimental ink-and-wash. Securing Fang Tianlong’s funding was a turning-point. This time, the funding was directed towards experimental ink-and-wash, and it accelerated its development. I was really excited then, and when I think of it today, I am very grateful to General Manager Fang, and I should also say, to Fang Tu. 


For with this funding, a project with scale, clear direction and an academic program was born. In June 1996 I planned and convened the “Symposium on Contemporary Chinese Ink and Wash Toward the 21st Century” (“走向21世纪的中国当代水墨艺术研讨会”) in Guangzhou­, for which I invited Pi Daojian to be the academic host, along with eleven Chinese critics. There were also ten ink-and-wash artists engaged in abstract form who took part in the symposium, and their works were shown in the associated “Exhibition for Viewing and Emulating”. These artists were Fang Tu, Wang Tiande, Wang Chuan, Shi Guo, Zhang Yu, Zhang Jin, Liu Zijian, Chen Tiejun, Yan Binghu and Wei Qingji. Because this academic activity was convened at South China Normal University, Liu Xijian and Wei Qingji gave me a lot of support and assistance. Finally the position of Trends was developing as we wished. Accordingly I proposed that the theme of the third issue should be “Abstract Ink-and-Wash Discourse in the 1990s”. 1996 was an important year for us, a turning-point. Henceforth, experimental ink-and-wash became the focus of the ink-and-wash problem. In 1998 the experimental ink-and-wash phenomenon finally entered the Shanghai Biennale as an academic problem. This is when its situation really changed. It was no longer rejected by the official exhibitions.


It was also at this time that there were some changes to our group. The main voice in these changes came from the painter Yan Binghui. He disagreed with the expression ‘experimental ink-and-wash’, saying that it was not experimental but free, as ‘experimental’ implied unsuccessful. He compared ‘experimental’ with ‘test’, and asked when we would ‘succeed’ if we continued in this vein. In fact, Yan Binghui was right in that his own work was not experimental ink-and-wash. He had not broken free from the traditional rules of ink-and-wash. Since then we have not worked together. At the time my views were the same as Li Zijian’s. Experimental ink-and-wash was our attitude and our standpoint. ‘Experiment’ (实验) differs from ‘test’ (试验). And my personal attitude is that the more we understand ‘experimental ink-and-wash’ as a relatively open concept, the further it will go.


Looking back at the development of experimental ink-and-wash, in order to be able to present the questions clearly, I might, during the stage of submitting material in editing a book, prompt the artists to submit the works they had at hand. For instance, works by Shi Guo and Wei Qingji varied rather a lot, so the only way to preserve a feeling of unity in the book was to choose works of the same format. When this became awkward, I asked the artists to submit even more works, leaving myself some room for choice. For all the works submitted by the artists were fairly individual, reflecting their individual preferences. When they were juxtaposed, the result was not always harmonious. I had to exert myself to the utmost, including in the designing, to show the questions with crystal clarity, so that the battle-array would be well-ordered. There must be a direction. This applied to the choice of artists too. One can say that the choice was mutual between myself and the artists, but I would choose the artists according to the set theme. You can see if you wish, that the artists in the fourth issue of Trends are quite different from those in Chinese Experimental Ink-and-Wash.


Gao: In that case, what exactly is ‘experimental ink-and-wash’?


Zhang: I understand and define the concept of ‘experimental ink-and-wash’ as an open, developing, changing artistic method. First, it is definitely non-figurative in form. It has broken away from the norms of traditional ink-and-wash. It has no direct connection with the traditional techniques of one-wave-three-twists (一波三折) , texture-strokes (皴法) or touching-up (点染). It is created from scratch. It is unprecedented in art history. It is a new understanding and a fresh interpretation of ink-and-wash and of the materials used in the medium of ink-and-wash. It is not necessarily produced on an easel. It can be an installation, a performance, a video installation, and so on. I believe that the important aspect of the word ‘experimental’ is an open attitude or stance. I do not agree with Lu Hong’s pan-theory according to which all ink-and-wash that includes a character of ‘testing’, such as the work of Huang Yihan, Li Xiaoxuan, Liu Qinghe and others, is considered to be ‘experimental ink-and-wash’. This would equate ‘experimental ink-and-wash’ with ‘modern ink-and-wash’, which would obscure the nature of the problem and blur the exploration of the methodology. Experimental ink-and-wash is not ‘test ink-and-wash’. We may seriously consider for a moment that all artists in the modern ink-and-wash camp are engaged in exploration, and thus to a certain degree they are carrying out ‘tests’. However our experimental ink-and-wash exists in the art histories of neither China nor the west. It is a different strand that has been created within the wider system of ink-and-wash, and the most important achievement of the experimental ink-and-wash problem is that it is a creation of schemata and trace images. The background of the creation is that the artists, for their expressive demands, have pushed the relations between water, ink and paper, along with their nature as water, ink and paper, and what they are capable and incapable of, and their potential energy, to the utmost limit as vehicles, and their limits of plasticity. This has been achieved by no ancient, or even recent, modern or contemporary artists working within ink-and-wash creation. They had and have only a general understanding of water, ink and paper. On the other hand, within the open character of experimental ink-and-wash, using or not using a brush, rubbing, peeling, collage, the body, performance action, installation or video installation, mixed media or mixed devices, they have completed an operation that previous people working within the ink-and-wash medium have not. I once wrote a short article, “Experimental Ink-and-Wash Manifesto”, to describe the features of experimental ink-and-wash.


Gao: In fact, at the time the second issue was very important. You basically already then made your line of thinking clear, and you ruled out the tendencies towards a character of expression or representation. How to put it? In fact, it is also not particularly accurate to use the word abstraction.


Zhang: Right. In the second issue I did my utmost to tidy and clean things up, but there were still some objective obstacles that prevented this, and the true direction was only fine-tuned in the third issue.


The editing of the second issue of Trends was, as you just said, the beginning of clarity. Zuo Zhengyao left our group. On this basis, I did not invite Huang Yihan or Li Jin for the third issue. The final fine-tuning of this line of thinking of focusing on the non-figurative artists took place when I was preparing in late 1995 for the 1996 seminar. I had always felt that using ‘abstract’ to characterize us in general was inexact. I felt that it had nothing to do with our problem. So we were against using ‘abstract ink-and-wash’ as a name, but at the time we had not to any sufficient degree thought of any other words that could be more appropriate and fitting. In the third issue of Trends, therefore, I used “Abstract Ink-and-Wash Discourse in the 1990s” to indicate the overall direction of experimental ink-and-wash. By the fourth and last issue, I collated and summarized experimental ink-and-wash in “Breaking with Ink-and-Wash --- the Problem of Experimental Ink-and-Wash Within Contemporary Art”. Objectively speaking, the phenomenon of experimental ink-and-wash and its development was driven by Trends and by its artists and critics to become the ultimate skyline of the modern paradigm shift of Chinese ink-and-wash art, and people were paying attention to it. 


Sheng Wei(Sheng): Why were you later so opposed to them calling those ‘non-figurative’ and ‘pure’ things that you talk about, ‘abstract’? What is the difference between this and the ‘abstract character’ (抽象性) that you talk about?


Zhang: Because there is no true abstraction in experimental ink-and-wash. I feel that their understanding of ‘abstract’ is rather too superficial. They only look at the external form, and have not felt and understood the things that underlie it. The word ‘abstraction’ comes from western modernism. The abstraction of the western cultural background is different from the abstraction of our cultural background. There are two kinds of abstraction in western modern art. One is abstract expressionism focusing on passion, which is also called hot abstraction. The other is cool expressionism, which is more rational. What we usually mean by abstraction is cool abstraction, and cool abstraction stresses rationality, intelligence and apparently a certain calculation in the design. However, our works of this abstract type have their own cultural context and wider cultural background, in particular the special reflection that the special character of the medium and its materials carry with them. They have altogether different meanings and values. In distinction to what people like Lu Hong mean by ‘abstract ink-and-wash’, I personally believe that that using ‘non-figurative’ to define it is quite accommodating. Why am I happier calling it ‘non-figurative’? For instance, my Fingerprint series uses the performance format of cultural concepts for purposes of artistic expression. I first began to produce this series in 1991, then re-started it in 2002. Day after day, I can press fingerprint upon fingerprint on xuan paper. Because I rely on culture, this fingerprinting performance gradually becomes a skilled drill (功夫). What it presents is the expression of the image of traces of the expression and the result of the performance. Is this performance format abstract or figurative?


Sheng: In specific terms, is there any connection between this ‘abstract character’ and our tradition?


Zhang: In our former culture there were many relatively abstract, yet apparently quite specific descriptions, such as ‘obscure’ (朦胧), ‘chaos’ (混沌), ‘unify Heaven and Man’ (天人合一), ‘naturally all comes together’ (浑然天成) and ‘the greatest shape has no form’ (大象无形). I feel that they are all to be found between the two and that they relate to subjective cognition. Yet the important things are Chan (Zen) School Buddhism, religion, Taiji (Tai Chi) and the Daoist philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi. There is indeed a realm within the wider character of abstraction, and through this realm one may arrive at the spiritual. However, present-day creative work cannot directly access and obtain these things. It takes a process of transformation, by which one gets to know and understand oneself anew. However one expresses it, our present-day works are the result of a fusion, of the collision between Chinese and western culture. We have taken some interesting things from western modern art. This is natural. With the particular history that this generation has, we have had no choice.


Gao: Please say something more about your own art. What you have just been talking about is your organizational work. You can follow that up by explaining your creative process. My understanding of your artistic creation dates from when I curated the exhibition inside out, as some of the works in that exhibition related to ink-and-wash, and several of our encounters also date from that time.


Zhang: The first time we met was in 1990, before you went to America. Zou Jianping and I went to your residence. You had shaved your head. You were staying in the Chinese Artists Association’s Beihai courtyard. Because you were just about to leave for America you were very busy, so there was insufficient time to discuss art. Even earlier, in the late 1980s, your reputation had led me to send you some material about my works. I never imagined then that you might actually publish them.


Gao: That’s right. There was definitely a certain reason why I published your works at that time. My impression was that your so-called experimental ink-and-wash began rather with the Round series, did it not?


Zhang: If you mean the beginning of my experimental direction, it began exactly in 1991, when I began to produce Fingerprints. I made a set at the time, and let people have a look. Everybody just felt it was abstract, and there was no special feeling. In those days, people did not understand a work from the subjective actions of the artist. They approached my work from the angle of abstract expressionism, as all they saw was dots and the relationships between dots. I felt discouraged. I hadn’t thought very clearly about it either, and I set aside the fingerprints. I also thought it was rather abstract, and my hope was that I should be more progressive.


Gao: Perhaps you were relatively ahead in your progress.


Zhang: Perhaps a little too much so, it seems. The time wasn’t right. So I adjusted my thinking and produced Capriccio (《随想集》) and Notes on Ink Images (《墨象笔记》), and then also Inspiration (《灵光》). The present direction of my Fingerprints series is the result of my reflections beginning in 2001.


Gao: Do those early works still exist?


Zhang: It seems I only have one or two in my possession, though several pieces were collected overseas. In the book History of Black and White (《黑白史》), there is a work of mine that dates from the early period of my experimental ink-and-wash. The fingerprints on the surface are black and there is an emphasis on the pattern of the lines in the fingerprints, which are relatively sparse, not as densely arranged as they are now. Although it is loose, there is a focal space in the centre, where I have impressed a seal with the character Yu (羽) in red.


Gao: I have a copy of that book History of Black and White. It’s in America now. Is this where Inspiration came from later?


Zhang: That’s right. It started from Fingerprints. At the time I was thinking that perhaps people still wanted to see something that could touch their visual sense directly, as visual impact is the key to shocking the spirit. So I extracted a dot from the fingerprints and enlarged it. I believe that a fingerprint is a life, a world, a universe, and that’s how Inspiration was accomplished. Of course, all this is the accumulation of several years of my reflection and visual experience, including my study touring in Europe, especially the moment when I faced the snowy white exhibition walls of the Centre Pompidou and the Kunstmuseum Bonn and threw a black halo of rich black ink into that snowy white space. It was a unique kind of force, cultural and also material.


Gao: In Inspiration you returned to using a brush, both in modelling and in form. Yet in fact, there is still a performance process in the repeated covering of brushstrokes in it.


Zhang: This is the result of hundreds of brushstrokes, but it nevertheless relates to painting. The creation of Inspiration is premised on the split with the norms of traditional ink-and-wash. The modelling is the key, and the modelling I’m talking about is the configuration (构型), constructing a design capable of hitting the soul and of encroaching on the spirit, and which is unprecedented in art history. I thought it should be a creation, a creation of the spirit of ink-and-wash, a new thread and a new order, a new feeling towards, and a new knowing of, the water, ink and paper that are the medium and materials of ink-and-wash. My use of the brush could not be according to the old rules of ink-and-wash. My use of paper had to change the constrictions of the old cognition only of the natural properties of paper, and had to tap into using the quality, sensitivity and plasticity of xuan paper. My use of ink had to transfer the maximum energy of the nature of ink, and fully use its potential implications and release. My use of water was not restricted to fine-tuning the depth and the light and shade of the ink: water is the most efficient tool to adjust and manipulate xuan paper.


All this must be founded on a sublimation of the emotional cognition of the ink-and-wash medium into a rational cognition. This cognition is completely subject to your expressive needs, and the expression and the cognition of the medium is altogether conscious. They co-exist, and both are required and irreplaceable.


In fact, unless there is a true knowing and understanding of the ink-and-wash medium, it is also very hard to read and understand the artist’s works. Some people who have seen my works say that I started from rubbings, or by crumpling paper. This problem arises from having only an ordinary understanding and knowledge of the ink-and-wash medium. I actually used neither of those methods. What I used was a fluffy-headed or loose brush (开花笔). Other people have used this technique, of course, but my method was different. I loosened the tip of the brush beforehand, and only then added water. All I had to do was to leave free tracings like a random network on the paper. In this way some areas of the surface absorbed water and others didn’t. The xuan paper reacted accordingly, the areas that absorbed water protruding, and the areas that did not absorb water receding. Then I dipped the brush in relatively dry grey ink and repeatedly applied a texture-strokes and rubbing technique (皴擦), or one might call it simply ‘texture-strokes’ (皴法). The initial stage was carried out in a state somewhere between intentional and unintentional, and afterwards the intentional and unintentional was gradually transformed into consciousness or awareness, and thus the protruding parts were ceaselessly strengthened, and the natural traces of cracking were presented, and then in the constant changes and generation the entire structure was manipulated.


Gao: Right, here we have a change in the materials as such, and in your knowledge of them. And this series of works of yours is called Inspiration. That must be because it has a spiritual character. Is there a connection between this spirituality and the material?


Zhang: One could say that in the renewed knowledge of water, ink, paper and brush we have done something that nobody has done before us. The traditional artists were not aware of these changes in the paper. Perhaps the environment of their era did not require it. As for the title Inspiration, it was a direct reference to the spirit or life of the universe. I believe that all things in the universe have life, and the schema of Inspiration is a vehicle of the life created through the medium of ink-and-wash. It is my co-existence with the ink-and-wash medium, and the spiritual properties with which I endow the ink-and-wash medium. As there is a spirit in the universe, I also believe in the perceptions of the dialogue and exchange between myself and the material properties of water, ink and paper. I also believe that our shared expression of inspirational spirit will impact on people’s feelings.

When I was creating the broken circle schemata of Inspiration a question occurred to me. The earth in which we humans exist is an ecological balance. The shared habitat of humans and other living beings is this homeland rich in resources. At the same time as humanity pursues progress and development, we are heartlessly destroying our own homeland. The massive development of mining and oil extraction causes cracking on the inside of the earth. The negative effects of progress and of our enjoying the resources of the earth are severe. Accordingly, the structure of incomplete circular schemata is fissured, and fragments collapse from time to time. This is my emotion, but the anxiety is definitely not mine alone. Here I want to merge the ink-and-wash spirit with spiritual ink-and-wash.


Speaking of this I am again reminded of the Soviet Union’s State Museum of Oriental Art. When I was there, I saw the works of Dong Qichang, Wu Changshuo, Qi Baishi and other masters of Chinese art, yet I experienced a feeling of sorrow. Could the works by the masters that we worship only be exhibited in this setting as antiques of ethnic culture? Why did the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum only contain works by western masters? But then I soon realized that if they exhibited our traditional ink-and-wash works next to western paintings, the former would really need to be different. The format of people’s life in the society of their time would need to be different. There would have to be new demands of their visual experience, such as in the dimensions and proportions, and in the form and tensile power of the works.


As for my saying that Chinese traditional ink-and-wash lacks visual tensile power, it can only be enjoyed in a close-up and playful fashion. Subjectively, I wanted to work not only at letting my own works have a strong power to strike spectators visually, regardless of the dimensions of the exhibition space in which they were shown. I also wanted to grab the viewer’s eyes and soul. My ideas at the time were very simple and clear, simply to coat the surface of the painting with ink until it was black in a new interpretation of the world of black and white. In this way the black and white ink-and-wash works would remain powerful against the white walls, even if the viewer were to stand at a distance of ten or twenty meters. I this way I could in one fell swoop throw all my force into the black and white world of ink-and-wash and make a big statement! The renewed development of the character of ink-and-wash in ink-and-wash culture is extremely important. This is our advantage, for ink-and-wash is yin in nature. Its true nature is restrained, drifting and introverted. The application of light is produced by following the design of subjective schemata, and through the structuring of black and white and their relations of yin and yang, light and shade, it causes something subjective to be brought into play, allowing it to produce a forwards impetus before the viewer, making up for the extraverted tension and sense of thickness and weight that characterizes the western medium as such, and which it lacks. The visual question was the thing that occupied my mind the most in those days. The conceptions and structures were constantly being generated in the process of creating. Later I gradually thought about further internal structural changes, the relationship between the subject and other people, the internal changes between subject and subject in terms of three-dimensionality, space, speed and floating. There were also the relationships of correspondence and interleaving between the outwardness and inwardness of the work. After a period of research, I discovered that the ‘ink’ of ink-and-wash had the ability to engulf everything on the level of darkness. It was thick and dense, and in it there-is and there-is-not (有无) coexisted, and emptiness and actuality (空实) coexisted. As for the ‘white’ of ink-and-wash, it was similarly thick and dense, and in it too there-is and there-is-not (有无) coexisted, and emptiness and actuality (空实) coexisted. They were both sensitive and arousing and therefore could effect a transformation of yin and yang.


Be that as it may, however, we must be clear that contemporary art in the setup of the world today should exist in a comparative juxtaposition of similarity and difference.


Gao: Can you say something about why you returned to Fingerprints, and about this process?


Zhang: I had suddenly been doing Inspiration for ten years, and it had become my trademark. This series had basically achieved the desired target. Of course I still wanted to make it even better, even richer and denser, giving people even more to think about, so I had to put it aside for a while and wait for the reflections and maturity born of the accumulation and discoveries of other aspects before continuing. Another important reason was that Inspiration had not altogether fulfilled my task. I wanted to establish a new system of artistic creation that had its own integrity, or in other words, one that belonged completely to its own method, one that was not subject to substitution, something altogether unique and unparalleled that could thoroughly transcend ink-and-wash and solve the problem of ink-and-wash once and for all, and in my mind, fingerprints were a problem that I had not yet resolved.


In fact, returning to Fingerprints was not just a nostalgic, original program that I had always had in mind. I felt that the idea of creating fingerprints was methodologically clear and explicit. In 2001-2 I at the same time produced Daily News (《每日新报》) and again made a new attempt at producing fingerprints. I had a new knowledge of, and made new discoveries about fingerprints. My previous way of thinking had changed, and I set aside my line of thought about the problem of ink-and-wash as such. Analysing fingerprints from the angle of the culture surrounding contracts, I became more explicitly clear about red fingerprints, for red fingerprints can directly reflect the act of signing or making one’s mark on contracts. This now provided an explicit link to culture, between history and reality, and between culture and art. Premised on the cultural concept of fingerprints, cultural questions targeted artistic questions. Performance became a conception.


Gradually my format became deeper, and after 2002, in the process of developing it fully, I discovered that the process of repeated fingerprinting was similar to the process of repeated chanting in the cultivation practice of the Chan School (Zen Buddhism). The process was the meaning, and the meaning was spirit. None of our former programs, regardless whether they were called experimental ink-and-wash, abstraction or whatever, entered directly and very clearly into the problem of construction, yet the problem of construction is a contemporary problem. We cannot realize the establishment of new norms without having a method. At the same time I also felt that artistic creation must ultimately become simpler, more concise and purer. In a process of accumulation, we stuff more and more things inside our brain. Our thinking becomes more and more complex, and it becomes hard to realize this simplicity and purity. We must completely filter our rich experience and cognition, and our ultimate standpoint must transcend these complex concrete problems and reach the highest realm. In this process I carried out many tests. Some Fingerprint works were relatively free and loose in their arrangement, but I needed to consider the structural relations of positioning and balance. Later I gradually returned to producing denser and denser works, thus strengthening the performance process involved. Positioning, balance and structure were constantly being eliminated, and the abstract images were gradually changed into traces. This resulting pure and simple complexity made me very excited. In fact, the simplicity definitely contained within itself something rich, and the resulting purity was definitely a sublimation of complexity.  


After 2003, the never-ending adjustment of the format of Fingerprints resulted in the works changing constantly. Now that I have arrived at the present with my Fingerprints, I have a special feeling. My fingerprinting format is a cultivation practice of a thinking quality, a practice of spiritual willpower, a practice of an effort that matches mind and hand. I believe that the creative method of Fingerprints is closely connected with its concept, that it is an organic combination, and that this creative process coincides with the spiritual realm of cultivation by meditation. I know that the method I am using and the results that I achieve by using this method are the result of a grand fusion accumulated over more than twenty years. This fusion includes many things, cultural and material, Chinese and western, traditional and modern, directly and indirectly experienced, and so on. For me the fingerprinting method is leisurely, self-confident and repetitive, and the process of repetition transforms the performance into a spiritual process. A realm is realized in my mind and in the images of traces.


In 2004 I made a video work of my fingerprinting performance. This video highlights its conception and spirit. It was shown in the Yokohama Film Festival, and produced a considerable reaction.


I also envisaged a program for myself, of spending one or two years to complete a fingerprint work on a huge sheet of paper in a few years’ time. I think it would have a stunning effect. Of course this would be difficult, but I might be able to realize it.


Gao: What you just said is very interesting. That is, that when you used just a few dots, it was still very close to western abstract art in that you had to consider how to position the dots, as well as the balance between the dots, the centre and the margins. That is, you still had to turn them into a box to consider structure and design and other such modernist things. Afterwards, as you kept inserting dots, you no longer needed to consider the question of the painting surface as such. You had deconstructed things such as the plane. And those painterly things were also deconstructed.


Zhang: Yes, as I gradually got deeper and deeper into the creation of Fingerprints, it on the one hand gave me a great number of conceptual prompts and tips, making my thinking and knowledge even more explicit and clear. I deconstructed the painterly quality, and transcending form and conception became awareness. On the other hand, Fingerprints gave me a very broad space, which I should like to open up fully in the future. I believe that Fingerprints is not just an exploration of method, but that it also touches on sociological questions. For instance, I’d like to invite various people in society to come and make fingerprints, which might reflect new interpretations arising from the process of repeatedly making fingerprints. Perhaps this would be an exploration of the human being. I may also extend Fingerprints into sculpture and other formats.


Due to the changes in my work in recent years, conception within my thinking have also changed somewhat, and there have been some new adjustments towards my own work. Take, for instance, the problem of experimental ink-and-wash. Chinese Experimental Ink-and-Wash 1993 – 2003 (《中国实验水墨1993——2003》), the book I designed, edited and published in 2003, is in fact a summary of experimental ink-and-wash. I believed that experimental ink-and-wash had already fulfilled its historical mission. However, in the last two years, I have renewed my knowledge and reflection on experimental ink-and-wash. Therefore I am constantly thinking of holding a rather definitive exhibition of experimental ink-and-wash, to re-analyse the problem of experimental ink-and-wash. There are many things to sort out. Which works were ultimately produced by experimental ink-and-wash? I suppose I’d like to show people its problems and contributions over some nineteen years in a focused way.


The interesting thing is that I was fortunate to have the opportunity at the end of 2005, the Year of Chinese and French Culture, to plan the exhibition Encres de Chines expérimentales in Lille, France, as well as the Colloque sur l’Encre de Chine Expérimentale in Paris, which preceded the exhibition. Whether or not this artistic exchange activity was important, I believe that it was potentially significant in the overall picture of experimental ink-and-wash going abroad in an ink-and-wash format of contemporary China, and entering another cultural context – one moreover that once was the centre of western art.


I think that experimental ink-and-wash on the one hand uses the formats of the ink-and-wash medium to create schemata, and on the other that it uses the methods of the ink-and-wash medium to create images of traces. These two aspects have constructed the system of experimental ink-and-wash. I suppose this is their contribution. Neither those figurative works, nor the abstract or expressionist works, nor the doodles and graffiti, are the core of experimental ink-and-wash – those things embody issues outside the system. Experimental ink-and-wash has finally resolved the problem of ink-and-wash.


Gao: Today’s discussion has been very good, very interesting. We’ve been going for a while. Let’s have a break. Time to have something to eat.


All right then, let’s have a break. Let’s go out and eat together. By the way, I wonder if I could trouble Sheng Wei to do us the favour of editing this conversation and writing it out? Thank you!


Sheng: All right, but it will take me a little while. I’m very busy at the moment.




 Published in Chinese in Critiquing Zhang Yu – a Case Study of a Contemporary Chinese Artist. Hebei Fine Arts Publishing, May 2007.