Zero Medium: Water -- A Dialogue between Zhang Yu and Wu Hung

Zhang Yu (张羽)

Wu Hung (巫鸿)


Date: 3pm 27 November 2015

Venue: T3 International Art Complex




Wu Hung (W): I found your notion of water as "Zero Medium" on the car very interesting.


Zhang Yu (Z): I've been dealing with ink art for almost 40 years, when I look at it from a "departure" perspective, I found the core relationship of the ink medium is water.


But, among the discussion of ink in recent years, almost all the researchers are used to recognize the brush, ink and paper as the medium. Ink painting is ink, ink painting is about the brush and ink, it seems they are art the first place. Lang Shaojun, a critic from the 90s, has emphasize on the "center of brush and ink". I always think, if the brush and ink is the key to ink medium, and the rice paper is only a platform for them, then what is water? Is water only the inter-medium between the brush and ink? If we look at the medium of ink art, then water is kidnapped by the brush and ink. This kind of kidnap has lost the objectivity function of the different materials in the medium, and it also hampered our judgment on the nature of things. What if we take out the water in ink? What will ink become? What about the brush? And what about the brush and ink? I believe that the ink will lost its soul as a medium. What interested me is that, although no researchers have mentioned water, I also can presume that they've acknowledged the importance of water in the relationship between the brush, ink and paper. The history of traditional literati painting can prove this. And the reason that they do no talk about water is, maybe they do not want to go deeper into what water means in the relationship between the brush and ink, but only try to emphasize on the subjective mastering of the objectivity. Maybe they do not think water is a medium.


If water is not a medium, then it is only a tool in ink painting, for this the history of ink art is the history of ink painting. To respond the aforementioned question, I proposed the notion of "ink art is not ink painting" in 2008. I think, if ink art is not equal as ink painting, then ink as the medium not only have a culture quality, but also a physical one. So, ink art is not equal as brush and ink. Ink could be water plus ink, ink can have nothing to do with the brush, and can also have nothing to do with paper. It is to say that ink is independent, but how? In ink paintings, water is the blender of the brush, ink, and water, the image left on the paper is a ink painting done with the blender. But in the physicality of ink, the blending of water and ink is a process and state, in the end water is separated from ink. This separation means the disappearance of water, what left is only the stain of ink. No matter how, the existence of ink depends on water, water is the reason for the lively ink. In other words, ink only opens a limited space, without water it could not survive.


On the other hand, if we take out the ink, there are still infinitive possibilities left for water. Although water is not a medium, but it is essential for everything to survive, it is the origin for everything in nature. In other words, it possesses the power to reactive other things, and it can exist independently in any state, and can transform into other forms of existence. What is worth study in the art expression is that, water is neither a medium nor a physical material, but in some circumstances it does function as a special medium which transforms itself with the nature. Water can be present or absent, or both at the same time. This proves that water is always in a nature state out of our grasp, so it can not become a fixed platform. This means that water can not become a medium. But it has the power of the medium to represent and transform. The interesting thing is that it can parasite on other things without showing itself. For this, I call the water in art expression "Zero Medium".


When enter the art expression with the help of water, the mastery of the power of transformation and generation of water as the "Zero Medium" is essential. I mainly use my daily experience of water to control the present or absent of water, and the flow and occurrence of the nature state of water. I want to present my understanding and recognition of water through a meaningful manner, which is the daily statue of its existence. In fact, to grasp the daily, and the existence of water as "Zero Medium", is to grasp a certain intellectual wisdom.


W: We face water in our daily lift, it is indeed meaningful.


Z: We encounter water at any time, because we are in the daily life. For artistic expression, the use of water is not a method but recognition. Actually, this water related expression which generated from daily experience is the easiest for the public to understand, even the textual explanation seemed unnecessary. Using water for art expression, on one hand is to go beyond the common recognition of usual medium, on the other hand is also propose the theoretical recognition of water as "zero medium" in the artistic expression. Furthermore, we all know that water exists in everything, it connects everything and at the same time exists within everything. For this we have the saying of "water comes from heaven", it means the universal circulation?


W: From the earth to the sky, and the two are connected.


Z: In fact the idea of "Zero Medium" evolved during my The Form of Notion exhibition in Guangdong Museum of Art, in which I created Upward Ink and Upward Water. And the further development of Water Feeding is the question in focus in my exhibition in Sanshang Contemporary Art Museum in Hangzhou. The water from Westlake, Long Jing and Hupao Spring has opened a new possibility for my recognition. In this exhibition, I focused on all the clues that are related with water in creating 5 sets of works. They presented the reflection and changing in water from different angles.


Water Feeding I is constituted with more than 500 white porcelain bowls filled with water from Longjing spring. In the period of 20 days, the water was evaporated and only left traces of oil-like stains.


Water Feeding II, II, and IV is done with water from the Westlake.


In one of them, I filled the dirty water into acrylic boxes. After a month's time, the water was settled in two layers: one of black granular microorganism, and the other of clear water. Of course, if the time were longer, we could end up with only dust.


In another, I hanged 8 rice paper scrolls down from the ceiling to the acrylic container, and filled the contained with Westlake water in 3 sessions. The water was soaked up to about 30 centimeters, then went back down as the time relapse, with 3 layers of orange-ish stain on the paper.


And in the other, I filled water into acrylic boxes that contained thousands layers of rice paper, every time I would fill the water up to about 5 centimeters. I did this 12 times, and filled 56 pot of Westlake water in total. All the water was soaked by the paper. The stack of paper needs one year to dry up. The process is not about the evaporation of water, but the relationship between Westlake water, rice paper, humidity, and temperature in the process of evaporation. After one year, when I opened the boxes that contain the stacks of paper, I found that every piece of them has the nature water stain on it. And these stains are amazingly pink, yellow, light green, and have ink-like color fields and marks. I think it is enough to prove the microorganism in the water from Westlake had done something to the paper.


Tea Feeding is made with Longjing tea that was made with Hupao Spring water. I filled the tea into the bowls placed on top of rice paper with the dimension of 200cm?00cm in 8 days in 5 sessions. Every time when I pour the tea into the bowls, the water would spill on the paper, and left with the traces of the 5 sessions. The focus here is the direct recognition of "the interaction between present and absent". I presented a dialectical relationship deeply rooted in our culture through this visual representation. I poured the tea into the bowl then spilled on the paper, there was tea in the bowls but it evaporated and became absent. But the stain of the tea is left in the bowls, thus the present. The spilled tea on the paper was evaporated, and with the evaporation it was also transformed from absent to present with the stain left on the paper.


W: It is indeed different conceptually, but can you tell this difference?


Z: The curator asked me why I need to use water as the question in the exhibition in Hangzhou. Actually, when I accepted the invitation from Hangzhou, the first things that came to my mind is the Westlake, Hupao Spring, and Longjing Spring. He asked me is there any differences between these water? I remember that I answered with a question: is the water from Yangzi river different from the Yellow River? I've done works in Venice with the water from the canal mixed with ink on rice paper. The water from the Venice canal is actually sea water, it was very rough on the paper, and the traces it left is very subtle.


And of course there were many other influences that made the differences, like the space it situated, and the weather, humidity and temperature of the time.


W: Yes, you've done many practices.


Z: I've created 12 boxes in Ink Feeding in Guangdong Museum of Art. In each box I placed thousands pieces of rice paper, and then mixed a little ink with clear water and filled it into the boxes in dozens of sessions. The portion of ink and water was similar, so was the time of the interval. One year later, when I opened the boxes, I surprisingly discovered that the patterns on each paper are profoundly different, which reflected the unpredictable statues of the combination of water, ink and paper. The temperature and humidity of the venue, and the distances of the placement in relation to the ventilation facilities would all effect on the inner variation. And the rice paper are handmade, so the fiber structures are all different, this end up with the different result.


W: That's why I'm interested in the term you mentioned, you call it "Zero Medium". Can you explain again, what is "Zero Medium"?


Z: We know that the "Medium" is a platform of expression for artists. Or, in other words, any kind of artistic expression is depending on several of mediums to present its thoughts. The reason I propose the idea of "Zero Medium" is to have a logical discussion about water. I think water can be categorized as a inter-medium, but it can't become a eternal flat form. Because it could not maintain its physical or chemical form of being, or, we can say we can only use this interchanging nature of it to express our ideas, but in the end it is always absent. This is to say that the use of water as a medium is a process; we used its presence in order to get the relationship between its emerging and disappearing. Because of this, water can not maintain its original form in the expression, it can only be a process, and "water" is a "Zero Medium".


Furthermore, a "Zero Medium" is to use its process of presence, and to achieve its absence or another form of existence in the final result. The expression with "Zero Medium" is a state between present and absent.


The recognition of "Zero Medium" is especially visible in my works of Water Feeding series. I filled thousands of white porcelain bowls with clear water, after several days the water was all evaporated. I propose "Zero Medium" as a concept, it is important to clearly analysis the water as "Zero Medium" and the related issues theoretically.


W: Then those Fingerprints that you made with clear water, does this have the same notion?


Z: Yes. Fingerprints is the key to this question. My deeper understanding started with the Fingerprints made with clear water, which incorporated the relation between present and absent. I put my finger with water to on the paper, the water is evaporated, but the traces of my fingerprints is left on the paper.


W: Yes.


Z: Next year, I'm doing "Water Feeding-Zhang Yu's Wutai Mountain Project", I want to present Water Feeding in a natural setting to have a direct dialogue with the nature. With the cycle of heaven and earth, I try to emphasize on what water means for life and the humanly world, and how should we look at this essence.


No matter how you look at Water Feeding, a daily activity or a method, I try to transform it from a daily experience into a metaphysical ritual. The thought about the evaporation is about the nature, and further into a metaphysical recognition. What I also want to say is that water is a relation that is not at the disposal of human, but about how we own the world together.


W: How does this work related with your solo exhibition in Hangzhou?


Z: I believe that the Water Feeding in the natural environment would construct a more direct and purer relationship between the heaven and earth. To place the white porcelain bowls in the nature to present Water Feeding to the heaven, this kind of representation of the activity, form and idea in a special setting such as Wutai Mountain would inevitably leads to two possibilities: the natural nature of the Water Feeding, and the undermined narrative.


Water Feeding is the natural connection between heaven, earth and human, and also the ecology field relationship between the Buddhist temples and the Ashram. The Buddhist temples and the Ashram today are not only the religious place for the believers of various reasons, but also tourist destinations. Then, what will happen to Water Feeding in these places?


W: The work you described has constructed your intention, in a word: "Site". I think "Site" is very important. Because in Water Feeding, water has to go up. But as a installation work, it presented a concept of "Site", and this "Site" of art has many connections with the other sites, such as the Buddhist site, the Ashram, the Taoism site, and the market site. In fact, the "Site" is a structure. If you really want to go into the structure of religion or politics, the "Site" would be very interesting.


Z: Actually, with this installation work of Water Feeding, and the metaphysical concept, it undermined the potential of the site. The water has the ability to go beyond the medium as a inter-medium, my intention is to transform the daily experience of evaporation into a recognition beyond daily experience. It will be more interesting.


W: It is indeed very interesting. In this project, you effaced the museum, and this feels purer. But when you enter the realm of the social space, it in face would become more complicated and intertwined, this purity would become other intersections and oppositions.


Z: I'm actually to present multi-layered relationship in a intertwined context though my pure and non-directional installation. No matter what it reflects, opposition or purification, my method doesn't change, it is still pure, only the context is different.


W: The importance of the work is not the work itself, but its relative connections with others. Your works are different now, because they are more meaningful.


Z: In fact, Water Feeding always keeps its purity no matter where it is presented. On the other hand, it connects with other relations and issues with the change of contexts. But it is precisely because of its purified reflection, it can connect with some other issues.


For me, the state of mind is still simple, I only provided some relation with different contexts. The viewers can interpret from different angles, I only opened the space here.


W: In fact, you walk out from the context and turn into a presentation of a self purification. What happens if it rains?


Z: It will be more interesting. It will show a nature circulation of the water. If this happens incidentally, it will add up some interesting twist.