Zhang Xiaogang:Biography

Abigail Fitzgibbons


Chinese people have experienced too much change, which dramatically influences people internally. I say this from my experience, because I have lived through three completely different time periods in China in a short amount of time.1


Zhang Xiaogang may be said to represent an encapsulation of Chinese contemporary art. Following the development of his style . . , it is possible to see in his work the flow of China’s art history of the time.2


Zhang Xiaogang is a leading artist of the Chinese Avant-garde. His artistic development runs parallel to the growth of contemporary art in China — from its gestation during the Cultural Revolution and the opening up of China to the West in the 1980s, through the post-Tiananmen Square era of the 1990s and its economic boom in the twenty-first century. A practising artist for more than three decades, Zhang has experienced first hand the many changes affecting contemporary China and he has explored these extensively in his practice.


Born in Kunming in 1958, Zhang was the third of four boys. His mother Qiu Ailan and father Zhang Jing were employed as government officials. In 1963, his family moved to Chengdu in China’s Sichuan Province. Zhang’s youth largely coincided with the Cultural Revolution — he was eight at its inception and at its conclusion ten years later he was at the threshold of adulthood. The psychological effects of this era would continue to permeate the lives of his generation, as well as the artist’s practice.


This period — characterised by tumultuous political and social upheaval which affected every echelon of society — was a deeply traumatic time for the young Zhang. His parents, like so many others, were under investigation by the government; every night ‘people came to our house and asked my parents to make confessions about what they did wrong’.3 Zhang’s relationship with his mother was also a troubled one; she had schizophrenia, a condition undoubtedly aggravated by the difficult social climate in which she lived. Perhaps as a refuge from the outside world, he spent much of his childhood drawing. Zhang was initially taught to draw by his mother, who hoped it would keep him off the streets when schools were closed:


From early on, my parents worried that I would go out and get into trouble. So they gave us paper and crayons so we could draw at home. . . . I gained more and more interest in art. I had a lot of time, because I didn't have to go to school. My interest increased. After I became an adult, I never gave up art. So that's how I started to draw.4


The artist does not speak much of this period of his life, however, it is clear that his parents were sent to a re-education camp for a period of three years while he and his brothers were largely left to care for themselves. At 14, Zhang was separated from his family and sent to be ‘retrained’ as a farmer as part of the Down to the Countryside Movement. Despite these circumstances, Zhang was determined to pursue a career as an artist. In 1975 he became a student of watercolourist Lin Ling, with whom he studied sketching and watercolour techniques. He comments,


  When I was 17, I told myself I wanted to be an artist. . .  I felt that art was like a drug. Once you are addicted, you can't get rid of it.5


In 1976, Mao Zedong’s death and the imminent arrest of the infamous Gang of Four heralded the end of the Cultural Revolution. Entrance exams were reinstated for the newly opened colleges and, in 1977, Zhang gained admission to the prestigious Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Chongqing. After a ten-year hiatus from education, he entered the college as one of a group of extremely talented young artists, many of whom would later be associated with of the ’85 New Wave. In 1978 he began his studies in the oil painting department.


Many of Zhang’s teachers continued to favour the style of Revolutionary Realism instituted by Mao Zedong at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art in 1942. However, Zhang and his contemporaries began to turn away from the politics and ideology associated with the style and looked to the influx of Western ideas, concepts and philosophies which emphasized the individual and the self. Initially Zhang was heavily influenced by Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, as well as Jean Francois Millet and other French landscape painters, whose work could be seen in the newly emerging art journals and in exhibitions in the nation’s capital.


Zhang’s early landscape paintings, which he presented at his graduation, were based on the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, where he spent two months in 1981. Quietly introspective, their simple subject matter presented a challenge to the official style of heroic tableaux celebrating revolutionary zeal. In 1982, Zhang graduated with a Bachelor degree from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. Although his work had received support from the independent art critic Li Xianting (editor of Art magazine, which would feature Zhang on the cover later that year), Zhang was not offered a teaching post as he had hoped. The same year saw the launch of the Anti Spiritual Pollution Campaign — intended to challenge the undermining of communist ideals by Westernized humanist ideas — which would continue until 1984.


The next three years (1982-85) — which he later referred to as the ‘dark era’ in his life — represented a period of great uncertainty for Zhang in which he struggled with depression, although he continued to grow and develop as an artist. He spent some time as a construction worker and also as an art designer for the Song and Dance Troupe of Kunming. During this period he produced the series of little-known early landscape drawings called ‘Guishan’. They were completed in a small Sani ethnic village in Guizhou, frequented by artists. Through these landscapes Zhang hoped to portray


… not a world that is discerned by the sensory organs, not a conceptual image that subconsciously flows but the soul’s special reaction to nature, a landscape that is both natur[al] and unnatural. . . . 6


1983 was a year of intense self-examination and reflection for Zhang, which is evident in his early self portrait, showing him in a very Western light. He felt increasingly unable to find a place for himself in society, and he began to drink heavily. In 1984, he was hospitalized for alcohol-induced bleeding of the stomach, a dangerous and debilitating condition. Troubled by the ghosts of the past and particularly by memories of his mother’s illness, he began his ‘The ghost between black and white’ series, a group of surrealist-inspired encounters involving phantoms. In each of these 16 works, the ghosts (wearing the white sheets of his hospital bed) face an unresolved choice, poised between life and death. Zhang recalls:


At that time, my inspiration primarily came from the private feelings I had at the hospital. When I lay on the white bed, on the white bed sheet, I saw many ghost-like patients comforting each other in the crammed hospital wards. When night dawned, groaning sounds rose above the hospital and some of the withering bodies around had gone to waste and were drifting on the brink of death: these deeply stirred my feelings. They were so close to my then life experiences and lonely miserable soul.7


His paintings of this period, many of them still lifes, display a sombre palette and convoluted forms.


Zhang began to emerge from his period of despair as 1985 ushered in a time of utopianism and experimentation in China. The Anti Spiritual Pollution Campaign was superseded by a series of liberal reforms, and many recently-graduated artists, who were born in the mid to late 1950s, contributed to a period of intellectual, artistic and philosophical flowering known retrospectively as the ’85 New Wave. Looking back, Zhang has said:


85 was a time of innocence, and youth like us, 24 or 25 years old at the time, had a very strong intellectual thirst. But our works and ideas weren't accepted by society. Our lifestyles were very alternative. Sometimes what we were doing didn't feel artistic – it felt almost like we were participating in a campaign or a movement. But that was in the later stages. The impression that the early stages of ’85 gives me is a group of young people wanting to go down the ‘other’ path, and this is purely to do with the opening up [under Deng Xiaoping] and liberation [of thought] that occurred in this country. They decided to take another path and they didn't have anything – no money, nothing – but they carried on. They believed in a different kind of culture; it was very na?ve. . . .  1985 was a very interesting time; it deserves a longer discussion.8


In 1986, Zhang formed the South West Art Group with a number of contemporaries — Mao Xuhui, Pan Dehai and Ye Yongqing; they advocated ‘an anti-urban pastoralism or regionalism, along with the exploration of individual desire, which, they argue[d], ha[d] been suppressed by collectivist rationalization’.9 This group, one of more than 80 that emerged during this period, received attention from critics Gao Minglu and Li Xianting for the self-funded exhibitions they organized, which have since become seminal to any history of the emerging Chinese Avant-garde.


In 1988, Zhang would participate in the China Modern Art Forum at Huangshan. Later that same year, he was appointed an instructor in the Education Department of the Sichuan Academy, and he married his first wife Tang Lei, with whom he had a daughter, Huan Huan (born in 1994). Zhang’s work from this period continued to focus on themes of death and rebirth. Many were set in an enclosed space, featuring allegorical symbols that reappear in his work skulls, floating broken limbs, playing cards and candles. He also began to incorporate pieces of cloth and paper into his compositions, and Reincarnation 1989 is an example.


The New Wave period culminated in the 1989 ‘China/Avant-Garde’ exhibition, in which Zhang participated and which opened on 5 February at the National Art Museum of China, Beijing. Organised by Gao Minglu and Li Xianting among others, it was the first national avant-garde exhibition in China and was widely regarded as emblematic of both the movement and its demise. The exhibition included 186 artists, and 293 art works across a range of mediums, such as painting, sculpture, installation, performance and photography. In April, Zhang’s first solo exhibition (featuring his ‘Lost dreams’ series) was held at the exhibition hall of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. That same month, pro-democracy student demonstrations began, and on 4 June the historical events at Tiananmen Square took place, abruptly terminating the era of liberal reform.


The 1990s proved to be a highly significant period of artistic breakthroughs for Zhang. In 1992, he travelled to Germany for three months, where he encountered first-hand many of the Western art works he had admired through art books and journals. Although he returned filled with enthusiasm for the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter (which he encountered at Kassel’s Documenta 9) and surrealist Rene Magritte, Zhang was disappointed with what he thought was the stale air of wealth and opportunity of the West’s Avant-garde. He returned with a greater sense of his own identity as a Chinese artist, determined to explore and revitalize his own history and recent past.

 nitially Zhang confronted history by creating a group of powerful paintings of Tiananmen Square in 1993; Tiananmen Square was the site of many significant events from the ’hopeful rallies from the early Mao era, hysterical Red Guard meetings and the mass demonstrations of grief after the death of Premier Zhou Enlai’, as well as the massacres of 1989.10 However, the real breakthrough occurred when he encountered old family photographs — highly significant items in a culture that had witnessed the destruction of many precious memories. Specifically, Zhang was inspired by a previously unseen photograph of his mother as a serene and attractive young woman, very different from the troubled and ill mother he recalled. He also drew on ubiquitous charcoal drawings sold on the street. The result was his ‘Bloodline: The big family’ series, a group of works which ‘distilled’ the troubling legacies and heritage of the Cultural Revolution. He remembers:


I felt very excited, as if a door had opened. I could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective and it was from this that I started really to paint. There’s a complex relationship between the state and the people that I could express by using the Cultural Revolution. China is like a family, a big family. Everyone has to rely on each other and to confront each other. This was the issue I wanted to give attention to and, gradually, it became less and less linked to the Cultural Revolution and more to people’s states of mind.11


Both public (since such portraits were commonly taken in the 1950s and 1960s) and intensely private, these haunting images encapsulate many of the issues that Zhang regarded as central to his practice, and which continue to inform his artistic career — the entanglement of public and private, psychic and material, and interior and exterior spaces. Red ‘bloodlines’ traced from figure to figure express the ties binding each family member to each other, to their ancestors and to the collective family of the Communist entity, while stains and washes of colour express the metaphorical wounds or marks left by traumatic memories. Although Zhang claims to rarely paint from life — preferring his figures to share a uniform anonymity — the features of his mother and, more recently, his daughter have begun to appear in the carefully built up layers of paint.


In the 1990s, much of Zhang’s recognition came from abroad. The 1991 exhibition ‘I Don't Want to Play Cards with Cézanne’ and ‘Other Works: Selections from the Chinese New Wave and Avant-Garde Art of the Eighties’ (Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, California) was followed by a number of significant international exhibitions in France, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In 1994, Zhang showed his ‘Bloodline: The big family’ series in the 22nd International Sao Paulo Biennial and in the 1995 Venice Biennale. In Australia, important group shows included the Museum of Contemporary Art’s ‘Mao Goes Pop’ in 1993, and the Queensland Art Gallery’s Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1996.

In 1997, Zhang gave up teaching and left the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. In 1999, he moved to Beijing, and he now has studios in Beijing and Chengdu. His marriage to Tang Lei ended in 1999, and he married his second wife Jia Jia in 2007. His work has appeared in numerous significant exhibitions in the 2000s.


In 2002 Zhang began his dream-like ‘Amnesia and memory’ series which, like the ‘Bloodline: The big family’ series, examines the way memories are constantly revised in the present. Other recent works of the 2000s include his photographic series ‘Description’, in which Zhang inscribes diary-style entries on to unrelated images captured from popular movies and television series; and his ‘In-Out’ series (started in 2006), in which the emphasis is on memories embodied by inanimate objects. Symbols of time and memory — electric light bulbs, stains of light or spilled ink — litter these canvases and are dispersed among symbols of communication associated with public and private spheres, including televisions and loud speakers, as well as references to historical moments. Zhang has commented that his ‘work mainly reflects my childhood and teenage memories’, and this is evident in his ‘Green wall’ series of 2008, in which the institutional colour — fashionable during the Cultural Revolution for home interiors and public buildings — enables Zhang to blur and complicate public and private spheres.12 A recent series of imposing, large-scale canvases has seen Zhang return to the surrealist motifs of his youth, with severed limbs and detached, but still beating, hearts puncturing scenes in which figures lounge in chairs amidst a vast industrial landscape.


Zhang Xiaogang’s examination of the omnipresence and selectiveness of memory is made poignant by the fact that the artist is once again living through a period of change and turmoil in China’s rapidly developing landscape, as buildings are razed and cities transformed, often overnight. He comments,In China history is like water, it flows and disappears’.13 His artworks (and he has recently moved to casting sculptures in bronze) create a dialogue with the past, capturing the intangible emotions of generations.





 1     ‘Interview with Zhang Xiaogang’, transcript for CNN Talk Asia:

http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/07/19/talkasia.zhang.script/index.html, viewed February 2009.

2     Li Xianting, in Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang

       [exhibition catalogue], Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 2004, p.21.

3     David Barboza, ‘A Chinese painter’s new struggle: To meet demand’, New

York Times, 31 August 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/31/arts/design/31zhan.html> viewed February


4     张晓刚采访CNN 电视台,谈论亚洲.

5     ‘Interview with Zhang Xiaogang’, transcript for CNN Talk Asia

6     Ritta Valorinta, Lu Peng, Julia Colman and Virpi Nikkari, Zhang Xiaogang

[exhibition catalogue], Sara Hilden Art Museum, Tampere, Finland, 2007, p.71.

7     Zhang Xiaogang, p.74.

8     Zhang Xiaogang, interview with Alice Xin Liu, Urbane Magazine, February

       2008, p.26.

9     Chronology compiled by Irene S Leung and Michael S K Siu, in Gao Minglu

(ed.), Inside Out: New Chinese Art, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998, pp.197-211.

10    Zhang Xiaogang, in Michael Donohue, ‘The history boy’, W Magazine,

November 2008, http://www.wmagazine.com/artdesign/2008/11/zhang_xiaogang?currentPage=1, viewed 24 February 2009.

11    Jane McCartney, ‘Meet Zhang Xiaogang, China’s hottest artist’, The Times,

 26 January, 2008,

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article3233277.ece, viewed February 2009.

12    ‘Interview with Zhang Xiaogang’, transcript for CNN Talk Asia.

13    McCartney, ‘Meet Zhang Xiaogang, China’s hottest artist’, The Times.