Zhang Enli: All Things Sentient

Read our feature on Chinese artist Zhang Enli, ahead of his new exhibition at the K11 Art Foundation’s pop-up space in Hong Kong, from the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia

By Aimee Lin

Landscape, 2013 (installation view, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, Genoa). Photo: Anna Positano. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London, New York & Zürich Landscape, 2013 (installation view, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, Genoa). Photo: Nuvola Ravera. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London, New York & Zürich Space Painting, 2013 (installation view, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London), watercolour on wall. Photo: Mark Blower. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, London, New York & Zürich, and Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai The Box, 2013. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth The Wires and Pipes, 2013. © Zhang Enli. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Transparent Shelf, 2013. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

It is more than ten years since Zhang Enli stopped painting the subject matter with which he was most associated when he emerged on the art scene, during the 1990s: people. (The climax of that period being a 2004 exhibition at BizArt, Shanghai, titled Human, Too Human.) In the last decade, he has painted an ashtray full of cigarette butts, a half-empty pack of Double Happiness cigarettes, a roll of toilet paper, half an apple, scattered playing cards – ordinary objects that he treats seriously and beautifully.

He also paints trees – lots of trees (from a slightly elevated perspective) – and skies in colours that are always different. He paints curling rubber pipes and knots of iron wires in works that suggest a mix of the concrete and the abstract. He draws lots of curly lines in his sketchbook. If he wished, he could make them into hundreds of paintings; that’s what every collector in China would like. At the same time, he travels around the world, painting the walls of various interiors with the marks left by water, colour blocks or tree branches. He identifies everything that he paints as a ‘container’, and as he says so, I wonder if the true challenge of his works lies in figuring out exactly what they contain. Last autumn, on a most literal level, one of those ‘containers’ held me.

It was in the theatre of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), in London, where Zhang had spent ten days painting colours on the walls, ceiling and floor – completely covering an area of around 800sqm. Walking into the space, I heard a friend’s voice debating whether or not Zhang had switched from concretion to abstraction; as for myself, I had the physical sensation of becoming a tiny atom flowing in the cosmos of the artist’s numerous evocations of inner images and emotions. In late autumn, after he had finished the London project, Zhang went to Genoa, Italy, where he made contact with the medieval era, and began painting leaves and branches on the dome and walls of the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce. Eight days later, the ground floor of the historical villa had been invaded and taken over by nature to the extent that even a section of sky, viewed through a canopy of forest leaves, broke through the ceiling of the dome, thanks to his use of perspective and trompe l’oeil effects.

His works are a fusion of his immediate feelings, his thoughts on what are often alien surroundings and his experiences in the physical space he paints

Zhang has produced these types of ‘space paintings’ (as he calls them) since 2010, when, in Gwangju, Korea, he painted directly onto the surfaces of a small room that had been emptied of any objects and their echoes. All that was present when Zhang had finished his work were the walls, floor, traces of water (‘the humidity of the space’ is very important to the artist) and traces left by removed items – but all of them artificial, painted. In 2012 Zhang went to India. Stimulated by the bright colours and strong smells at the spice market in Kochi, he created a space that was full of colours. (Since that point, the colour in his paintings in general has become brighter.) All these space paintings are very different from the works he paints on canvas, balls, terrestrial globes, dartboards and other objects. 

With the space paintings, the artist has to expose himself to his surroundings and receive a stimulus from the site before he starts to paint. In this sense, the works are a fusion of his immediate feelings, his thoughts on what are often alien surroundings and his experiences in the physical space he paints. When it comes to the viewer, the lack of any traditional frame and the large scale of the spaces alter the conventional relationship between the viewer’s body and the ‘body’ of the work. These works demand that the viewer’s focus move across the surface of painting, tracing the artist’s prior process: just as he moved his body through the space in order to paint it, the viewer, step-by-step, has to do the same to view it.

When it comes to the viewer, the lack of any traditional frame and the large scale of the spaces alter the conventional relationship between the viewer’s body and the ‘body’ of the work

As I followed the path laid out by such works, I began to find a hierarchy in the art of Zhang Enli, the eyes (seeing) ruling the brain (concept) and the hands (painting) expressing the heart (emotions). While this is shown most vividly and thoroughly in his recent space-painting projects, it has affected his output as a whole. On canvas, he used to paint lots of ordinary concrete objects or scenes without any ‘special’ qualities (for example, part of a room). Since 2012, his seemingly objective scenes have started to serve more obviously as a portrait of the artist’s own emotions. Where he once sourced content from snapshots or photographs in magazines, now the pipes, iron wires and most recently fruits appear more like fictional creatures: they are not simply designed to make up the tableau but, using the visual vocabulary of curling, knotting, hanging, winding or tangling, also serve as a cipher for a more psychologically grounded subject-matter. When it comes to the latter, it seems that trees are a subject for which Zhang has a particular fondness.

It might be said that switching from humans to landscapes is a way of appealing to a wider audience (the switch being from the particular to the general), but the fact is that in Zhang’s hands, painting trees and painting human beings are the same. His favourite artist, Jin Nong (1687–1764), was a painter and a calligrapher, well known for painting strange plum blossoms. Jin’s willow trees and bamboo branches are often waving in the wind, which according to Zhang makes for a set of psychological hints: ‘All things and sceneries are connected with the artist’s emotions’, he once said.

If Zhang’s works on canvas animate moments that are ordinary and neglected (dead time to most people), his space paintings often reanimate neglected spaces, spaces that have been lost in time

Back to the question with which we started: if Zhang’s objects and spaces are all containers, then what is inside them? Or let me put it this way: what kind of world does Zhang create through his art? Looking at his post-2000 object and space paintings, it is easy to conclude that his art is exactly what John Berger called ‘an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears’ (‘Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible’, 1995). 

This kind of thinking suggests that there is another invisible subject matter in the work: time. If Zhang’s works on canvas animate moments that are ordinary and neglected (dead time to most people), his space paintings often reanimate neglected spaces, spaces that have been lost in time. However, as I observed earlier, when Zhang is painting, the visual is privileged over the conceptual, and for him painting primarily expresses the emotions. Ultimately, his painting suggests a simple idea: that of a world in which all things are sentient. In Buddhist philosophy there are two categories of ‘world’: the ‘world of sentience’, covering everything that is able to perceive or feel, and the ‘world of material’, covering space and the (spatial) relationship of everything. (‘Sentient beings’ is a term in Buddhist theory that refers to beings with consciousness or sentience – human beings, animals, trees, grass, anything with a life. 

For Zhang, everything in front of him belongs both to the world of sentience and to the world of material, and in his art, everything feels

‘All things sentient’ is seen as a radical egalitarianism, based on the premise that everything with a life is able to feel, see, hear, smell or taste, and therefore everything contains Buddha-dhātu and is capable of being Buddha.) For Zhang, everything in front of him belongs both to the world of sentience and to the world of material, and in his art, everything feels. Therefore, as he renders his subjects in paint (material), mixing his emotions with his pigments, the complete world is reproduced: the delivery box, the rubber pipe, the wall with a watermark and the trees – all of them rendered sentient through the painter’s eye and brush. That sentience is picked up and transferred to viewers, who feel those emotions or accordingly create their own when they are in front of one of Zhang’s paintings or inside one of his space paintings.

At the beginning of this article, I wrote that Zhang Enli hasn’t painted people for almost a decade. Perhaps I was wrong. Everything he paints is sentient, and in this sense his work is always a portrait of sorts. 

Zhang Enli: Space Painting is on show at the K11 Art Foundation’s pop-up space in Hong Kong, 12 May – 13 July.

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia.