Jian-Jun Zhang: Between Then and Now
Jian-Jun Zhang left China to begin his artistic career in New York in 1989, returning to his hometown, Shanghai, for the first time in 1995. This six-year absence exerted a strong visual impact on the future direction of his art work. Through the first half of the 1990s, urban life in Shanghai changed tremendously. Jian-Jun Zhang’s strongest sensation of his first return visit was that ‘Everything had been squeezed together, sometimes oddly.’ New and old; foreign and Chinese; lifestyles, commerce, culture. It was a startling reminder that nothing stays the same, certainly not the traditions which represent culture. These adapt, evolve through a process of metamorphosis that is without end.
These impressions of society undergoing drastic change and development became inherent in the works that Jian-Jun Zhang went on to create, largely in New York. The clash of cultures he experienced as he travelled back and forth between China and America more regularly from 1995 proved a great resource for ideas. These continue to underscore his work today. The embodiment of his concept and aesthetic interpretation is found in China Chapter, a series of sculptures that is the focal point of “Between Then and Now” at OCAT Xi’an.
The basic motif of these sculptures is a variation on a Chinese pottery jar, each one based upon an actual historic artifact. Viewers in Xi’an will find them familiar as many are similar to those Neolithic or Han jars which can be found in local museums. Jian-Jun Zhang choses these iconic shapes to allude to cultural traditions as well as to invoke time itself. Traditions, which map out the shape of the past, are synonymous with time; a row of vessels from successive eras is a physical and visual representation of the passage of time. For this reason, it is essential for Jian-Jun Zhang that the forms of the pottery jars upon which his own interpretations are based are historically accurate. The artist uses these as the starting point, to produce a contemporary-ancient object using an entirely contemporary material: silicone rubber. Unlike the delicate pottery from the past that is all too easily shattered, Jian-Jun Zhang’s silicone rubber sculptures are resistant to all elements – heat-cold, fire, water, or accidental collision. These works are time frozen solid, for all time.
Not all of the China Chapter works are made from silicone rubber however. Some examples use ready-mades, meaning actual artifacts that Jian-Jun Zhang rescued from obscurity, perhaps from antique dealers, friend’s collections, or dirt (ghost) markets. Although genuine historic objects, these were perceived to be of no further value or beauty due to chips, cracks or having been smashed to pieces. Jian-Jun Zhang repairs them, putting them back together with patience, diligence and care, restoring these cultural objects to a state of (almost) perfection. But always with a difference for this is the work of a contemporary artist. In these examples, we notice subtle new appendages and newly added traces of modern pigment, which the artist uses to signpost his intervention. These are not meant to be read as examples of a master restorer’s art, but as objects which should provoke a new visual dialogue. “Over time, cultures are altered by external and internal influences. The new adapts to the old (or vice versa); the foreign is grafted onto the native. My work articulates and draws attention to this phenomenon,” he says.
About the Artist
Jian-Jun Zhang was born in 1955 in Shanghai. He graduated from the Fine Arts Department of Shanghai Drama Academy in 1978. In 1987-88, he was supported by the Asian Cultural Council in New York to visit the US for research in contemporary art. In 1989, he moved to New York to develop his career as an artist. In 1990, Jian-Jun Zhang received a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and again in 1996. Most recently, in 2014, he received a Sculpture Award at the New York Foundation for the Arts. His work has been collected by San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum; M+ Museum, Hong Kong; Shanghai Art Museum; Yuz Museum, Shanghai, and Guangdong Art Museum.