Chengdunese painter Dawei Zhang was born in 1968 to painters in the People's Liberation Army. He studied Chinese painting at the Sichuan Art Institute in Chongqing, and then spent a decade living the laid-back lifestyle of a painter in Chengdu in the 1990s ("In Chengdu there were a lot of painters who lived this way," he explained. "Every day I just painted, watched movies, read, drank tea. I was single, so I didn't need that much money, but when I did, I would teach painting at Sichuan University or the Music Conservatory as a freelancer. Life was pretty good.")
Wanderlust eventually took over, and inspired by some German friends he met at Sichuan University, Dawei made his first overseas trip to Germany in 1998. He returned in 2000 to study ("There were a lot of Chinese going to Germany at that time to study modern painting or media arts, so I went too. Of course, first I had to study German. That was tough"), but after nine months of unsuccessful verb conjugations and noun declensions, he headed back to Chengdu, where he met his now-wife. Together, they moved to Brighton, England, where she's from, and give birth to their daughter in 2004. The Zhang family now splits their time between Chengdu and Brighton.
Dawei talked to us about changes, art across cultures, and Chengdu's cliques. (And no, we're not trying to imply that he has bad taste.)
What do your paintings deal with?
I'm interested in people, especially bodies, flesh Skin, the human form, I think it's very beautiful. Regardless of the color of the skin, or whether it has some imperfections. Where a doctor might say this person has a skin disease, to me it's visually very interesting. [By the time I started showing regularly], most of my work was pen and ink or watercolor, not so much oil painting. But at that time I still didn't have a very clear theme or focus in my paintings. Because I believed painting was just a way of life—maybe there was a theme, maybe others would see my paintings and see a theme in it, but the theme wasn't very forthcoming. For me painting was just a part of life, a very personal thing. Now if you ask me what this painting is about, I still wouldn't be able to tell you very clearly. I'm not a psychologist or a writer, so I can feel it, but I can't express in words what my paintings mean.
When I first showed my paintings to some of my Chengdu friends, I was very nervous. They were all expecting to see a very strong theme, a very obvious theme—as soon as you looked at it, you would know what it was, a statement about society. But I had realized that Chinese contemporary painters were all dealing with the same topics. This was the problem. The themes were fine, but they were all the same. Not every person can be a social scholar. Sometimes we forget we're just painters. If every single person is doing the same exact thing, there's a problem. There should be richness and variety; each person can paint his or her own interest.
So do you see yourself as a British or Chinese artist?
I still see myself more of a Chinese artist. But I actually don't care about that distinction. There is a paradox: I guess I absorbed British artistic influence, but I still feel my Chinese background, when I can't totally open up. When I paint a body for example, I have fear, or it's difficult for me to paint that body at the beginning. I cannot ignore my background of course, and if you look at my paintings I think you can see that. But I'm not a totally Chinese artist, because I have my eyes fixed on Britain and Europe.
[When I went to Munich], the different lifestyle and different environment gave me a different outlook. I felt I would definitely be able to be more open to accept different ideas when I returned to Chengdu. It was in Munich that I totally dropped everything I had studied in university ... . Our teachers would just say, you must study my paintings and how I paint. China is now changing, but at that time, in the 1980s, the education system was really tough. Whenever you did anything that deviated from the norm, the teacher would criticize you. So it was good for me to see different kinds of people and ideas and ways of painting. Now the environment for Chinese artists is totally different, but maybe still not that open.
So since you left China has changed a lot.
It has changed in many ways, good and bad. It's much easier for a private person to follow what's going elsewhere, the young artists today are much more open-minded than the ones 20 years ago. They grew up with the Internet. I'm the pre-Internet generation, I grew up without a computer. When Internet became popular I didn't even know how to use it. But they do know how to handle it, and do so freely. That's the good side. The bad side is the attitude toward painting changed. For us, it was a natural thing to do. But today they see it as a way to make a quick buck. In '87 we had no chance to sell any of our paintings.
How could you live?
The government would provide you with work once graduated from university. My work was inside a museum. So painting was really a thing for yourself; there was no market. You can't say it's worse now in general, because the existence of an art market is a good thing. It's an opportunity to make money, but on the other hand, the painting for cash got really out of control. Then I really question why we are painting. This is a complicated issue.
What do you think of foreigners' criticism of Chinese contemporary art—that it's unoriginal, for instance?
I think Chinese art today has already been heavily influence by the West ... from the end of the Qing Dynasty, it started changing. The old stuff had no use, because we were suddenly considered "backward" once the British arrived. Everybody had to change. Our language, for instance, could only be understood by scholars. It was beautiful, but to the majority of people, it was useless. So the language was changed, but the bad part is that we're losing part of our culture. Actually today's Chinese grammar has changed to be more similar to Western language grammars than it was before. It was different before, but the impact from the West has been very profound.
Regarding China's contemporary art, I also have criticism. I agree with some of the criticism from abroad. Some things look too much like Western art from 30 or 40 years ago. But on the other hand, because Chinese artists from 1980 didn't have the chance to see Western art, such as the abstract art coming out of the U.S. in the '60s; we were in the Cultural Revolution at that time. Of course there were some people before 1949 who knew, but from 1949 to 1980, it was completely sealed off. So after the opening, we were very eager to see all these very different and "new" things. And this made a lot of people want to try things out for themselves. So that means Chinese art is still very young; it hasn't found its own way yet. It's very superficial still, a study of others' art. It still doesn't have its own character.
There are of course many Chinese traditional ideas, and then when you add the influence of the Western world, the outcome might be strange. Our paintings now are more individual and more profound than paintings from before—artists want to study Western art but deep down might be afraid of being truly different, so in the end they end up without their own unique style. On the surface, there might be a difference but when you look closer not really. I was looking at some contemporary Chinese painters' work online, but after a while I started to feel they were all the same. For Chinese, the scariest thing is to be different from everybody else, because if you're different people will look at you and talk about you. So on the surface they want to study modern, individualist things, but on the other hand, they don't really want to change.
A lot of young artists say "I want to be a modern artist." But what is a modern artist? They believe it depends on how it looks. If you paint a certain thing you're "modern." If you paint something else, you're not. When I had just come back to Chengdu and showed my friends my paintings, this is what I was nervous about—maybe they would not think I was a "modern" artist.
What is the state of the art in Chengdu, especially with all the spaces that have opened in recent years?
I don't really know the art spaces. When I was just leaving, Chengdu Blue Roof was just starting, and there weren't any others. If artists come together to live and paint, I think that's the best. But I don't really like the artificial grouping and cliques: "You're a Blue Roof guy, he's from another gallery," and so on. Why do we need that? At the end of the day we are all Chengdu artists, so what's the point? Maybe it's because the market is still quite small, so artists depend on the support of the art spaces. Or this could all be a Chinese culture thing: this is your family, these are your friends, and you don't care about anybody else.
I was talking about this with a painter friend of mine before, this lack of openness among Chinese painters. It's not because Chinese painters can't see other kinds of paintings, but maybe their opportunities are limited because they can't get into the art circle. In Beijing and Shanghai, I've heard it's different, because if one circle doesn't accept you, you can find another. And in Brighton there are so many more choices, so many more than here. No matter what you paint, you can find a group who will accept you. But here the chances are limited. Maybe it's good for the market—I don't really know—but it's not good for fostering art.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 38 ("bad taste"). All photos by Dawei. Dawei recently moved back to the U.K. but showed his work at Kaffestugan in Chengdu before he left.