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Zheng Guogu
An Artist for the New China

by Betti-Sue Hertz

In the medium of architecture Zheng Guogu collaborates with Sha Yeya, a furniture maker, artist and designer. They work together on art projects and as partners in a thriving architectural design and construction business, and have built three postmodernist buildings in Yangjiang. These buildings rely heavily on mid-twentieth century European Modernism, while inserting irreverent elements like windows on a diagonal, and tumbling, uncomfortable views from above to below from spatially compressed spiral stairways. There is nothing else in the town’s built environment of dingy low-cost basic structures that compares with these buildings, all of which also signal progressive cultural activity in the town. Lydia and I visited Zheng Guogu’s private residence, Sha Yeya’s residence and the office for their Yimei Design Company, and the Luyi World Bookshop that features books on literature, politics and Postmodern theory, as well as poetry readings. When we visited Zheng Guogu’s residence, I was surprised to see that in addition to his bold experimentation with modern materials and forms, he is also an avid collector of antiques. In his four-story home, we saw excellent examples of traditional antique furniture adorned with elaborate pictorial imagery of birds and flowers, or landscapes with an array of grasses, all depicted with inlaid abalone shell. The heavy dark wood furniture and other random antiques meant for large magisterial Chinese homes contrasted sharply with the sleek modern interior.

Zheng Guogu’s photographic and architectural projects are adaptations of Western art forms to the Chinese context, and represent the “alternative modernity” that China has been experiencing. Around the time Zheng Guogu stopped producing photography, the Yangjiang Calligraphy Group began to take shape, when four local artists (Zheng Guogu, Sha Yeya, Sun Quinlan and Chen Zaiyan), of which only one was traditionally trained, began experimenting with the limits of calligraphy. This represented a turnaround: Instead of adapting Western art to a local context, these artists were adapting traditional Asian art to postmodernity. This posed a fresh question: What things Chinese could be most useful within the new paradigms of its identity and global position? More specifically, how could calligraphy be resolutely valuable within the present context, as it had proven to be quite inflexible to the demands of the new society? These questions redirected Zheng Guogu’s attention. Whereas calligraphy is normally made up of poems and private letters, these artists shaped newspaper and tabloid headlines into their own version of ink brush writing. Their pseudo-calligraphy resonated with the global trend in graffiti, which created a tension often tackled by Postmodernism between high art and popular art forms. For example, the text for one of Sha Yeya’s 2002 works is based on a report on national television that announced the first case of sexual harassment in China to be accepted by the courts.

The Yangjiang Calligraphy Group has a storefront, and when Lydia and I visited, it was filled with calligraphies and the tools of the trade: ink, ink blocks and brushes, and rolls of thin white paper. The site of production held out no special secrets, and could have been a studio for the art form’s most traditional renditions. In this case, the new emerged from the old as if it were an unbroken line.

From the time Zheng Guogu first picked up Lydia and me in the city of Guangzhou, until he dropped us off at the bus station to head back, he had a wire attached from the cell phone to his ear, awaiting the next communication, and sometimes softly speaking into the microphone with artists and clients, family or friends. Clearly, his primary support system is Yangjiang and its cultural community. Zheng Guogu’s eagerness to share that world with us is one indication of his ambition to seduce an international audience to look through his window at his world. He absorbs and synthesizes societal change, and then incorporates it into a critical art that invigorates discussion while remaining pleasurable. His unique location gives him a point of view that not only reflects China’s fast changes and its effects on areas outside the larger cities, but also provides him with a platform for a transformative avant-garde artistic practice. Whereas many artists have migrated to the large cities to be closer to the market of exchange between China and the rest of the world, Zheng Guogu has opened up another option: as with the work of the Yangjiang Calligraphy Group, he is attempting to reorder the codes of traditional art to adapt, not to the West, but to the pressures of contemporary life as it grows more distant from the past.

It is hard to know what will happen next with Zheng Guogu’s art. Its constant changeability and the artist’s enigmatic personality may be the reasons why it has been so difficult for the international art world to pin him down for easy consumption. In any case, Zheng Guogu continues to work on projects that encourage the small artistic community of Yangjiang, while creating outlets that bring that world into the view of a larger global audience.

© 2005 Betti-Sue Hertz

Editor’s note: It is both familiar and strange to read Betti-Sue Hertz’s account of her visit to China to meet this unique contemporary artist. Through her description, we gain insight into the ways in which we, as communication professionals, share a rapidly changing culture of design, photography and conceptual art.

—Wendy Richmond Hertz
Betti-Sue Hertz is curator of contemporary art at the San Diego Museum of Art since 2000. Recent exhibitions include Past in Reverse: Contemporary Art of East Asia (2004) and Axis Mexico: Common Objects and Cosmopolitan Actions (2002). Before relocating to San Diego, Hertz was a curator and arts activist in New York for over fifteen years.