Ruth Noack | Zang Kunkun: Walking the Here and Now

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Text by Ruth Noack



The billboard is rusty. Its colours have faded, the once shiny message bleached away, relegated to the past. No one remembers whether that past was ever present. All they remember is that the billboard once depicted the houses of an estate and that the houses were shown from above – a supreme arial view. It must have been an advertisement of some sort; the type that was selling “affordable property”. Of its lofty promise, only outlines and shadows are left, evoking Arabic typescript. They serve as skeletal runes – ciphers to a time in history when cityscapes turned from places (formed by the quirky routines of human beings) into empty signifiers.


Today’s global cityscapes privilege images over real life. Actual creation of a livable environment is not a design priority. Meanwhile, the public sphere, once firmly attached to urban space, has migrated elsewhere. And thus the city can feel like a vast emptiness, paved over by streets and office buildings, inhabited by ghostlike street signs, billboards, garbage cans…


It is this clutter that Zhang Kunkun’s recent paintings and sculptures spotlight. Often realist in style, they nevertheless decontextualize their subject matter, singling out specific elements, as if conjugating words or spelling out a glossary. One might rightly see this morphological approach as an indication of the conceptual nature of the artist’s work. But there is more to Zhang Kunkun than cold concept. This becomes apparent when we take a closer look at a few works placed at the beginning of the artist’s solo exhibition at Long Museum in Shanghai.


Let’s start with Arabic (2022), the billboard painting. It is mounted in the kind of mock gold frame that would either signify extremely bad taste or some sort of irony. The frame is mass produced and poorly executed. But those lacking an aesthetic education might wrongly mistake its golden colour and crafted look for something valuable. Rather than elevating the painting, such a frame is nothing but the expression of a desire for wealth and cultural privilege. In other words, it is bad taste. (I hasten to add that the category of “bad taste” itself reeks of cultural privilege.)


A contemporary artist might use such a gaudy gilded frame ironically, as a gesture criticizing the crass materialism of an art market that seeks to convert cultural value directly into monetary value. For no matter how hard a painter might strive for the Sublime, he or she has little control over the way a painting is viewed by its potential buyers. An artist can seldom influence how the work of art appears in the world. Gaudy tropes were introduced into contemporary art around the time of postmodernism as a way for artists to demonstrate their distance to the astheticization of the art object, though the tables got turned on this kind of artistic critique pretty quickly. One has only to look around to understand that, today, bad taste is no obstacle for marketability.


In Zhang Kunkun’s case, criticism is more than a postmodern gesture. The care with which he uses detail in his painting, from the brownish colour referencing 18th century art up to the craquelure surface, suggests a marked seriousness in the artist’s attitude. And why shouldn’t he be serious? After all, Arabic is depicting a real billboard, not some imaginary trope. Moreover, that billboard was once, when it was still readable, proclaiming affordable housing in Zhang Kunkun’s own housing estate. He walks past it day in and day out, musing over the disparity between advertising and reality. His is a bitter irony, not loud, not clamouring for attention or calling for revolution in the face of a cruel life. His is an irony born of harnessed feelings that seek, very politely, to be acknowledged.


Container, Shape (2017) proves Zhang Kunkun’s fluency in another kind of irony altogether. This painting of a generic stainless steel information display is itself wittily wedged into a generic stainless steel structure, doubling as a painting display. We can look at this in different ways: Is this a representation made hyper-real?  In other words, has this painting grown 3-D legs, inhabiting the exhibition space like some sort of robot creature? Is this a way for art to “materialize” in order to “matter” more? Or is this simply a painting-sculpture-hybrid, belonging to the contemporary art genre hyped as installation art? Or is this a clever nihilistic comment, for if we notice that the information board is actually blank, that is without information – ergo without meaning -, might we infer that the same goes for the painted canvas, never mind what is depicted there? Is art relevant, or not? Shrewdly, Zhang Kunkun’s tongue-in-cheek painting does not give us an answer here. And, quite possibly, it is exactly its indeterminacy, a thoroughly aesthetic claim, which makes Container, Shape a pertinent work of art.


With Arabic, Zhang Kunkun shows us his heart and with Container, Shape, his artist’s soul. A kernel of both can already be found in an early painting from 2010, titled Brown (II). Though the pock-marked frame does not take itself too seriously, it is relatively large in comparison to the small canvas, making the delicate painting seem precious and delectable. The work depicts a somewhat weirdly curled spine – human? – hovering over a meticulously painted camouflage backdrop. The spine’s status remains unclear: Is this a medical specimen, to be stared at and analysed? Or is it some sort of sign, an icon or the first letter of an alphabet-to-be? René Magritte comes to mind. However, in the context of Zhang Kunkun’s overall oeuvre, this spine is a curious little thing, since by and large the artist does not tend to focus on the human or animal form. In the end, these bare bones exude a strangely endearing humanist aura and point towards the artist’s soul. Yet, vertebrae by vertebrae, Zhang Kunkun’s interest in structures and seriality is also already apparent in this early work, evidence of what makes the artist’s heart tick.


The next work in the parcours through the Long Museum’s Staircase Gallery, the sculpture Upright (II),2017 also sports a sort of spine, possessing its own brick vertebrae. It is easy for the eye to jump from Brown (II) to this work of Zhang Kunkun’s Street Series and make a connection. Such visual clues pop up all over the exhibition. Indeed, Zhang Kunkun’s entire oeuvre allows for transitions and interconnections. This is because the artist works in series, often conjugating the same visual motif or concept over a number of canvases. Sometimes, he jumps back into older subject matter or branches off one series from another, as if he were growing a tree, all the while tenaciously spelling out his themes. It is for this reason that the exhibition, which focusses on the most recent works, also includes some older ones. Yet, loosely strung together, this parcours avoids chronological order, opting instead for the viewer’s experiential understanding of the main motifs, lines or branches in Zhang Kunkun’s “tree”.


The viewer is invited to a leisurely stroll amongst the works, seeing and sensing similarities and differences, stopping to examine a detail here, take in an entire picture there, adding image onto image, vertebrae onto vertebrae, and moving from one series to the next. Thus, the works from Zhang Kunkun’s Street Series, taking stock of the urban environment, give way for the Equipment Series, focussed on street furniture. This segues into the Diagonal Series of canvasses with diagonal, cross-shaped compositions and moves on to the Billboard Series, which migrates modernist paintings into advertisement display. These same display structures feature in some works of the Poster Series, addressing the backside of commerce. Finally, we encounter the Garbage Series, where the artist transposes colour field painting onto a variety of Chinese garbage cans, consolidating both, his formal and social concerns.


In the eyes of the sociologist Bruno Latour, we should think of tools, be they simple railings or the gendarme couché – an anti-speed bump – as having the capacity to interact with human beings in relational networks. Human’s behaviour is formed and informed by these tools and their design. Zhang Kunkun might not have read Latour’s theory, but his exploration of street furniture in the Equipment Series is clearly inviting a visceral kind of spectatorship, one where the viewer relates bodily to the work in question. He zooms in on pavement and moves angles out of the vertical-horizontal grid, allows black strips of rubber or metal tubes to jut out from the surface of the canvas, nudging our subjective experience of a painting in space. By reminding us of our own participation in looking at a work of art, this series goes beyond a formalist exploration, towards a vague notion of the social.


The fitness equipment, featured in several of the paintings of this series, goes a step further. In Harmony (II) (2018), the shadows of humans are seen to be acting in concordance with the equipment, as if to bring home the relationality imbued in its design and purpose. Promoting a healthy body, fitness equipment is placed in urban public space in order to forge a strong and happy populace. Indirectly, the painter’s highlight on this equipment points to the fact that we live in an environment governed by bio-politics.


Scenery (II) (2016) places its fitness equipment into an interesting composition of diagonals, which split the canvas from corner to corner into four triangles. This composition characterizes all canvasses of the Diagonal Series, always featuring some motif on the right and left, whilst leaving top and bottom relatively neutral. Scenery (II) and an earlier work, The Significance of Enlightenment (2009), both include large white triangles, mimicking Zhang Kunkun’s recurring motif of the empty image display. Here, the empty triangles are bordered with painted ornate golden frames. In Significance of Enlightenment, the white canvas is placed across from an assortment of bizarre chairs, as if this were a portrait of an eccentric museum or movie theatre, or as if the act of looking at art were likened to the act of watching a film. In any case, an empty screen is a compelling image, for it invites the viewer to fantasize. Is this a space for dreaming up one’s own story? Is this a canvas for the grand narratives of the State or the image making industry? In film theory, the screen is a signifier for the way we connect as individuals to the larger picture, the big wide world. On a semiotic level, both, the empty screen and the severe diagonal structure, – as well as the fact that some fields are being delineated, while others are allowed to bleed into each other, some filled with iconography, others not, – all point to the fact that visual representations are contrived. An image is only one version of how a story can be told. And an image shows us only one of the many stories that could be told in its stead.


Zhang Kunkun’s Billboard Series superimposes two stories that couldn’t be further apart from each other, migrating modernist paintings, those of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, into generic Chinese advertisement displays. Why, one might ask, is the artist interested in these two painters? Maybe Zhang Kunkun feels competitive with esteemed Western masters? I doubt it. As brilliant as these artists were, they have little relevancy in contemporary art discourse. Moreover, if he were in competition, wouldn’t he aim to get at the core of their art? For, quite quickly, it becomes clear, that it is not their individual painterly or aesthetic cogency, or their actual artistic and conceptual or philosophic achievements, that Zhang Kunkun aspires to. Instead, the Chinese artist copies solely the easily recognizable, pictorial attributes of these artworks: Both, Newman and Rothko, split their canvasses into colour fields, one into sharp, delineated vertical blocks, the other into soft, edgeless horizontal cushions. It is these colour fields and their proportions that Zhang Kunkun transposes into his paintings.


Maybe Zhang Kunkun admires the way these artists have developed their own aesthetic vocabularies and used it to give their oeuvre structure or to propel themselves from one work to the next? For sure he will have learned that from them, as well as from many other renown conceptually informed artists, but this is a lesson, he might as well have learned from the Chinese masters.


Maybe, on the other hand, Zhang Kunkun seeks what he perceives as the aura of Rothko and Newman’s work? This makes more sense to me. In a global cityscape that has replaced communication and connection between human beings with empty signifiers, the re-investment of these same signs with meaning seems a radical act. Now, one might ask how an aura, especially that of abstract art, can be meaningful in that context? My answer would be that these paintings are simultaneously abstract and very concrete, and so is their aura. This might seem paradoxical, as the aura, defined in philosopher Walter Benjamin’s sense, is all about inaccessibility and distance. But if we think of the aura as a form that exudes energy, energy is concrete, albeit often invisible by the eye. And if we realize that these are paintings of a relatively small scale (considering, for example, the height of the ceiling of the Long Museum) and that they, moreover, are created by an artist’s hand, what becomes concrete here, is a kind of human spirit. In the face of glass and steel and capital, one small human being makes the effort to speak, to enunciate… and thus reminds us that we relate to things as individuals. And that it is our task to counter the void and alienation of the nihilistic consumerism called upon by advertisement billboards.



Allow me to speak, for one moment, as the author of this text and curator of the show. My perspective on Zhang Kunkun’s use of the works of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko might be completely off the mark. When preparing for the exhibition, I purposely did not ask the artist to spell out his reasons for this reference to Western art history. I liked the idea that the trope of colour field painting creates another empty space, one for me to project on. It is also a way to acknowledge that no matter how clear an artist’s intention, in the end, meaning is always produced by an artwork being seen by specific viewers in a concrete situation. The process of seeing and understanding remains fragile. It is up to a curator not to do interpretative violence to the work, but to enable that fragility to blossom. Personally, I am convinced of Zhang Kunkun’s inherent humanism. But in the end, we need to ask, “What do you see, when you look at red, yellow and blue?”


Through Zhang Kunkun’s transposition, the paintings of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, often the exclusive domain of a rich and cultured elite, migrate phantasmatically into public space. Meanwhile the idea of a public sphere, which has lost its lease on urban life, migrates back into the museum in the form of Zhang Kunkun’s own paintings. Here, a public is invited to meander amongst the works of art as equals, to respect the paintings and themselves and to understand this shared relationality, as well as the necessity and need to create a new public and new forms of the public sphere…


With the Poster Series, Zhang Kunkun delves further into empty signifiers, this time taking the form of commercial banners of the sort one might find at a Chinese shopping mall, advertising a holiday sale. Several works are actually painted onto the surfaces of the banners themselves, partially covering over their not-so-original content with red paint and only leaving traces of the original content peaking through: Partial script, money signs, balloons or fireworks are the actors of this spectacle. In other cases, the banners are painted on canvas, but instead of the cheerful banner front, hawking an “End of the Year Clearance!” or “Welcoming of the New!”, we see their backside, supported by bamboo scaffolding and weighed down by fire extinguishers. Often, banners come in multiples of twos or threes, this time referencing the building blocks of Newman’s paintings not in colour but in their proportions.


Red (or Gray) Carnival (2022) is a clever play on different surfaces, – some transparent, others opaque, – and materials, – some gold paint, others yellow paint imitating gold. It is worth delving into the details of what, on the surface, looks like a simple study in red and gold. There are firework drops painted in 3-D to create a hyperreal effect. The lights of off-screen lanterns find their way into the image through canny reflections. Expressive brushstrokes proclaim painterly prowess. I am sure, the viewer will be able to discern yet more of these little wonders in paint. Fake and real, Chinese realism and abstraction are welded into an amalgam that strives to articulate reality, –  but which reality, the reality of the hollow happiness proclaimed by the banners?, – only to acknowledge that reality is an entity that finally cannot be conveyed by an image.


Reality is a garbage can. This statement might come across a bit abrupt, considering that Zhang Kunkun’s Garbage Series, the final one in this exhibition, appears to progress from earlier series quite seamlessly. For example, Barnett Newman is taken up again, this time colliding with the kind of grandiloquent décor that gets attached to certain garbage cans in public space in an attempt to camouflage their shabby purpose. But allow me to make an argument as to why the above statement might make sense in the context of this oeuvre.


It is exactly Zhang Kunkun’s focus on an inferior everyday object with use-value, – the antithesis of art, one might say, – which allows honesty and realness to slip through otherwise heavily policed borders of high culture. However much the trashcan strives to become an emblem of something better, perversely embellished with supreme pagoda roofs in the Wishing Lamp(2021), or placed on a shiny tapered pedestal in 2020 (2021), it will inevitably be filled with trash. And this trash will have to be collected and taken away by garbage workers, stench and all.


2020, its title spelled out on the canvas with actual 1 cent coins from the US, memorializes the year or the outbreak of the pandemic, a year of crass experiences, a year which isolated individuals from society and nations from each other, a year were much money was made and oh so many lives lost, a year we might ourselves wish to relegate to the trash heap of history. Reality is a garbage can. Zhang Kunkun, though, does not leave it at that. He has taken extra care with the painterly details of this work, in order to instil it with subtle beauty, an artist’s alternative to the gaudy public décor. He is done so in order to call up a sense of morality that he feels is missing from our present time.


One detail of the 2020 garbage can is picked up and zoomed in on in the final art work of the exhibition, the medallion painting called Garbage Niche (2020): Here, the hole for cigarette ashes is refigured as a cave niche into which a tiny Buddha has been inserted. A scene of waste disposal is ingeniously turned into a place of worship. I believe that rather than delivering a purely spiritual message, this work is meant to serve us with a reminder that no matter how bleary our outlook into the future, which might sometimes feel like we are going down a rabbit hole, or, more to the point, down a garbage chute, we must look at the world with more astute eyes. We must look at our environment with eyes that see beyond the shiny consumerist propaganda of the global cityscape, to fasten onto something real. And what is real, at least in this artist’s eye, is that we must all strive to create possibilities for hope in the Here and Now.


Ruth Noack, February 2023