In 2007 young artist Zhang Rui, then newly graduated from the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, was one of 1001 Chinese citizens selected by Ai Weiwei through his blog to participate in his project Fairytale for Documenta 12. The experience proved to be a transformative one.
Her body of work One Year is showing at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Small works, painted with a somewhat muddy palette, initially resist interpretation. At first they appear charming, slightly awkward or naive. When you discover that her images have been largely sourced from the internet, from photographs uploaded to Instagram, Weibo, Facebook, and Twitter, their apparent lack of coherence—and weirdly disconcerting lack of affect—begins to make sense. Paradoxically painted in oil on canvas with a muted, almost monochrome palette rather than the lush hypercolor of a backlit screen, they are intended to reflect the constant stream of disparate, random, and mostly unconnected images that form the social media landscape: a never-ending “feed” of ideas and opinions. Even their various sizes and shapes echo the way we see images today: on a cellphone, a tablet, a laptop screen.
The personal and political worlds of the artist collide in a way familiar to every user of social media. They are connected by her interest in justice, in finding the courage to take a stance. Interviewed for Das Platforms, she described how she has followed Ai Weiwei’s blog since 2005 because “his opinion was so different to what we were taught.” A tiny painting of hands holding a tuft of grass depicts the blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng. Another work, We Are Sorry (2013), shows Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, perhaps referencing his formal apology to Aboriginal people removed from their families, the national shame of the “Stolen Generation,” or perhaps more recent political scandals. The word sorry has other resonances in China, however, and I suspect a sly reference to Ai Weiwei’s 2010 So Sorry exhibition in Munich and some cynicism about the sincerity of politicians.
A painting of alpacas against a rural background hides a subversive meaning, too. In China, the name for these animals, grass mud horse, or caonima, has been given an entirely new meaning by netizens circumventing government censorship of “vulgar content”: in Mandarin it sounds like an obscene curse. Around 2009 the term became an internet meme and Ai Weiwei has made use of it several times, including in his “Gangnam Style” parody, “Grass Mud Horse Style.” With deadpan understatement, Zhang Rui says she was “very excited to see many grass mud horses in Australia.”
Curator Toby Chapman describes the exhibition as being “like an archive” of her experiences and thoughts over the course of a year. It is more like a Facebook or Twitter feed in its random juxtaposition of images and ideas—unfiltered, uncategorized. Zhang Rui uses oil paint to represent a world in which overwhelming amounts of information are shared in ever-widening circles. In China—and everywhere—this is subverting old patterns of authority.
One Year is on view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art through August 17, 2013.