Now Reading
Artist Zhang Enli Opens Hauser & Wirth’s New Hong Kong Headquarters

Artist Zhang Enli Opens Hauser & Wirth’s New Hong Kong Headquarters

Fresh from a retrospective at Shanghai’s Long Museum, Zhang Enli debuts Faces at Hauser & Wirth‘s new Hong Kong headquarters.

Zhang Enli in his Shanghai studio

Art being a subjective matter, one aspect of Chinese artist Zhang Emil’s show Faces, which opens at Hauser & Wirth on January 24, that fixes our gaze is the work A Man Reading “The Castle”, a reference to Franz Kafka’s The Castle. All the more so because Zhang’s picture depicts no image of the book and seemingly no discernible impression of a reader. Both have been “abstracted” out, or away. How Kafkaesque. And as it transpires, how Zhangesque.

The Castle is the last novel Kafka wrote; in fact, he abandoned it mid-sentence in 1922 and it was published in 1926, two years after his death. It concerns the story of a protagonist, known only as K, who arrives in a village to meet a count who lives in the castle. K claims to be a land surveyor but this assertion is rejected by village officials who then thwart his attempts to enter the castle. We know not who’s summoned K, and what his purpose at the castle might be once inside. Indeed, we can’t even discern the castle, as it’s shrouded in mist and lies deep in snow. As it is, K never steps inside. Rather than a linear narrative framework, Kafka presents the reader with a series of frustrations: K trying again and again to progress, and being frustrated by a series of characters whose roles range from comic (Arthur and Jeremiah) to fragmentary (Barnabas) to castle superior (Klamm). Although his stratagems fail, K does enjoy a conjugal moment with a barmaid (Frieda). She also happens to be Klamm’s mistress (and the landlady of the inn is Frieda’s mother). We never see the count or the castle.

The atmosphere and mood of the novel are captivating but nigh on impossible to describe. As readers, we understand what’s happening but cannot articulate it. This is the Kafka magic: he disorients us by writing about the family, or the banality of daily existence, but disguises it so well it’s more akin to a strange dream or fairytale. Thus, The Castle is a “quest novel” without a guest, or the anti-guest novel. Indeed, K’s presence at the castle seem as if it might also be a mistake, as though his arrival is the result of some bureaucratic glitch or technological error.

Hauser & Wirth’s new Hong Kong headquarters at 8 Queen’s Road Central

Now imagine if Kafka were an artist and as a substitute for words he was using paint. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Chinese artist Zhang Enli. Just as Kafka’s novel is sometimes called the anti-novel from which he’s removed conventional plot and is more concerned with moments, characters, psychological states and fleeting impressions than telling a clear narrative, so Zhang is doing the same with his visual medium.

Literature – and especially Kafka – is a continual force on the imprimatur of Zhang the artist. “The sense of mystery and uncertainty within the book, as well as for humanity at large, has remained a constant source of inspiration, and I have resisted the work countless times,” he says. While he also reads Jean-Paul Sartre, Zhang especially adores Kafka for the way in which the latter’s work “interrogates our inner world, which is so full of potential and possibility, and enriches my imagination, and is full of interesting discoveries”.

And some of Zhang’s subjects, much like Kafka’s characters, aren’t always identified by a name. So, let’s play spot the difference; which title is Kafka’s and which Zhang’s? Leisurely Person, Traveller, Man in Black, A Guest from Afar, Officer, Art Museum Director, A Person Walking Down the Stairs, etc… Ultimately, they could technically be interchangeable.

Sometimes the “reality” of a work isn’t reflected in its name, says Zhang. “It could be a director, a truck driver, we’re always breaking the rules, there isn’t always a direct link. We go back to the idea of something being ambiguous.” Which explains why in his work Art Museum Director we discern neither an art museum nor any physical sense of a senior member of staff, yet the feeling of the work is closely aligned to another of his works, A Person Walking Down the Stairs.

Zhang Enli in his studio, with A Person Walking Down the Stairs and Woman Wearing Heavy Makeup in the background

As such, his work is almost anti-art. It no longer matters whom his portraits depict. Anything can be a portrait – a bucket, a red chair, an old sofa… His portraiture breaks away from depiction. He wants to create a way of painting that has no rules and is conflicting and harmonious at the same time. He expects everyone to enter the picture through different paths. “You can only find a way if you don’t follow conventional standards.” he insists.

Zhang gravitates to literature as inspiration for content. He explains that reading is a great source of ideas. “I’m not an academically trained artist, but I use literature, fiction, as my way of understanding and [as] nutrition for content. Literature, is a source for my mind.”

Jilin-born Zhang, whose work has just been the subject of a 30-year retrospective at Shanghai’s Long Museum titled Expression, graduated from Wuxi Technical University, Arts and Design Institute in 1989, before moving to Shanghai where he continues to live and work. He originally painted urban portraits in more symbolic and figurative ways, depicting butchers, lovers, banquets, bars and dance floors from the 1990s to the early 2000s, and series of everyday objects such as chairs, desks, buckets, boxes and piles of books from the 2000s to the early 2010s.

Indeed, Zhang is to Shanghai what TS. Eliot’s Four Quartets is to London. “The Winter evening settles down with smells of steak in passageways. Six o’clock.” Zhang has looked to embody the spirit of Shanghai via the invisible contours of its back alleys and the shadows of its intangible energies.

“This is the origin of my recent abstract paintings. They are visible yet invisible” – Zhang Enli

Since which time his work has grown increasingly abstract. He has become notable for installations known as Space Paintings, in which he paints directly on to the walls of rooms to create immersive environments suspending audiences into a void of time and pace. These can range from abstract, where colour and gesture recall the sights and sounds of a specific place, to more figurative reproductions.

His earlier focus on urban dwellers and the latest interest in abstract portraits have all shed light on the continuous attention he has given to people, objects and space, and though the shifts in his work can seem dramatic in their distinctive styles, the shifts in themes and techniques are by no means abrupt but more organic. “Everything is portrait,” he says. And his work, much like Kafka’s, can be understood as one vast metaphor for the struggle of life itself.

Sensing Zhang’s need to want to go beyond the boundaries of painting, to pioneer the aesthetic like some lustrous firework of his own making, what can we expect his new body of work in Hong Kong to deliver to the legions who already know, follow and collect his work? “It’s important that my way of expression is exciting from both me and the visitors to the gallery.” he says, playful and elusive by turns, before adding, “and that they can’t anticipate what the work will be. In this way, there will always be a beautiful surprise.”

Certainly these gestural canvases reflect Zhang’s progression to looser, freer brushwork so prominent in the artist’s style in recent years and reveals his compelling and continued exploration into the abstract form. “Sometimes, the obscured object also creates a trace with the passing of time,” he says. “This is the origin of my recent abstract paintings. When I look at a wall, or sky, it’s full of traces, and then I name these traces afternoon someone; it becomes very interesting, it’s visible yet invisible.”

See Also

Zhang Enli, A Guest from Afar (2023)

Zhang, whose work is held in the collections of trophy art institutions like Tate Modern, London, M+ Hong Kong, the UBS Art Collection, Zurich and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, has participated in the artist-in-residence programme co-presented by K11 Arts Foundation and London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 2018, wherein he re-created a version of his Shanghai studio for visitors to experience.

One of his works, Parrots in Five Colours at Hong Kong’s K11 MUSEA, sees Zhang turn a dome-shaped ceiling into a floating garden replete with symbols representing the five elements of Chinese philosophy, reminding people of the interconnectedness of everything and suggesting an otherworldly fantasy of lying at the centre of a heavenly ocean.

And his work Ancient Quartz adorns a main ceiling in the Drawing Room at The Fife Arms in Scotland’s Cairngorms, which is owned by Hauser & Wirth. Zhang took inspiration from cross-sections of Scottish agates, whose deceptively simple exteriors conceal a dazzling array of colour and texture. Having gazed at his work from the comfort of the room’s luxuriant leather armchairs over a pre-prandial Negroni, our senses feasted on his creation long before we ate in the adjoining Clunie Dining Room. And although he may be existential, he’s not above commercial work. Note, he’s twice collaborated with Fortnum & Mason, with work representing notions of travel, relocation, mapping and more. His limited-edition Tea Garden print cloth was inspired by plantations in Hunan and Hong Kong’s outlying islands.

Zhang Enli, A Man Reading “The Castle” (2023)

For one so analogue, does the digital universe serve any purpose in his practice or interaction with the world. “I will walk out of the door to experience the world,” he says. “We cannot rely on technology to understand the world.” Don’t expect any Zhang Enli AI-influenced work anytime soon, then. At least we think not. Although, in hindsight, never say never might be a better sentiment.

Especially when we discover that Zhang has a parrot named after British secret-service agent James Bond. “There’s a connection between Bond and the parrot,” he insists. “Parrots pick up words and sounds in the way that Bond must.” And Zhang’s parrot, or Bond, sometimes answers the phone; or at least, says “hello” when it hears the phone ring. This is a polygot parrot. Turns out the bird was named by Zhang’s wife, who’s a huge James Bond fan. Curious, we ask, if not James Bond, what might Zhang have called the bird. “Let’s not upset the parrot as Bond is at home,” he says. “We wouldn’t want him to lose face.” Quote so. I suddenly feel an urge to call Zhang “Z”.

Given the art “personas” his own work appears to have espoused, does the 59-year-old Zhang envisage a time when his commitment to abstraction may be displaced by another of art’s isms? “I have a wish that one day there’ll be a new style. Also, the unknown will tell me the direction of the future.” Spoken like a prophet. Or a non-prophet. Or a novelist. Or Kafka.

Zhang Enli mixes his playful and existential exercises in paint

So to all those who expect to spectate Zhang’s Faces as portraiture, think again. Ultimately his work is always asking the same question: who am I? And to paraphrase Kafka, Zhang’s body of work on the walls of Hauser & Wirth, with its concern and insight for life and humanity, are more like the aesthetic axe that breaks the frozen sea within us all.

Source: Prestige Online

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Copyright © MetaMedia™ Capital Inc, All right reserved

Scroll To Top