Forever Lasting Love, a triptych by the artist Zhang Xiaogang 张晓刚 has sold for a record £6.3m.
Since I managed to enrage a good few people with my thoughts on Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds (the Chinese authorities do not - despite their portrayal in the Western media - feel remotely threatened by the frankly shallow linkage between millions of porcelain seeds and concepts of democracy, and, as dissidents go, Ai pushes all the right buttons while standing for nothing of any import so far as I can see), I’ve decided to point out that Forever Lasting Love just isn’t particularly amazing. If it hadn’t cost so much, nobody would be writing about it.
Don’t get me wrong - I very much like Zhang’s Bloodline paintings, which I find haunting and sad, full of the unspoken feelings of loss and love and emptiness that the wasted decades of hardline Maoism evoke for me. If I had the money, I’d gladly waste it on one of them. But Forever Lasting Love by contrast strikes me as a mishmash of semi-digested symbolism.
Okay, you could do as Zhang himself does and observe that “the painting is built upon the dichotomy of life and death,” while, as Sotheby’s catalogue notes, “the juxtaposition of a baby against corpses lying underground symbolizes the coexistence of life and death.” Wow! If this artist hadn’t set it down in oils I don’t think anybody in China would’ve made that link. Isn’t it nice that the Chinese have somebody pointing out these deep philosophical truths to them? It’s not as if Buddhism or Daoism managed to make any such observation over the millennia, or as if the Chinese had ever been exposed to Christianity or the Enlightenment before 1988...
Sotheby’s goes on: “Zhang Xiaogang garnished Forever Lasting Love with strong religious overtones, betraying compelling influences from Western philosophy and art.” Read between the lines, and beneath the ostensible praise there’s a deep seam of patronization: Chinese artists seem to be commended for grappling with “modern Western philosophy, literature and art,” and the appearance on a Chinese canvas of every borrowed visual metaphor (the Christ child, Mary, a serpent...) is greeted with the same kind of vicarious enthusiasm with which Lord Macartney handed over the latest trinkets to the Qianlong Emperor. If a Western artist had betrayed a “compelling influence” from the traditional Chinese repertoire, would Western art commentators be lauding him for it, or just shrugging it off as a lazy cultural adoption? There’s a big old double standard at work here.
The entire edifice of modern China could be seen as one big attempt by the Chinese to absorb the West: what else are Marxism and market-based capitalism? Staring as I now am at Forever Lasting Love, the only thing I find remarkable is that, with a couple of decades of immersion in Chinese culture behind me, I genuinely can’t see anything that says “China” to me in this triptych. Not in its materials, its execution, its spatial field, subjects - nothing. If it had been painted by a first-year art student at Goldsmiths it might’ve been welcomed by the examiners as a reasonably well executed but ultimately rather trite piece of self-exploration that relies too heavily on unrelated metaphors.
“For Zhang Xiaogang himself,” says Sotheby’s, “and for the Chinese nation, the work constitutes a visual document of the ambitions of Chinese contemporary artists of the 1980s, painting persistently to communicate with the world surrounding themselves.” I’d agree that this is Zhang’s attempt as an artist to play with some of the ideas of Western tradition both visually and abstractly, but I don’t think it has had, or will ever have, any wider effect on the Chinese nation. I simply find such loose reasoning patronizing.