To me, these artworks by Zhang Hongtu represent the polarities of trauma. One is retrospective, confronting the trauma of Hongtu’s life in China during the Cultural Revolution. The other, inspired by the birth of a grandchild, looks longingly toward the future, expressing equal measures of hope and anxiety. I went out to Hongtu’s studio to talk about these artworks; excerpts from our conversation are below.
Zhang Hongtu: The “Front Door” installation deals with my life experience in China—fear. During the Cultural Revolution fear was a very general problem for everyone. Even the high-ranking officers. They lived in fear too. Mao was like a dictator who tried to control everything, even what people thought. So when you wanted to say something different from the government’s idea, you had to be very careful. The way we described this kind of talk, we’d say, “Let’s close the door.”
At the same time we have another phrase, “There are ears behind the walls,” which means that people are always listening to you. The situation made people very careful about what they said, even what they thought. Thinking was considered dangerous because if you think something, you may say it. And if you say something against Mao, not only you but your friends, your family—everyone is in trouble. Basically, you can’t have your own ideas. You censor yourself all the time. People just keep quiet and go along with the government. I think this kind of fear is the most terrible thing to happen in China.
Charlie Schultz (Rail): You’ve made a lot of artworks that use Mao’s image. In using that imagery, have you given it a new meaning for yourself?
Hongtu: I first started using Mao’s image in 1989, after the student movement in Tiananmen. I thought, I have to do something. So I used Mao’s image to express my feelings about China, but also as a way to support the students. But the first time I cut Mao’s image to make a collage I felt sick, guilty. I felt I was doing something wrong. My friend, who was very active in the student movement, told me that if I did the same thing in China I would be killed three times. He wasn’t joking.
So I thought, I’m here, in America, nobody can bother me. They cannot do this kind of work, but I can do it. Still, for a long time I felt a kind of fear every time I cut Mao’s image, but eventually I thought this fear had to be my own psychological problem. It was not just about Mao. And I thought if I continue to do this work, I will solve this problem. So my Mao pieces became like psychotherapy. I really concentrated on the Mao pieces from 1989 to 1995. In 1995 I had a show at the Bronx Museum called Material Mao. The museum hung all my Mao work together. To me it was a very important show because I thought, now I can do anything with Mao’s image. I can place it, I can destroy it, I can criticize it—and I don’t feel like anything is wrong. So I knew it was time to stop making Mao work.
Rail: The little monkey painting gives me two strong impressions. The buildings in the background give me a disjointed feeling, as well as a sense of isolation or even an existential type of loneliness. And of course the little monkey is also alone on the canvas. The way the monkey is gazing upwards gives me a hopeful feeling, but the expression on the monkey’s face also seems somewhat pained, a mixture of optimism and trepidation. Can you tell me about how your granddaughter influenced this piece?
Hongtu: Before Stella was born I didn’t care too much about the future. I’m living my life, who knows what’s going to happen in the future. It’s not my concern. But when she was born I thought, okay, even though nobody knows, I have to think about her future. And thinking about her future caused me to think about the future of her generation.
At first I started painting old monkeys. I called them “Sleeping Monkeys,” but after Stella was born I thought, no more old monkeys. When Stella looks at something you see her curiosity, but you also see that her eyes are full of hope. The monkey’s eyes are based on a picture of Stella’s eyes. I never imagined when I started these monkey paintings before Stella was born that they would turn out this way. That process is very important to me. Painting her eyes, painting her environment—it mixes my feelings about my own life with her life, and the problems that affect all of our lives. The main problem, of course, is that so many of us are basically alone.
Zhang Hongtu is a Chinese painter living and working in New York. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including shows at the Princeton University Art Museum, the Havana Biennial, PS1 New York, the New Museum in New York, Museu Picasso in Barcelona, and The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This fall, the Queens Museum in New York will hold his retrospective exhibition.