The ICA in London has announced its plan to commission Shanghai-based artist Zhang Enli (b1965) to transform the ICA theatre with a painting that will cover the floor and walls. A significant number of artists in China have become dissatisfied with the art created in relation to the changing relationship with the world in the 1980s. A legacy of the Communist regime was Socialist Realism, which in the 1980s many artists sought to subvert. Pi Li in his essay, “Chinese Contemporary Art: Towards Diversity” points out that these artists did not reject the style but the cultural authority that it represented. The first wave of art inspired by Western art movements, had the effect of establishing the individual artist’s right to self- expression. Still there remained a widely held view that art played a vital role in society. Much artistic activity of the past 20 years, and yet as Pi Li points out, art has helped China understand itself, although he adds, “within a few years this high-mindedness had been moderated by materialistic pragmatism. Gaudy Art, which appeared in Beijing in the mid-1990s, is clear proof of this. Indiscriminately combining Western artistic language with Chinese political and folk symbolism, Gaudy Art presented something that a Western art enthusiast might find appealing, but it had no particular relevance at all to real society in China”.
Zhang Enli’s response was to choose everyday objects that he believed would link China to the rest of the world. This, in contrast to his more gestural earlier works, has required a more circumspect approach, and great skill. The choice of mundane objects has enabled Zhang to document his own journey from life in the countryside to the city, a transition that has been made by millions of Chinese people in the past 25 years in particular as the country has become an economic super power. Zhang Enli chooses to portray interiors, in a studio using artificial light which for him enhances the artificial atmosphere, and in turn the unnatural atmosphere of many peoples’ lives in the present time.
The ICA installation will enable viewers in the UK to experience the tension inherent in contemporary life in Shanghai, one of the fastest growing cities in the world.
Zhang Enli at the ICA, London, opens 16 October 2013.