Zeng Fanzhi – Idealism

Idealism awry
entrance from lower gallery

This exhibition of 36 major works includes those from his celebrated series Hospital, Meat, Mask and Portraits. The exhibition also features new works from the Untitled (Night) series that have never been exhibited. Idealism is an exhibition that captures the tension between greatness and emptiness, joyousness and alienation, sentiments echoed in Zeng’s powerful expressionist style. The exhibition departs from the chronological presentation of Zeng’s works at international museums and galleries. Zeng responds to the gallery spaces of SAM and the interplay of the theme of idealism. A retrospective-scaled exhibition, Idealism is site specific to SAM and the exhibition’s curatorial direction for which the artist has created new works.

(extracted from SAM website)

This ‘retrospective-scale’ exhibition is worth visiting, especially if you are a painter. It occupies as much space as Chen Wen Hsi’s retrospective. It is worth visiting if you are interested in large expressionistic paintings, the blend between Frank Auerbach, Jackson Pollock and Gerhard Richter’s works in appearance. It is a draw if you are keen to see what the fuss  Contemporary Chinese painting is all about.

If one is any familiar with contemporary painters from China, we will know that their subject matter often deals with cynicism of the social and political development of China under the older Communist regime, before the sleeping dragon awoke to the whiff of foreign trade and capitalism. China today, is often regarded as a super power, with huge foreign currency surpluses. The ‘idealism’ that is suggested in the title is pure sarcasm or romanticised-beliefs that the artist truly holds. It hides the same dim view of the state of (worldly) affairs, and it would be a over simplistic summary of what happened to immediate post-war China. It seems to suggest that the idealism had gone awry, and bred corruption, inefficiency, contempt, disillusionment and more; that is before the dragon awoke.

A painting titled “fire” in the lower gallery, facing the enterance strikes a match. It illuminated the status of  contemporary Chinese art in Singapore. The chaotic strokes-style, reminisce of Pollock’s action paintings seems to mask the painting, shielding the fire. The fire reminded me of the story of Plato’s cave, except painting has no other subject matter, cave or shadow. Is this the real thing? Art at it’s pinnacle? Maslow’s self-actualisation in the form of a painting? It also rekindled my imagination of Qin Shi Huang (1st Emperor of unified China) burning historic and classic books in circa 213 BCE, and the ashes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  It reminded me of the never before frenzy to buy contemporary Chinese art at Christie’s auction, in recent months.

In the upper gallery, the subject matter seem to ply ‘masks’ or puppet like portraits with large eyes and hands, not unlike Czech Marionettes or Indonesian Wayang Goleks. Like puppets, they seem to suggest a fate beyond their own hands, forced to put on a false pretense. The colour pencil pictures in the upper gallery are worth special mention, detailed and substantial studies to their painted enlargements.

While it is frightening to think that the work is site-specific (see curatorial text extracted above), ranting idealism and it’s dual message in our pristine white gallery space depicting almost grotesque pink “Man and Meat” (1993), it is food for thought. Fanzhi’s paintings are but a trickle representation of the kinds of ‘masks’ people wear for profit and personal gain. While we speak of progress and our elites (not elitists), Singapore Kindness Movement, a step closer to our communitarian idealism which kicks off this week is perhaps a timely reminder for those few whom climb the ladder of success. Spare a thought for others, not just spare change.

8 of 10 stars

April 30 – July 11, 2007

Singapore Art Museum

All pictures with the kind permission of the Singapore Art Museum. All rights reserved by the artist and owners of the works.
Selected pictures, click below:

Zeng Fanzhi – Idealism
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