流連野水之烟: Cheng Tsai-Tung Solo Exhibition

7 - 30 July 2007

Poetic Beauty in Zheng Zaidong’s Art


At the sight of Zheng Zaidong's paitings, I would unconsciously come to think of Shen Sanbai, a character in Shen Fu's (Qing Dynasty)book Six Chapters of A Floating Life: he leaned himself in the mosquito curtain and smoked, narrowing his eyes at a mosquito in the curtain filled with smoke. He didn't beat the mosquito but took it as a crane in clouds. I could feel from it kind of inexplicable sense of the old times. Later on, some critics described Zheng's art by employing Mr. Yu Boping's comment on the style of Shen's book, which proved to be perfectly appropriate: "It seems not safe to say that the book was reeled off casually; and to define it as a result of elaborate design only seems equally plausible. It may be half accidental and half designed. It is perfect as if written in an ornate style but shows no trace of deliberate ornamentation at all. It is like beautiful scenery of mountains and rivers, being completely natural but seeming skillfully man-made. To feel our way in such poetic imaginary, we will probably come to the bounds of our annalistic skills. The perfection of the story is no big deal but the fact that perfection is gained so easily is. The beauty conveyed is not to be wondered at, but there seems nothing in it other than the beauty: like a pure crystal of shining color with nothing else to show the bright up, and of wonderful delicacy with no trace of artificial effort."


For Zheng Zaidong, an artist from Taiwan, this is his seventeenth year in Shanghai. Seventeen years ago, Zheng left Taipei to reside in Shanghai and has begun to visit well-known mountains and rivers ever since, tracing down the pulse of traditional Chinese culture. To Zheng Zaidong, while having set his body firmly on this piece of land, his spirit was nearly experiencing a rather long religious pilgrimage.Therefore, to certain extent, I cannot agree with the practice of analyzing Zheng’s art in the context of contemporary art. His paintings, in essence, are not associated with any schools or concepts of western contemporary art. Though in his early works we can faintly get a glimpse of the expressionism style, or the trace of some western modern art masters such as Henri Matisse, Milton Avery, etc., Zheng’s paintings, does not keep with the western way to observe and narrate about the world. If put in another way, Zheng is expressing his own deeply-rooted temperament via a new-fashioned behavior pattern from the west---the Chinese traditions have long been hidden in his early art works. As far back as his "Mother"in 1984 and “The Moon in Water” in 1987, I am able to faintly feel that his artistic perception has gradually begun to Part Company with the western concepts. Afterwards, Zheng started his spiritual tour back to traditional Chinese literati and officialdom through reading and traveling. That is a kind of individual interest full of poetic beauty, romantism and idealism. Despite the road currently appears rather narrow and long, we observe that Zheng Zaidong is always able to walk on it freely, feeling content with his lot.He claims himself to be a person who has been "playing through life with no serious ambition" and the older he is, the more playful he is. The man, in his fifties, has increasingly manifested kind of plain and childish in his artistic and daily life. In his big house in Shanghai with a lilac garden, with antique, calligraphy, paintings and old furniture around, he enjoys good tea, good wine and good study in such state of mind as "to cheer me through the end of spring"---that is  a kind of rare seclusion: enjoying leisure in busy streets. From Zheng's point of view, an artist first ought to be a “lifeist”: a man who knows the beauty of life. The real life state of an artist ought to eventually converge with his/her art behaviors. Therefore we can always observe in Zheng’s works vast landscape of mountains and rivers, among which sharp edges are frequently shown. He expresses a little but means a lot, always trying to reach the perfect state in depth of literati, i.e. to explore the human nature and their mental world. However, probably because Zheng, in his fifties, has experienced a journey filled with numerous difficulties and dangers, he is always conveying in his works helpless disconsolation as expressed in the poems of Li Jing and Li Yu, two poetry masters in South Tang Dynasty.


How comes such helplessness and disconsolation? He himself finds it hard to explain: "My paintings are like a private diary which records my life experiences, as well as my struggle and fantasy in life. Under the guise of certain objects, mythologies or allusions, I depict out the inexplicable scenes from the bottom of my heart". "When I paint, I am simply following the feelings in my heart". He says he cares much about color application in painting but cares little about the pattern design. Therefore in his pictures we often find things scattered around in chilly autumn wind. Sometimes a picture is unique and outstanding only for a tiny design in the corner, showing techiques that are very close to those of Ma Yuan and Xiagui in the Song dynasty. His patterns are generally planar with thin and sparse strokes and little heavy ones, resulting in special effect of childish clumsiness. Everything is concealed in his original and fancy arrangement of colors---boundless night, lonely moon high up in the sky, plane and insipid landscapes, a light boat with two or three persons: he seems to be crazy and infatuated with such patterns. This is exactly what makes his art noble and precious. That is a natural talent that turns to the inherent human temperament, something he was born with, something distinct from the flighty and rash image designs now overflowing in modern art.Therefore, a modern art exhibition is actually not a best place for us to appreciate Zheng Zaidong’s works. We’d better sit down alone and peacefully, and take our time to do that. To be with his works is like being with an old friend at the tea table: we might say nothing to each other though we hadn’t met for half a year. Such poetic beauty is beyond words and can not necessarily be perceived by the mass.