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SHIOSAL—Regarding ZHENG Lu Author:Zheng Nai-Ming

Shiosai—Regarding Zheng Lu

Cheng Nai-ming

Editor in Chief, CANS Chinese Contemporary Art News

The rain season was like a river, flowing by the harbor in April.

Like a small spotted Spanish mackerel, I took a walk,

Swimming through the tall, giant kelp along the road, puffing out bubbles while thinking and playing…

I missed those sunny days. A tiny window framed the picturesque beauty for me, with the forms of the cloud, the shadow of high buildings, the solidity and brightness of the sunshine, divided by circles and right angles as well as countless glistening small eyes. The spring of this harbor! Tied to the travelers’ light-colored bow ties and the sailors’ red shirts that tinted the picture.

Playing games, I rode the big waves, pushing the small waves onto the shore. The large waves were shouting, the small waves silent but unnoticeably lured away the sand.

Zheng Chouyu, Song by the Harbor (1954)

One Chooses Transcendence out of Aversion Towards Comfort

Zheng Lu excels in “moving stones.”

He does not move the stones to obstruct himself, but in order to surpass himself.

This is because it is only when you realize there are obstacles ahead that you are stimulated to contemplate ways of surpassing and overcoming them, which lead to new discoveries behind those obstacles, perhaps even more obstacles to be conquered.

You may not have fully realized how strong the preference is for security and comfort. Psychologists believe that people generally seek out a good self-image and a sense of security, which leads many to choose to remain in their comfort zones, where they can satisfy these needs to the fullest. The problem is, however, that humans overlook one fact, which is that our blind spots exist precisely outside our comfort zones. As a result, we prefer to be with people like ourselves, or imagine that we share some common ground with people around us. This common ground brings us a sense of familiarity and safety, which gives rise to a sense of belonging, and with a sense of belonging comes higher self-esteem and joy.

When Zheng Lu faces his own artistic creations, he always pushes himself to avoid settling into a specific style, which would be like remaining in a comfort zone and gradually losing the ability to upend himself.

In 2015, Zheng created a work titled Tomb of Honor. Essentially, this work should not be categorized as a sculpture in the traditional sense. Instead, it is more like a semi-installation sculpture, or to be more precise, a conceptual sculpture, a term which better suits Zheng’s art. For this work, Zheng employed fishhooks available in ordinary markets as his artistic material. Thousands of fishhooks were combined and welded into an enormous human heart. But without disassembling or closely observing this heart, you would never realize that all the sharp-pointed hooks are turned inside! When you only see the exterior of this heart, you might only notice its glistening metal sheen without really noticing the razor sharp hooks giving off a chilling air from within.

This should be seen as one of his more outstanding works from recent years.

Zheng had an opportunity to transcend his original creative approach and his accustomed use of materials, and to rethink the ways he conveys themes, when he was invited to participate in the international marine conservation-focused touring exhibition On Sharks and Humanity. Zheng’s thoughts quickly turned to fishhooks; if there were no fishhooks, the marine massacre could be stopped. Zheng began a massive shopping spree for fishhooks on the Chinese ecommerce platform Taobao. What he did not realize, however, was that when a buyer starts buying large quantities of fish hooks on the market, it generates momentum for suppliers to manufacture more. Zheng did not expect his action to backfire in this way. Having no experience in cornering markets, Zheng had no choice but to turn around and calmly face this material, and the ideas he hoped to express through it.

Zheng gave this work the rather ironic title of Tomb of Honor. We often describe a compassionate person as having a kind, merciful heart, which is to say that a person’s actions depend on the heart. If human kindness is to lead to action on marine conservation, it will have to arise from the heart. Conversely, if humanity keeps killing marine life out of greed and the pursuit of profit, that will also come from the heart. Kindness and malice are positioned on two ends of a delicate balance that depends on the heart’s leanings. How, then, does one ascertain a person’s inclinations from their appearance? A person’s fundamental beliefs are actually concealed within the depths of the heart, and cannot be felt until you draw close and intimate. By welding these fishhooks together from the back, we cannot see from the outside that they are fishhooks, but when we draw closer and look carefully, we see the thousands of sharp hooks that make up this heart.

Zheng has raised an issue worthy of further exploration and discussion. He has allowed art itself to become instructive, without being dogmatic. Moreover, I also feel that Zheng has imbued this work with the psychological view that human beings are prone to hiding in their own comfort zones, which leaves them oblivious of their own blind spots. In other words, the human brain likes things it recognizes and is familiar with, and so when you see something familiar, at first glance, you find your perceptions are driven by experience, and thus overlook this familiar thing, despite all of the unfamiliar things that exist within.

This artist born in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia in 1978, has continuously attempted to transcend his own habits in artistic creation through self-reflection. He is not a captive of his past creative mode, which is already well known and lauded, and this inspires us to look forward to his future works.

Tradition as Longitude, Modernity as Latitude, Contemporary as Intersection

Zheng Lu became interested in Chinese characters as a young boy. His grandfather was very good at calligraphy, and Zheng began learning from him at the age of six. Zheng’s father was a man of letters who excelled in poetry and literature and often contributed to magazines. Zheng’s father started asking him to transcribe his writing at the age of ten. For a child of that age, some of the words were difficult to understand, but it did not matter whether he understood the words, because during this process, the forms of characters, being composed of strokes and dots, slowly took root in Zheng’s mind. This concrete experience could explain the reason why Zheng chose Chinese characters as a fundamental element of his artistic expression when he began his artistic career. Zheng graduated from the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in 2003, and obtained his MFA from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 2007. The training in sculpture from the Lu Xun Academy understandably placed more emphasis on the traditional spirit of sculpture; nonetheless, this solid traditional training has given Zheng the momentum for more conceptual thinking later on his creative path.

Zheng’s use of characters as a basis for his early creative work might have something to do with his immersion in poetry and literature since a very young age. I feel, however, that his utilization of Chinese characters as a creative element is not in order to “express feelings and emotions.” To be more precise, he has been using characters as a foundation, one on which his imagination is rooted, and one from which it can soar high. This is similar to how, despite his solid training in sculpture at the Lu Xun Academy, he also clearly understood that following tradition would be an easy, comfortable path, but it would not be one that was in line with his original reasons for wanting to become an artist. Therefore, his first priority was to not let the meaning of the words become a restraint, but to instead allow the forms of the words to become the basic structure of his work. Secondly, Zheng strove to escape the heavy weight of traditional sculpture, just as he hoped that words would not limit his creative imagination. He wanted his work to transcend the existing framework, from the appearance it has held to the meaning it could create, allowing imagination to run free and display a high degree of creative versatility.

As a result, Zheng started removing the weight from his chosen material. His method of openwork carving restored the characters to a “semi-hieroglyphic” state without resembling completely ancient hieroglyphs, with the “structure” that emerges through the connections between the characters forming the external shape of his work. In the early stages, Zheng still followed the “connections” between one word and another in a traditional sense, making the words recognizable. Nevertheless, making the words legible was never his purpose. Moreover, when a viewer visually focuses on one thing, they gradually start to pay less attention to the world around them. After many experiments, Zheng saw the infinite possibilities in extending and sculpting the material as if witnessing the continuity of “water” at the same time.

Perhaps, from another angle, even unconsciously, the artist’s days as a Beijing drifter planted the seeds in his mind of taking on the adaptability embodied by water, though he still found it difficult to reconcile with his environment.


His family cultivated Zheng’s understanding of traditional culture, but studying art also enabled him to contemplate how to free himself from the bonds of tradition. In different stages of his growth, Zheng was hit by different cultural waves. If history were water, the environment would be a “container,” giving the water different looks and forms. Nonetheless, the essence would remain the same despite this change of appearance. In recent years, Zheng has created a series, titled Water in Dripping, which stands as a testament to his success in finding a foothold from which to balance between “structure” and “spirit.” This series has inherited the essence of Chinese calligraphy but is also empowered with the force of surging “water.” In a way, it is like quietly nurturing an individual life into maturity while achieving a sense of cultural inheritance in spirit.

Magnificent Waves Arise from Clashes

Zheng’s solo exhibition at MOCA Taipei, Shiosai, used the title of a novel by the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, written in 1954. Mishima has always been one of Zheng’s favorite literary writers. In the novel, through a story that takes place in a simple, relatively isolated fishing village in Kajima (known as Kami-shima today) in Toba, Mie Prefecture, the novelist portrays a young couple’s persevering pursuit of love. Mishima’s depiction of the romance between a young fisherman and the only daughter of a boat owner stated that only through conquering obstacles, sustaining challenges, and experiencing all the sorrow and bitterness in life can real love be found.

The word “shiosai” refers to the sound of waves when they splash against the shore. The stronger the force of the waves, the more magnificent their spray.

One of Zheng’s artworks in 2015 was titled Shiosai. Like an animation still frame, the work resembles a frozen image of a towering wave crashing against rocks. In this work, Zheng used different processing methods on the material to create the appearance of the water in various densities after the wave’s impact. The mirror-like surface of the stainless steel plates reflect like the water’s surface. It is beautiful, and tranquil, but in a sudden moment, waves come rushing down after crashing against the rocks. The artist uses the “mirroring” effect of the stainless steel plates to express the sense of “tranquility,” and employs a delicate but elaborate hammering technique to refine the dark, monstrous waves. Water can carry a boat, but it can also capsize it. The saying comes from past history, but is fully embodied here. This piece also reminds us of the waves in Katsushika Hokusai’s Ukio-e print. The difference is that in Zheng’s sculpture, Shiosai, the audience can see the variation of rhythm as well as a sense of mystery, and even a sense of breathing in the waves.

The reasons why the curatorial concept is based on the theme of Shiosai are: one, to pay homage to Yukio Mishima while generating more possibilities of imagination through literary thinking; two, “water,” with its fluidity, has seen much emphasis in Zheng’s works in recent years; and three, the magnificence and beauty of life is often only seen in the waves produced from setbacks and clashes. In this exhibition, I have attempted to integrate Zheng’s recent artworks and the various forms of “water” to demonstrate the reality that the appearance of things may change according to shifts in the exterior environment. The essence, however, always remains the same.

This idea doubtless arose from the artist’s personality. On the other hand, it is also a response to Mishima’s use of the ordinary love story between two people to convey quite extraordinary views on life. The so-called sublime must come from the collision of two great forces, which reveal the extraordinary and precious nature of the sublime. As Zheng gradually reduced his emphasis on Chinese characters in his creations, and began to rethink the essence of history or culture through reflection on “water,” he realized that nothing could only exist in one single mode. Instead, one should be more adaptable and flexible in different environments, like “water,” while also maintaining a sense of self. This awareness also corresponds to the idea that a great wave must crash against the shore to produce wondrous sights and sounds.

Mishima’s Shiosai may appear on the surface as an ordinary love story, but the disparate familial backgrounds of the protagonists, the prevailing conservative sentiments of society, and a range of other elements, serve to erect layer after layer of obstacles to their love through which they had to pass to find satisfaction and testify to the extraordinariness of this love. Perhaps the reason Zheng Lu likes Mishima’s writing is that he would always begin with the most ordinary things, but was always able to create sharp, refined brushstrokes that broke through the mental landscape of human society, just as Shiosai is a love story, but the reader can see an attitude towards life and possible ways of making choices within.


Zheng Lu is a typical Beijing drifter, and a typical hesitant artist. In artistic creation, he reminds me of the formation of a riverbed. In the beginning, a small stream may flow randomly without a defined path. The thing is, when small tributaries gradually form a small river, the water current will naturally follow the previously formed streambed, which presents the path of least resistance. However, in order to become a great river, it must constantly flow and carve the land.

In 1954, Yukio Mishima published the novel Shiosai. In 2015, Zheng Lu from Beijing presented his exhibition, Shiosai, at MOCA Taipei. Some 61 years apart, literature and art came together here, revealing many similar views, as well as more than a few changes in the times. Whether Mishima’s work 61 years ago, or Zheng’s exhibition 61 years later, their outlooks and attitudes on life are both worthy of our perusal.