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Interpreter of history, narrator of modern legends Author:Zheng Naiming

Zheng Lu seems to be a shadow player of time.

Both the building material and source material he uses have specific characteristics of time, which concept can be generally used to interpret history, and to refer to culture as well, also a product of life rich in modern implications.

Zheng Lu told me that he was interested in Chinese characters even in his childhood. As early as six years old, he began to learn from his grandpa who was quite good at calligraphy. His father, again, a keen lover of poem and literature, used to contribute to magazines. He gave Zheng Lu, ten years old then, assignment to copy his draft. To the young Zheng Lu, the message between the lines are either deep or shallow, either comprehensible or incomprehensible, but what the form and meaning the characters carries played a crucial role of preparation in his later artistic creation.

Zheng Lu was born in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, in 1978 and spent his undergraduate years in Luxun Academy of Fine Arts. The training he got at the Academy stresses no doubt the traditional intellectual pursuit, but the fundamental training there prepared him to be reflective and speculative. His diploma work in 2003 is of course a sculpture, but he add to his figure sculpture something from Chinese calligraphy, i.e., he posted the calligraphy work on the figures, which are thus made less stiff. It is probably the beginning of his practice in combining Chinese characters with sculptures. After he went to Beijing in 2005, the form and meaning never stopped fascinating him. He finished his study in the studio in China Central Academy of Fine Arts. While studying in Beijing, he began to think about how to bring forth Chinese characters, in other words, to give them one more dimension. In his first trial, he chose stainless steel as material and scroll as form. The characters were cut out of the stainless steel board one by one, and then, with a machine used for processing scrap metal or pressing carton, these characters were pressed into a cube bigger than a magic cube. What is interesting is that, though the compact cube is made of characters by compression, it can penetrate the space since the characters were pierced. Such works, once juxtaposed with the scroll on which the characters are cut out and taken away, only the frame of characters remain on the scroll. No character is solid, but the compressed cube is. In this dialogue, reality and fantasy seem to turn the compressed cube into a door connecting the surreal context of words and transparent room of stream of consciousness.

I would like to say something about stream of consciousness.

Young as he is, Zheng Lu has begun to think about what he could do in his creation to bring forward the splendor of the modern life thinking by retrieving momentary evening glow from the glow of sunset in history. It is about reduplication and dislocation of different time and space. He obviously did not realize that his works were dealing with multiple time and space when I asked him such question. I can understand quite well such reaction. As a young artist, Zheng Lu is focusing on whether the medium for expression is accurate or not, and many techniques about form are still to be gradually probed and overcome. Therefore, he has to first get familiar with the surface before he can explore and make discoveries in the depth. However, he can center on the historical elements of Chinese characters and take into all the possible factors into consideration. Such a discovery and exertion, compared with his contemporaries, is surely uncommon—he has his own impression and opinion about this spectral instrument set of history.

It is by no means rare for contemporary artists to resort to Chinese characters for motive power. The form and meaning of Chinese characters are so indicative that they can easily interfere in the context for reading, which leads the viewers to refer to the appeal of the characters to prove the sense of form of expression. Such inertia will be a challenge to the artist. Does the form of expression have to be in interactive link with the form and meaning of the character? Or can they be independent of each other for appreciation?

Zheng Lu chose to start with Chinese characters. In the beginning, he insisted that the formal appeal and the meaning of the word should reflect the relationship between each other, and he even made a point of counterpointing these characters in the works in the form or Yin or Yang. Such treatment, i.e., to equip the characters with certain narrative function, conforms to the rule.    To me, it is not wrong, of course, but formalization will arise due to too much concern about form. This stage for Zheng Lu, however, is absolutely correct because the path to change is visible only when there is enough practice within the framework or rules. In the works to be presented in September this year, we can see there is more free treatment. Characters are still dominating elements, but they gradually break away from the intellectual constraint of form and meaning.

Let’s return to the topic of multiple time and space. With regard to the elements chosen in the works, I think he has different focuses on different levels of time. Chinese characters, his favorite of seal characters, in particular, are historical to some extent. He bases his work on history, but is reluctant to restore history, so he chooses stainless steel as material, which is considerably modern. To Zheng Lu and his contemporaries, the synthetic stainless steel, with no special expression but reflect coldness from its smooth surface, is neutral and receptive of different styles, like a shelf for curios. The form and meaning of the characters and the stainless steel are relocated—it is about the penetrative and constructive power of time. The characters can surely be regarded as the soft part of history, but is nevertheless about the past. Stainless steel, however, as a product of the modern time, hard but receptive, which is particularly true of its cold appearance, is suggestive of the outward indifference and lack of concern found in the new modern generation. Zheng Lu restores history at this ferry. To me, he is not deliberately creating an atmosphere to restore history, but, to be exact, via this medium, he is looking for a new starting point for history, one that is approachable and comprehensible in our age. Therefore, the characteristics of these Chinese characters and the material can be considered as a combination of two different historical products, but due to zheng Lu’s treatment, a new space for stream of consciousness is rebuilt that is capable of implanting abstractness of history in the hard material of modern time, so that the two elements are combined into an organism that is capable not only of interpreting history but of telling modern legends.

Zheng Lu’s sculptures should not be classified as traditional sculptures—they are more conceptual sculpture installation. In addition to the mutual reflection of different time and space, there is pierced work. At first, he aimed to challenge the traditional convention about the relationship between volume and mass by piercing the stainless steel to reduce the visual heaviness. It led to some minor problems. According to Zheng Lu, traditional sculptures are generally solid and many details are visible. The point is that pierced work undoubtedly weakens the tension hidden in these details and reduces the visual tension and mass. The choice of pierced work absolutely comes from his understanding of Taoism, including inaction, nonbeing and affinity with nature. Personally, Zheng Lu holds that nonbeing agrees with China as a nation on the spiritual level as far as the cultural profundity is concerned. It helps to explain his treatment of the works. Though the mass of the material is removed, the reduced mass enhances the harmony between the works and the space, so that one does not feel that something heavy is blocking the way. In addition, the pierced work also improves the expression of space penetration, so that the so-called visual gradations of landscape can lend more to a mere sculpture.

Pierce work fit in with the special quality of the individualistic new generation. Indeed, stainless

steel is so hard that it does brittle or easily gets damaged. Zheng Lu offered another solution in this regard. He likes model planes, model ships and rock ’n roll. All these have something in common: They all have something to do with speed. He has two works, one is an aeroplane and the other is a car. The overlapping tableaus after the visual freeze-frame give the two works one more dimension. It looks as if two aeroplanes or two cars were colliding into each other. These two works, pierced of course, make the material all the more fragile and light, or it might be the impact of the conflicting theme and compression. The pierced stainless steel reminds me of the so-called Strawberry Clan and Jelly Clan of ’70s. The brilliant-looking organic and inorganic forms of life in the social ecology, are generally vulnerable to external impact for the lack of simple life intensity at the root. The intellectual quality involved in the material and in the age implies that there is more to learn in this world.

Zheng Lu’s works are fairly metaphorical as well. Take his Heaven-sent Fortune (2008) for example. It is in the form of a bomb pasted red with the Chinese character “happiness”. The bomb drops like the smashed pink wedding car. The irony and cold humor expressed in the work reveal the young artist’s personality. His recent works get inspiration for modeling from the dropping water. The sculpture, hidden behind the non-light tight plastic on which the light shines, appears to the viewers as if it is a shadow play, mystical, indistinct and visionary. It also highlights the sense of distance he likes. His art fits in with thinking particular to his age, characterized with reluctance to be understood too much on one hand and intuitive and narrative treatment of forms on the other. Works based on the movement of water, for example, corresponds to a large extent to the movement of strokes of seal characters, making the characters more abstract and more pictographic. The whole design reflected on the plastic is suggestive of a courtyard of Chinese style and the artistic context in Chinese landscape painting. The creation itself is concrete and detailed, only the treatment is a bit involved, shifting and metaphorical, which takes the visual participation back to “reading”.

In dealing with the Chinese characters, no matter he is removing the form or retaining the meaning, Zheng Lu, as an artist of 70s, has always been adhering to his culture, bringing the viewers back to the reading context of Chinese characters to share his understanding of culture as a modern artist.