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Maximal Poetry Author:Josef Ng

Zheng Lu’s most ambitious exhibition to date, Water from Water immerses in two metaphysical narratives. The exhibition explores pictorial and sculptural vocabularies of surface aesthetic and paradox to create visual conditions that both engage and divert meaning. At its liberating core, the exhibition title refers to a definition of volume and density as an expression of frameworks towards multiple constructions; emphasizing nuances of an applied prowess, while setting up a form in constant flux and changing dynamics.

There is also an exploration of the potential on medium and its particular specificity in an oscillation between two-dimensional, three-dimensional and beyond-dimensional languages. Emblematic of his elegant yet imaginative style, the movement and nature of water acts as a background for the exhibition, where its element is accentuated on the sculpturing elaboration of line, composition, and shape as well as being part of an essential tool of fluid in fulfilling the rigorous creation of image-based works.

Currently based in Beijing, Zheng has come to prominence in recent years with his sculptures and installations that shimmer with a remarkable energy. Delving into the realm where the materialization of form and textual language overlap, Zheng is notable as an artist who constructs and invites impact into the experience of being. His signature material – stainless steel – has stayed in his creations ever since. They are seamless in finish and precise in their attention to detail, subjecting them to characterizations and shifts in references by the artist that makes his work at once familiar and abstract to the eye.

The artist utilizes industrialized fabrication and strategies of textual language in the direct workings of his sculptural pieces. Unapologetic in his sensibility towards classical and historical literature, Zheng comes from a literati family filled with deep traditional Chinese intellectual background. He works with a ready source of literary compositions, including his father’s poetries, and through methods of incisional imprints of selected writings onto the sculptures as appropriated subject matters, most of his work possess a tactility and striking physicality that seems to be generally and generously charged with multi-faceted manifestations and meanderings.

For the artist, to use text as a tool for expression serves a module for accumulation, construction and formal arrangement. Zheng is interested in the changing state of a mass, the aggregate state of a volume. Highlighting the aesthetic weight of thought, instead of merely registering as a gesture or a superficial form, the inclusion of sculpted texts as hollow imprints repeatedly onto his material is rather to allow symbolic translation of the verbal expression into the visual realm, of the perception-enhancing capacity of words – an energy that is unleashed in the formal excesses between the sculptural image and the linguistic massage accompanying it.

Zheng focuses on the interrelationship between the words and their meanings, and how shifts in one or the other might influence the manner in which we perceive reality. He appropriates and shapes familiar references such as mountains, boats, animals and etc, to evoke visual phenomena by verbal means in the viewer’s, or reader’s, mind. Some of his earliest works, to name喜从天降and撞击二号 specifically, Zheng had opted for the repetition of a singular word, 囍, to encompass within the sculptural forms of crashed cars and atomic bombs. The impact hit the viewers through the paradoxical reinforcement of the messages conveyed. The supposedly positive meaning of the word, if read separately, would often appear entirely cheery and harmless until conflated with a given context and image. Thus, the confronted tension here becomes clear that the artist’s strategy relies on both the verbal and the visual spheres, which are combined in such a way as to form a synthesis in the viewer’s mind.

Towards a more cerebral, deconstructive style that explores the technical and rhetorical aspects of the sculpture medium, one part of Zheng’s artistic strategies is bent on creating configurations whereas another could be said to be no less preoccupied with facilitating access to the interplay between language and images. In each of his later sculptures, from animated subjects as mountainous landscaping to even the shaping of a word itself, such as 爱 (love) and 空 (emptiness), the artist highlighted issues of materiality, time and displacement in distinct ways.

Also significant in the artist’s practice is the attention paid to assembly and occupation of the environment and space in which his works are exhibited - their nature and relationships to each other amidst the surroundings, enticing his viewers to broaden their perceptual horizons, and to become part of the poetically complex, highly engaging narratives that he makes tangible.  Often placed directly on the gallery floors, protruding out of or leaning up against the walls, the delicate forms are deceptively casual in their placement, so they can be witnessed and experienced up close. Such inclinations are still present in his recent series, though unlike earlier works, which emphasize on providing clear figurative compositions, Zheng’s current phase refines his approach of curvilinear form with hints of abstraction – exuding a more liberated turn in lyrical motion and rhythm.

Water in Dripping, as a series, continues the intrinsic link between the sculptures and the literary texts that inspire their creation. The artist appropriates a poem, 玩止水 (“Playing with Water”), composed by Pai Chu-I (Bai Juyi), a renowned poet of the Tang Dynasty as the basis of the textual component in this series.  Exploring the locomotion of the nature of water and embedded within the sculptural shape, therein lies the chosen poem that speaks of a symbolic voyage of nature and mobility. Water is an essential element whose significance is unquestionable in human existence and where its contribution stands in our place in time, the artist seems to be perpetuating.

With only a selection of three sculptures and a large installation, and yet, responding as they do to the challenges posed by the gallery’s layout, this solo exhibition of the artist’s recent output has a coherence and stylishness all its own.

The first of the series, Water in Dripping No. 1, suspends itself from a ceiling, with a curving contour almost synonymous to the alphabet C, while the larger Water in Dripping No. 4 sits majestically on the floor. Small roundish chunks, simulating water drops, are hanged surrounding all over the spiral sculpture. With a single coil in the middle, one has the uncanny sense of a wave of infinity vainly trying to catch its own dispersion and achieve unity.

Another work, not of this series, appears in the wall-mounted form of The Eastern Sea and a Crab. Inspired by a trip in Japan, Zheng has based this sculpture from a 24-word haiku by the Japanese poet Ishikawa Takuboku.  In a dramatic fashion, this piece encapsulates the form equivalent to a fluid splash hitting upon the walled surface.

Simply looking long and hard enough at them, the shimmery surfaces of these works lend them the appearance of being constantly in a state of movement. Its as if the current state of the sculptures is only transitory, encompassing a neverending flow.

The grandest scale of them all, sprawling across more than 20 meters in the central atrium, the sculptural installation, Water in Dripping No. 10 inhabits the space in a state of perpetual swash-like gesticulation. Composed of bulky formations and scattered pieces of tiny fragments, the effect is synonymous to activating a ceaseless renewal that is organic, as if a hauling wave is in motion. Added to the fact that the sheer heaviness of the stainless steel makes the configuration feels definitive.

Suspended in mid-air, just like the dense woods one can get lost in, the voluminous effect functions as an epic sensory – both a physical adventure in the monumental structure and a spatial enclosure where visitors can roam freely underneath the installation and thereby heighten their perception of the surrounding and interact with it. Looking up from below, different sections of the installation – marked by shifts in angle, density and characteristics – also felt like clusters of condensed clouds, giving rise to forms often leaning towards each other seeming to nod at one another.

This is a territory of maximal poetry. Depth competes with the surface whereas density is complemented by a sense of void, and the textual element is constantly challenged by a dominant exteriority.

Here, Zheng calls on the viewers to retrace his/her steps and reflects on how the installation can be experienced differently, taking us into a highly specific encounter where the symbolic narratives of Pai’s poem has been redefined, ritually repeated and given a visual image - metaphoric and insistent in leaving an emotional impression.

Looming and graceful but nevertheless inviting, it is also notable that the installation is lit with low-dimmed lighting that at once glows and dramatizes the contours of the overall construction. Already pregnant with meaning because of their literati leanings, the inherent structure serves to push the installation’s emotive dimension even further.

Perhaps, just as words are an oblique testament to the awesome power of language, Zheng’s sculptures, are first and foremost, a nod to the use of text as a tool for expression that somehow, goes beyond its signification and meaning.

Throughout much of his career, Zheng has been notable for his three-dimensional constructions. However, moving away from the formal considerations of density, materiality and scale, the artist’s new work is produced by a distinctly different medium, comprising mixed-media panels with accompanying videos.

The point of entry is the compilation of images the artist regularly gathered and downloaded from an online forum named “Cao Liu Community”, known for its updated information and discourses on hard-hitting news across China. More often than before, the web of violence of our era, an awkward reminder of the present and the mass media that represented it inundate us. For Zheng, how do we react to these pictures? What feeling arises amongst them? This ongoing investigation prompts the artist to challenge the relationship of these everyday images and their consumption through the reactive production of painting.

Similar to a stacked formation, an average of 6-7 images is rendered with lacquer successively on an aluminum panel and polished with sandpaper and angle grinder every time an image is completed. In this arduous composition and repetition of social imageries, the work engenders as a convergence of landscapes, voices and people. Through this method, Zheng has dissolved the distinction between foreground and background in a way that unsettles the field of vision itself. The final surface dissolves the pictorials and encapsulates what cannot be seen. The only possible clue to the content is in the titling of the work itself and the accompanying video. Through stop motion technique, viewers get to witness the full proceedings of how each image is composed, and depart from it entirely, with a new layering being applied every time a delineation is completed, as the animated sequences constitute a documentation of the whole encounter and thought-out process.

The work exists in some actual between states, not normatively sculpture but also in no way painting, despite being specifically painted and sculptural.

Thus Image Polishing, as the series is aptly titled, becomes an experiment of circuitous protocols, laborious procedures, extending methods of representation and display.

Art seeks diverse ways of understanding reality. Image invokes meaning as a sense of the real. Where image and reality meet is where the imagination is unlocked.

In this context, the artist explores the existence of multiple realities, the operation of time-space relationships, based on resemblance as well as collective memories.

Image Polishing is neither Zheng’s playful repartee with the language of abstraction nor merely enigmatic pieces of painterly alteration, rather, its materiality of pictorials, pigments and views interrupting one another suggest the space of the artist’s conceptual atelier.

The projected imageries are a psychological one too – insisting upon the difficulty of apprehending the world by sight. It is a confrontation with the notion of the ‘invisible’ image as the backdrop to a society that constantly writes and rewrites itself. To a history always in repeat mode.

By shifting his role known more for his sculptures to a facilitator of painterly experiences, derived from his news archiving, Zheng manages to create work that surpasses the customarily passive role occupied by contemporary painting.

[1] Japanese haiku is considered as the shortest poetic form in the world. In Zheng’s own interpretation of the poem, the author deliberately seeks the effect of condensation by compressing a wide expanse of water into a single drop of tear.