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Resurfacing of Art Author:Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres

Recently scientists have confirmed that the Sulawesi cave paintings of Indonesia, the nearly 40,000 year-old outlined human hands and stick-legged animals, are the first tangible traces of what we may call “art”—the basic impulse to understand our place in the world, and to affirm our existence in the act of leaving visible marks. Artistic media have evolved in the following millennia from simple proto-graffiti and petro glyphs to totem poles, oil on canvas and ink paintings, sculptures in bronze and marble and, finally, digital arts. But the role of the artist in his purest form – as a philosophic inquirer, a visionary of the abstract questions of life and death, of cosmology and existence – has not changed.

In its origin, art is not primarily about pleasing an audience and often times it is not even about the “art work” itself; rather the focus is on the process of art-creation, which is a magical act that connects the artist ontologically with his surroundings, his art-object and, ultimately, his community. In this vein, Zheng Lu’s most recent artistic-creations, his Image Resurfacing Series, are the result of his original approach to answer the fundamental issues about existence and the human condition in our Internet era.

Utilizing ordinary mechanical and digital tools available today, Zheng is able to achieve a singularly stunning effect that records the inspired act of artistic creation yet utilizes industrial means to, in fact, erase the traces of human artistic activity—to strip away the very marks that define art itself.

Once the superimposed paintings are completed, the process of resurfacing begins—the artist and his team take abrasives to the surface, even deploying an axel grinder, thereby exposing the underlying layers. The once distinguishable top image is rendered entirely unrecognizable; resembling, in effect, an abstract Pollock painting, but without the drip marks. The emergent composition becomes a colorful and textural medley of vestiges—dissolving the distinction between foreground and background in a way that unsettles the visual field. And if there was any question, resurfacing is also an uncontrollable act—there is no way for the artist to predict the work’s final appearance.

In fact, it is that very lack of control, that unforeseeable quality, which is of interest to the artist. By randomly dissolving the pictorial, the final work encapsulates what cannot be seen: Zheng Lu captures the plurality of visual reality in our modern day world.

Born in 1978 in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, and currently based in Beijing, Zheng Lu has come to prominence in recent years for his innovative sculptures and installations that explore material, space, Chinese classicism, and poetry. A graduate of the Lu Xun Fine Art Academy, with an advanced degree from the Central Academy of Fine Art, while in school, Zheng won the LVMH Prize which provided the artist with three months training at The Ecole NationaleSuperieure des Beaux-Arts, ENSBA, Paris. Although the artist’s academic training has been focused in the sculptural arts, his own broad exposure, not just to the West and its art, but also to traditional Chinese classical arts, particularly calligraphy, has motivated him to push beyond the material boundaries of sculpture. When examining the artist’s body of three-dimensional work, there is a certain ephemeral quality to his creations that encourage the audience to contemplate the work beyond its surface and explore the work both intellectually and perceptually.

It is, in fact, during the process off abdicating sculpture that Zheng Lu had the inspiration for his most recent body of works: his Image Resurfacing Series. When Zheng completes the exterior structure of any sculpture, he is faced with the task of refining its surface, removing any irregularities, and lacquering it until it is perfectly finished, smooth and shiny. It is within this industrialized, highly controlled process that the artist discovered a kind of human variable: when polishing the outer surface of the applied lacquer, lacquer from previous layers will inevitably be exposed and resurface. If the colors between the layers are different, all of a sudden, these overlaid colors will remerge. From this serendipitous act, the artist discovered a metaphor for our multi-layered modern society and its superfluity of images.

The artist has gone on to take this methodology of “resurfacing” and apply it at a new scale and dimension. Beginning with an aluminum panel, the artist appropriates photographs he finds from his research and then he and his team of assistants replicate these images onto the panel using water proof industrial lacquer (the kind that is used for painting cars). After the photo’s completion, the artist begins the next layer, rendering it directly on top of the previous image. This process continues until six or seven photographs are superimposed, one on top of the other, engendering a repetitious convergence of landscapes, objects, voices, and people. The process itself is arduous; because the lacquer paint is toxic and weather-sensitive, the painting and drying of these photo realistic representations is extremely time-consuming and can take months to complete.

What images does Zheng Lu choose to render on his canvases before destroying them? There are two categories of subjects at this early stage in the series. The first are thematic images that explore a particular topic or idea. For instance, the artist’s earliest resurfacing work, Family (2013), blurs together the painted the black and white portraits of Zheng’s maternal and paternal grandparents, mother and father, and himself—a new kind of family portrait that suggests the perpetuation and ephemerality of bloodlines. In the same vein, the artist’s more recent work Communism (2014), appropriates school posters of the popular figures of communism: Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Leon Trotsky, etc. and similarly defaces them intone. Most recently the artist also created a work, Nirvana (2014), which is perhaps the most poignant: Zheng paints images of love and alternates them with scenes of terror—such as the Vatican’s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Wenzel Peter and Eddie Adams’ photograph of a Viet Cong prisoner shot in the head at point blank range—perhaps indicating, as the title suggests, a desire to transcend beyond the emotional states of suffering and desire, which seem to define the human condition.

The artist’s second categories of works are compilations of images taken from current events. In Mainland China, the government regularly censors information. Zheng Lu, like many tech-savvy members of his generation, regularly accesses his news by sneaking around the great firewall. One of the artist’s favorite sites is an online forum named the“Cao Liu Community”, known for its updated information and discourses on hard-hitting news across China, which also presents representative photographs captured from that day. Zheng, who is interested in our access to images and mass media’s ability to inundate us with images, appropriates these photographs and use them as his subjects—each work is composed of a random collection of photographs from one day’s news. The titles of his works such as Where have all the Friends Gone (2.13), No Survivors (3.25), or Leg Gun (6.15), are the top news headlines from the forum and codes for the month and date. When these photographs are viewed collectively and then obliterated in the artist’s final resurfacing process, Zheng draws attention to modern society’s passive consumption of images. Captured, redrawn, erased, but not completely, it is almost as if these visual histories are meant to repeat themselves.

Ultimately, the resurfacing process removes all physical evidence of human intervention; it produces a final work of art, which, like any traditional painting, cannot reveal the story behind the work. Given the performance-like process that goes into each of his images, the final, and perhaps most essential part of Zheng’s Resurfacing Series, is time-lapse video that chronicles the course of making each piece from bird’s eye perspective. Each kaleidoscope of moving images squeezes what might have been a month of work into a mere three-minute sequence of frames. Taking advantage of the latest technology to document his process of art-creation, Zheng, like the earliest human artists’ who left traces of themselves and their world on caves, leaves a clue for the audience to better comprehend the world he envisions—a key to the artwork itself.

ZhengLu belongs to the generation of young artists that has witnessed the rapid economic, social and cultural changes that has shaped his country after China’s economic reform. In this context, his art tackles the biggest questions of our time: he explores the collective memories of society, the existence of multiple realities, the interpretation of history, and the permeation of ideas in an Internet era. Each resurfacing work is an aggregate of all human experience—away to reinterpret fine art in modern mass culture. The series seems aptly titled because each work is underlined by certain ungovernability; despite Zheng’s careful reproduction of images, his laborious protocols, documentation, and extended methods of representation and display, the artist try can only be brought to the surface at the very end of creation. The result is not a painting, a sculpture, or a work of performance art—it is a transformative piece that is all of the above. More than anything, Zheng Lu’s series represents an effort to leave a new mark on the realm of visual art; working only with appropriated images he is able to give rise to a completely original art form, one that reminds us of the ephemerality of the visual experience and the boundlessness of the imagination.

---Tiffany Wai-Ying Beres

《ZHENG LU :RESURFACE》ZhengLu Solo Exhibition, Gajah Gallery, Singapore

14th,Nov,2014 – 27th,Nov,2014