Bookmarked Article

A painter’s practice: in conversation with Chinese artist Zhang Ji


The experience of viewing the works of artist Zhang Ji (b.1993, Beijing) is almost visceral. The grotesque compositions of compressed body parts, deformed figures, and exposed organs lure you in with morbid fascination, juxtaposed with areas of bright colors and lines. The images reek of restlessness and instability, echoing the fractured psychological state inside all of us.


Currently taking over THE SHOPHOUSE gallery space, a restored historical tenement shophouse built in the 1930s, “Daikini” is Zhang’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong. It showcases the artist’s new body of works centered on the connection between his spirituality and his daily creative practice. In Buddhism, the Sanskrit word dakini means “sky-goer”, a term referring to the name of a goddess often associated with one of the six chakras, also known as the seven fundamental elements of the human body. Most of Zhang’s spiritual experiences are related to “windows”, or portals in which he connects with the incorporeal world.


“Because the world I perceive is totally different,” explains the artist, “when I pick up the pen to draw or my mobile phone to type, I can feel with certainty that something is communicating with me; I believe the traces of my pen are the intermediaries that connect me with viewers from the future or the spirit of an ancestor from the past. I truly feel that the sign of such connection exists at the moment I begin to make marks.”


Apart from a group of paintings, Zhang has also compiled his daily sketches and writings into a compendium titled Selected drawings and typings 17:07 - 18:47 4.17.2022, which he calls “a mental documentation of his daily practice”. In Zhang’s creative process, everything is instinctive yet accidental. He never paints with a final picture in mind, and his creations are an ever-evolving narrative that grows with the time, place, and physiological state that he’s in.


We recently spoke to the Beijing-based artist about how he put together his first solo show in Hong Kong, why he likes to leave his artwork incomplete sometimes, what he thinks about the rise of NFTs and why he thinks Marcel Duchamp would have been a potential player in the digital field. 

A: This is your second time showing at THE SHOPHOUSE, following a group exhibition “I & the ME” in 2021, can you tell us more how this solo exhibition came to be?


ZJ: Although I have never personally visited the space, I have always had experimental ideas. There are many things I do every day in my daily creative practice that are not necessarily suitable for more “traditional” galleries, institutions or art fairs. So when Alex, my curator, visited Beijing a while back, we talked about doing something that is different from my usual exhibitions in Beijing, where I can showcase more of what I create on a daily basis.


There's a difference in the level of completeness in my works [shown at galleries and art fairs], because they need to sell paintings, right? So they expect your work to be very complete, but in my opinion they don’t truly represent my art in a sense. In fact there are many works I leave intentionally in an unfinished state. Like many of the sketches I show in “Dakini”, I don’t necessarily regard them as completed works. Art to me is like a daily practice, and to actually do an exhibition, that is another kind of creative process, in a way it's also an opportunity for me to arrange those daily traces of thoughts and reflection into one coherent space. 

 A: It must have been quite the experience to curate an exhibition for a space you’ve never visited before, was it challenging for you to have to plan everything remotely?


ZJ: It certainly felt different, but I quite liked the challenge, because in a way, having to put together a solo exhibition virtually from start to finish was like holding on to a really long pencil to draw a picture, this experience is definitely a first for me, but first attempts are most often the best ones, so I took it, I believed in the process. It puts my art in a new context that excites me.

 A: I’ve been told that when you paint, you tend to work on multiple canvases at the same time, why is that so?


ZJ: First of all, I think when you stare at a single image for too long, it’s easy to get caught up in it, it becomes too much about the individual. I want there to be a connection between the images I create, but this connection is unbeknownst to the viewer.


I would intentionally split my works up so that others are unable to find this connection. I might have painted all 10 paintings together at once, but I would only pick three of them to be shown to the public, I may even split them up further and show them in two separate exhibitions, so that its context would be completely disconnected. I find this very interesting, because I think if a motive is too clearly displayed in an image, the composition becomes too complete, it will become, in a certain sense, a guessing game between me and the spectator, as they would start looking at specific details, such as your style and technique.


But I dislike this kind of relationship. I don't need people to tell me about their perspective [of my art], the same way I won’t be sharing mine. Because we come from very different purposes. The painting carries my own memories, and at the time of creating this painting, I might have been working on another painting next to it, which has nothing to do with the collector or the audience. It doesn't matter to me what you see when you see my work hung on the wall.

A: Apart from being an artist, you take on different roles in your life. How does this affect your creative process? 


ZJ: I don't have much time for things other than my art every day. I try to get everything done — like sending emails, or running errands — within one or two hours a day. For the rest of my time, I would just be meditating or practicing painting. I see my artistic practice as a continuous journey, including all the thoughts I put into my work and the images I see on my canvases. When you spend more time living in your art than “reality”, for me, my art and my practice becomes my reality and everything outside of that, such as work, dealing with personal relationships or building my professional network — they all just become part of this pursuit, This is what I always try to practice — the energy and attention that I give my paintings must be greater than what I give reality.


A: Do you ever hit a creative block? How do you overcome it?


ZJ: It’s normal to get caught in stupid obsessions in your journey, but it doesn't matter, because getting stuck is part of creating itself you have to face it, or else the creative process would not be complete. And just because you encountered a creative block, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it would show up in your work, that part of the process is not visible to other people.


I think the one quality that a professional artist must possess is the ability to completely believe in yourself. So much so that it’s like believing you will land on the number six when you roll a dice, six times in a row. If you don't have that determination, you can't be an artist. You don't give yourself any excuse to turn back.


A revelation that I have come to through practicing meditation is that the past, present and the future can be changed at the same time. Actually it is in a simultaneous dimension in a static state, as the practitioner your job is to place [your desired] state in motion. You don't have to think about your past or your future, because it is all happening at the same time.

A: As someone who has a traditional arts education, and works primarily with canvases and sketches, what are your thoughts on the rise of digital art and NFTs?


ZJ: I actually dabbled in NFTs back in 2019. That was very early on and the concept of an NFT was still in its infancy.


From the perspective of an artist, I’d say if you want to do art in the blockchain, it must first and foremost be crypto-related, that is, it must be applied to the blockchain, utilizing the technology itself, rather than putting a digitalized object on the blockchain. Because that would only be a representation, a “crypto-lized” digital art, but not actual crypto art, which is what most NFT projects are going for nowadays and I think it’s completely useless.


So what I did back then was that I treated NFTs as a tool for documentation, utilizing its  immutability. It was a project that was centered around collecting and selling antiques. Everything that I did — from the messages that I received, to the things that I bought — I would make a record on the blockchain. It was like documenting a social experiment on the blockchain.


It was actually quite inspiring, the experiment. I think it’s a bit like [Marcel] Duchamp's art, his art is like a collection of events, instead of objects. Maybe if blockchain technology existed in Duchamp’s time, he would’ve done the same thing with his art.


I think the real meaning behind NFTs is if you can document an event on the blockchain, and turn it into an object that can be located. But the thing is, this process is not necessary for art-making, especially if you’re creating something that is tangible — like an image or a sculpture — they all have better carriers or mediums. NFTs are more suited for ideas that are purely conceptual. It's because up until this technology existed, we have not found a way to tokenize a concept, but tokenizing an object (in things as common as casino chips and supermarket coupons) — that has existed for a while. 


August 21 – October 2, 2022
4 Second Lane, Tai Hang
Hong Kong