Arne Glimcher, chairman of PaceWildenstein, says the new pieces are a natural outgrowth of, rather than a departure from, Zhang’s earlier work. “I think he’s continuing to rebuild the past,” Glimcher says. “But what strikes me the most is that they are without irony. There’s almost no Western figurative art dealing with subjects like he does that is not ironic.”
As an artist so steeped in historical feeling, Zhang now finds himself in an odd position. Westerners, who represent the majority of those collecting his work, are the least able to feel the full depth of meaning in it. “The source from which I draw my inspiration for these pieces is very difficult for Westerners,” he says. “Misreading is unavoidable.”
Some mistakes are simple: People assume the dam in his recent painting must be the controversial Three Gorges Dam, but, says Zhang, it is just a generalized, imagined dam, not any one in particular; critics invoke China’s one-child policy in discussing “Bloodlines,” though the policy came well after the period that series portrays. But there’s also a quieter, deeper divide between Western and Chinese perceptions. The Westerner looks at a rendering of Tiananmen Square and thinks it’s “about” the 1989 massacre, says Zhang. The Chinese viewer has a “more complicated emotion,” driven by the square’s association with multiple events, including hopeful rallies from the early Mao era, hysterical Red Guard meetings and the mass demonstrations of grief after the death of Premier Zhou Enlai.
Still, Zhang says, Westerners, like Chinese observers of European works, access foreign art mainly through aesthetic feeling, not historical thought. “We never lived in America or Europe, but pieces by their artists are emotional for us,” he says.
Riitta Valorinta, director of Finland’s Sara Hildén Art Museum, which last year became the first European museum to hold a major show of Zhang’s work, agrees that pinning down every historical reference isn’t essential. She points to the mastery of detail in the artist’s lightbulbs, his loudspeakers, his beds. “It is not necessary to understand everything,” she says. “What we see is enough.”
And, Zhang notes, the difference between China and the West is diminishing anyway. When he travels to New York for the opening of his show, it will be his third trip to the city. On his first visit, in 1996, he wandered around, marveling at all the galleries and artists. But when he came again last year, he wasn’t as excited by what he saw. “I had changed, and China had changed,” he says. “Now China’s more and more like America.”