Amidst the pandemic, Beyond the Exhibition
In early September last year, the director of the Asia Day Museum called me and invited me to hold a solo exhibition at the Shandong Weihai-Hai Art Museum a few days later. My heart skipped a beat: it was too sudden. I thought to myself, “We just had a meeting a couple of days ago, and the director didn’t mention this. The time is so tight, and with the pandemic ongoing, is it even feasible? After all, I had just done an exhibition in June at the Guangdong Zhaoqing Art Museum. Does the director have something new in mind?”
In an instant, my subconscious hesitation was interrupted by the director. He said, “…” and then continued, “I’ve invited Einstein and Hawking as academic advisors…” He added, “The Hai Art Museum may be the closest art museum to the sea in China, with a straight-line distance of only a few meters. The museum has three floors, covering over 2,000 square meters. Weihai in Shandong may also be one of the earliest places in China to see the sunrise. Welcome to experience it.” I couldn’t remain calm; wow! A fusion of the virtual and the real, excitement, extreme excitement. The very next day, we confirmed the exhibition’s schedule, transportation, and a series of other details, and decided to hold the exhibition opening ceremony a week later on September 10, 2022, which also coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Please forgive me, as someone who has lived in the inland for a long time, I had a certain yearning for the sea. Suddenly, I had a strong desire for up-close contact with the sea. I kept affirming to myself: “I am such an ordinary person!”
The director indeed had a new idea: he “packaged” my previous works about surrealism and futurism and sent them “flying into space,” leaving me in awe… “very transcendent” (200 words omitted here).
When my friends and I set out on a car trip from Beijing to Weihai, the strict pandemic checks brought me back to reality. You had to take it seriously – health codes, itinerary codes, temperature checks, filling out forms – there was no room for any thoughts of trying to pass unnoticed.
At this point, the pandemic had been rampant in China for nearly three years, and many people were suffering… Staying not angry, not numb, not an easy feat.Without going into further details.
Arriving in Weihai was truly astonishing: the art museum stood on an artistic peninsula, facing north, surrounded by the sea on three sides, backed by mountains, with perfect feng shui. In front of the art museum was a very beautiful private bay: there was a beach, there were rocks, sea cucumber breeding ponds, and abundant recreational resources. Along the coast were several small studios, and at the edge of the shore that reached into the sea, there was a “Seaside Corner” bar – all of these were properties of the art museum’s investor, Mr. Tang. On the night of the opening ceremony, we drank, barbecued, enjoyed seafood, sang, and admired the moon at the bar…
No more words needed! It was a delightful Mid-Autumn night.
On the third day, I was in such a hurry to “leap into the sea.” The clear water, perfect temperature, and the harmony of the waves under the blue sky were simply a perfect blend, almost like a fusion of people and the sea, refreshing to the core. My whole body was “wet”: “Ah… the sea’s sky! Ah… it’s as if in space…”
In just a few days, the enthusiastic Mr. Tang, the director, and Professor Wang Jing led us to experience the beauty, cuisine, and various flavors of the sea on the Art Island.
The exhibition lasted for over a month, with several closures due to the pandemic. Eventually, it was extended for a period of time before concluding successfully. Returning to the south, I’ve always had a “yearning for the island” in my heart… Recently, I saw the “Gifts of the Sea” video series by the “Marine Mechanic” Professor Wang Jing, and the Art Museum on the sea in winter is equally fascinating. I can’t help but think: given the chance, I’ll go to the “Seaside Corner” to admire the moon.
Comparatively, when I had my solo exhibition at the Zhaoqing Art Museum in Guangdong in June last year, I was much calmer. This fully proved that the saying “a good horse doesn’t eat the grass it’s trotted on” is incorrect. If it were correct, I wouldn’t be a good horse, for sure. Luckily, I have a thick skin and don’t mind if others don’t mind. Heh heh.
The predecessor of the Zhaoqing Art Museum was the Art Museum of Zhaoqing College of Art. I worked there for 15 years. Later, for reasons “beyond my control,” I left my teaching position and embarked on the “professional drift” road. I have a not-so-small flaw: 1 I’m somewhat nostalgic. 2 I’m somewhat nostalgic. 3 I’m somewhat nostalgic. The important flaw mentioned three times.
Whenever the cold northern winds blow and the south remains as warm as spring, I always make it a point to return here, catching up with old colleagues and buddies, who all share a common trait: they enjoy a light drink or two, and they have remarkable self-control. I have a low alcohol tolerance and prefer this kind of moderation. Over the years, I rarely get too drunk; instead, I find it enjoyable.
One of my former colleagues, Luo Qiufan, achieved remarkable success in just a decade, transforming a regional school’s art museum into something that made people “take notice.” After several national exhibitions, the Zhaoqing Art Museum has ascended to the status of a second-tier art museum in Guangdong Province, steadily advancing towards the first tier. Whenever friends in the Zhaoqing art scene mention Director Luo, they give a hearty thumbs-up and say, “Top-notch!”
“Zeng Hao, come back and do an exhibition?” Every year, he smiles broadly at me with his shaved head during our gatherings. And I always respond with a grin, “Sure.” With multiple rounds of this question and answer, I knew my responses were somewhat insincere, maybe even a bit perfunctory. This wasn’t right. Over the years of wandering around, my mindset had changed significantly. There might be several reasons: 1. I left from here, and my awkwardness within the system hadn’t completely dissipated. Am I still a good horse? 2. Do I have suitable works to present to the students here? 3. How do I avoid the impact of the pandemic? It wasn’t until the end of the year before last that, due to the pandemic, I spent a long time in the south. Finally, I went through a self-denial, self-affirmation, and self-decision process and decided to hold this exhibition to bring back my works and provide an account and report to old friends and colleagues.
A bit melodramatic, complex inner struggles (200 words omitted here).
In early 2022, the exhibition was ready, scheduled to open on March 18, 2022. However, just before the opening, there was a severe outbreak of the pandemic in the Guangzhou region, so it was postponed to May 18. In early May, there was a sudden local outbreak, leading to another delay, and the exhibition finally officially opened on June 6.
The opening ceremony of this exhibition also coincided with the upgrade of the Zhaoqing Art Museum to a second-tier art museum in Guangdong Province. Therefore, there were more guests, including officials from provincial, municipal, and university-level associations, as well as administrative agencies. For me personally, the opening ceremony was quite a “novel” experience. While I felt delighted, I also nervously gave a speech during the opening ceremony: looking towards the future… It was an unusual scene, a foreign experience for me.
Visiting the exhibition was by appointment only and open exclusively to Zhaoqing College students and related personnel, which was somewhat regrettable. Fortunately, the exhibition concluded successfully, but another disappointment followed. The other planned exhibition at the Beijing Beiyi Tang Art Museum in July of the same year (Zeng Hao’s Art Appreciation) was canceled due to pandemic-related policies, and the exhibition date was to be determined.
Under the shadow of the pandemic, getting things done isn’t easy, as evident in these experiences.
Since the lockdown in Wuhan on January 23, 2020, the pandemic rapidly spread globally, and the entire global village fell into silence. “Life disappeared, life came to a standstill”… describing it as “full of crises” is not an exaggeration at all.
North and south, cities, villages, roads, schools, and gates all closed, numerous nucleic acid tests, various QR codes came randomly, and people couldn’t keep up with it. Many beautiful stories eventually turned into accidents. For many, it was a genuine disaster. People were trapped in one place for an extended period, unable to work, with no income, and no social interaction. It’s not hard to imagine the emotional and mental deviations that occurred – disappointment, despair, and even hopelessness. For a while, they all became real “prisoners.”
In 2020, I worked in my Beijing studio for most of the year. Near the end of the year, my friend Wang in Shenzhen (a collector of my works) called me: “Brother, let’s have an exhibition in Shenzhen. How about a dual exhibition with classmate Luo Jie? We have more space here.” I thought it was a joke because we often started our conversations in a playful manner and ended them in a “carefree” way. I didn’t take it seriously.
“I only hear about things outside my window with both ears, and I’m working on my art with my full heart.”
After a few days, a stranger’s voice appeared on the phone: “Teacher Zeng, I’m Guo Yun, the director of Shenzhen Xiangshan Art Museum. We’ve talked to Wang Brother, and we’d like to invite you to have an exhibition in Shenzhen. I personally really like your work…” I wasn’t very familiar with Director Guo before; I had only read some of the articles he wrote. He’s a talented and opinionated young man, and he’s my junior from university. When I clarified their intentions, I responded: “Alright, I’ll get ready.”
As we discussed the exhibition details and I contemplated my presentation, the “Illusion” theme I started in 2008 had been ongoing for over a decade. Perhaps it was time for a summary. Finally, Director Guo said, “Let’s call the exhibition ‘The Faces of Illusion’.” I said, “Okay.”
The Shenzhen Xiangshan Art Museum is situated within the Shenzhen Culture and Art Palace, a four-story traditional Chinese building with an antique charm. Presenting contemporary art exhibitions within such architecture is a collision of tradition and modernity. There is mutual pulling, mutual inspiration, and mutual fusion, and it’s bound to create different “visual focal points.”
This was the second year of the pandemic, and it was during the low-risk period. Therefore, the exhibition that began on March 23, 2021, proceeded exceptionally smoothly. During the opening ceremony, three professors who traveled from Guangzhou, Shi Lei, Deng Jianjin, and Jiang Heng, as well as Shenzhen alumni association president Tu Feng and Shenzhen collector Wang Rongsong, delivered speeches. I am deeply grateful for their participation.
The Culture and Art Palace complex combines business, tourism, shopping, leisure, entertainment, and more. It houses hundreds of shops, so any art exhibition held here comes with built-in foot traffic. In the absence of a pandemic, one can certainly imagine crowds of tourists and vibrant scenes. Whether they enter the art museum or have their hearts set on something else remains unknown.
The exhibition lasted for nearly a month without any hiccups.
Shortly after the opening, at the end of March, I hurried back to Beijing to start working on a large artwork in preparation for my solo exhibition at the Songzhuang Contemporary Art Documentation Center in Beijing in September. However, unfortunately, due to the uncertainties of the pandemic, starting from that year, all exhibitions at the Documentation Center were suspended for two years. When Professor Wu Hong informed me of this, I felt a pang in my heart. Though I felt a bit helpless, I also felt a sense of acceptance. Gazing at the sky outside the window, I muttered to myself, “When will the pandemic end?”
After three years of the pandemic, there have been many things done, thoughts and reflections, both bitter and sweet. Due to space constraints, I’ll pause here. I’ve only recorded these few events as a commemoration.
I was born in a small town along the Tuojiang River in Luzhou, Sichuan, China in 1967. Except for not owning land, I wasn’t much different from rural kids. In an era where almost no one knew what “art” was, I “encountered” my art teacher, Mr. Zhan Peiyuan (a colleague of my guardian), probably in the fourth grade of primary school. He would draw a cabbage, a radish, or a small dog on my sketchbook with a pencil every week, and I would take it home to copy. I found it magical, so vivid and lifelike. How did he do it? I copied, puzzled, and whiled away my free time.
This situation lasted for about a year, but soon, the pressures of learning and a taste for play took over, distancing me from “drawing”…
In 1982, when I graduated from high school, an unexpected turn occurred. The basic art skills I had gained in elementary school helped me pass the entrance exam for the Sichuan Yibin Normal School of Fine Arts at the age of fewer than 15. As I was being led down the path of “master math, physics, and chemistry and you can travel the world,” life suddenly veered. Was it a wrong path? I was equally confused.
Three years later, in 1985, when I was assigned to teach art at Luzhou Second High School, my confusion ended. I worked and self-studied simultaneously. Because these three years of rigorous professional learning had already ignited my artistic dreams. The realities around me also played a role in my “inner turmoil.”
After some ups and downs, I finally entered the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in September 1988, a moment that filled me with boundless excitement. It was a more expansive and liberating art sanctuary where I worked hard to learn various skills, knowledge, methodologies. Professors like Wang Lin, Zhang Xiaogang, Ye Yongqing, Liu Hong, and others at the school were all outstanding teachers from whom I benefitted greatly. As I graduated, my classmates Feng Zhengjie, Yu Ji, and I held the “Current State.1992 Art Exhibition,” even though some works were banned due to certain reasons. Four years at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute laid the foundation for my “art anchor.”
1992 was the spring of China’s reforms. In September of the same year, I joined West Jiang University in Guangdong Province (now the School of Art at Zhaoqing College), where I could engage in my profession. In 1994, I held my first personal exhibition at the Duanzhou Library in Zhaoqing.
The sea of learning is boundless, and after four years of work, in 1996, I pursued further education at the Oil Painting Department of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, learning classical oil painting techniques from Professor Guo Runwen. In my spare time, I began to explore the concept of my “Door Gods” series. Some of my works were soon selected for the “Context and Positioning of Vulgar Art” contemporary art magazine edited by Mr. Zou Yuejin in 1998, which filled my heart with joy.
At the turn of the century, contemporary art in Beijing was thriving. From 1998 to 2000, I was admitted to Capital Normal University’s School of Fine Arts as an equivalent graduate student, with mentors Shang Yang and Duan Zhengqu. I experienced the field of contemporary Chinese art in Beijing from all aspects, and it was a very vivid and lively “world.”
In 2005, recommended by my classmate Feng Zhengjie, I moved my studio from the southern part of China to the Feijia Village Art Studio in Chaoyang District, Beijing. It was said to be one of China’s earliest contemporary art areas. Being in close proximity to and immersing myself in Beijing’s contemporary art scene, I was repeatedly struck by various “art phenomena” and “artistic methods.” Challenges and attractions came at me from all directions.
Amid the excitement, I began to contemplate. I finally understood what I wanted to do with my life. Once I had a clear vision, it became simple. So, in 2007, I left my teaching position in the south and officially became a professional artist, solidifying my passion for the art.
Over the next decade and more, I witnessed various phases in the development of contemporary Chinese art. I participated in exhibitions and events, observing the ups and downs and transformations of the artists around me, going through the relocation of art districts and studios. I heard countless stories and incidents, some astonishing and others lamentable.
Due to policy reasons, at the end of 2017, all artists in the Feijia Village Art District were evicted. In July 2018, I left the Feijia Village Art Studio where I had spent 13 years, and I moved to the Songzhuang-Daxingzhuang Joint Art District in Beijing. Unfortunately, half a year later, it was also demolished. In June 2019, I moved to the North Tang Art District in Songzhuang-Daxingzhuang, where I remain. I have sipped and savored the bittersweet experiences.
Throughout my artistic journey, I have been fortunate to have rarely interrupted my artistic work. My primary creative directions have gone through three phases: the “Door Gods” series from 1996 to 2007, the “Soap Bubbles” series from 2008 to 2021, and the “Future World” series from 2021 to the present.
I held solo exhibitions in the Netherlands, Amsterdam (William Gallery, 2008), and New York, the USA (YaBo Art Gallery, 2017). My works have been part of joint exhibitions in Miami, San Diego, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Italy, Switzerland, Singapore, Busan, Jakarta, Manchester, Kuala Lumpur, among others, including the 27th Asian International Art Exhibition (featuring more than 30 countries) and the Malaysia International Art Fair – China Pavilion (featuring more than 10 countries). I have also participated in Art Basel (Switzerland and Miami) and been honored with the title of Outstanding Artist and Honorary Citizen by the Township of West Orange, New Jersey, USA. I have held solo exhibitions at Yuan Dian Art Museum, Beijing (2015), Today Art Museum, Beijing (2015), Shanghai Himalayas Art Museum (2015), Shenzhen Xiangshan Art Museum (2021), Guangdong Zhaoqing Art Museum (2022), and Shandong Hai. Art Museum (2022). I participated in large-scale exhibitions such as the 1st China-ASEAN Art Biennale and the 1st Beijing Caocangdi Art Biennale. In my earlier years, I participated in several provincial-level and regional exhibitions in Sichuan and Guangdong.
My works have been featured in over 20 domestic and international magazines and publications, including “Meishu Guancha,” “Zhongguo Youhua,” and “Dangdai Meishujia.” I authored the monograph “Color Training: 3 Hours” (published by Guangdong Higher Education Press).
Some of my works have been collected by public art museums, art institutions, and private collectors.
I continue to create in various aspects, including graphic design, installation, and material exploration. Every day, I make a personal commitment: to carry on with my artistic journey.
NYRCA Annual Projects “Outside of Art · Storytelling”