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SHIOSAL—Regarding ZHENG Lu Author:Zheng Nai-Ming

Editor in Chief, CANS Chinese Contemporary Art News

The raining season was like a river, flowing by the harbor in April.

Like a small spotted Spanish mackerel, I took a walk,

Swimming through the tall, giant kelps along the road, puffing out bubbles while thinking and playing…

I missed those sunny days. A tiny window framed the picturesque beauty for me, with the forms of the cloud, the shadow of high buildings, the solidness and brightness of the sunshine, divided by circles and right angles as well as countless glistening small eyes. The spring of this harbor! Tied to the travelers’ light-colored bow ties and the sailors’ red shirts that affected the picture.

Playing games, I rode the big waves, pushing the small waves onto the shore. The large waves were shouting, the small waves silent but unnoticeably lured away the sand.

Zheng Chou-yu, “Song by the Harbor” (1954)

Choosing to transcend is because one would rather not choose the easy and the comfortable

Zheng Lu excels in “moving stones.”

He does not move the stones to obstruct himself; instead, he aims to surpass himself.

The reason is that only when one realizes there are hindrances ahead, one would be stimulated to contemplate on solutions to surpass and overcome them, which will lead to new discoveries behind such hindrances. Perhaps, there will be more barriers to be conquer.

It is likely that my readers here have not clearly realized that human beings are creatures easily succumb to comforts. For psychologists, humans are always inclined to be able to feel good about themselves and to seek a sense of security. Therefore, they would choose to stay in their familiar comfort zone, in which they could satisfy such needs to the highest extent. However, one question remains: human beings have always overlooked the fact that our blind spots exist exactly outside the comfort zone. As a result, we like to have companions that are similar to us; or, we tend to imagine that we share some common ground with people around us. Such a common ground actually allows us to feel familiar and relieved, and could be anxious-free and have a sense of belonging. As long as one embraces that sense of belonging, his or her self-esteem would grow and a sense of joy eventually follows.

For Zheng, concerning his own artistic work, he has always reminded himself not to settle in a specific style, otherwise one might indulge oneself in the comfortable and safe environment, gradually losing the ability to overthrow oneself.

In 2015, Zheng created a work, titled The Grave of Honor. Basically, this work should not be categorized as a sculpture in the traditional sense. Instead, it was more like a semi-installation sculpture, or to be more precise, a conceptual sculpture, which corresponded better to Zheng’s art. For this work, Zheng made use of fish hooks available in ordinary markets as his artistic material. Thousands of fish hooks were combined and welded into an enormous human heart. Nevertheless, if one did not disassemble or closely observe this heart, one would not be able to detect that all the sharp-pointed hooks were turned inside! As a matter of fact, when you only see the exterior of this heart, you might only notice its glistening metal shine without really paying attention to the razor sharp hooks that were giving chilling, gruesome light within the heart.

The work of Zheng should be seen as one of the extremely excellent pieces he created in the past few years.

Zheng began to have a chance to transcend his original creative approach and his use of material, and to re-think about how to create a work that better reflect the topic when he was invited to participate in an international touring exhibition about marine ecology preservation, called On Sharks & Humanity. At that time, Zheng had directly associated the topic with fish hooks, thinking that if there were no lethal fish hooks, perhaps this marine massacre could be stopped. So, Zheng started massively purchasing fish hooks on “Taobao” (a Chinese on-line shopping platform). He did not realize that when a buyer started buying large quantity of fish hooks in the market, it generated a momentum for the supplier to manufacture more. Zheng had not thought that the action would backfire! Without any knowledge of the antitrust situation, as Zheng looked back, he was able to face this material with a calmer mind and to face the idea he had hope to express through the material.

Zheng entitled this work, The Grave of Honor, for a sarcastic purpose. We often describe a compassionate person of having a kind, merciful heart. In Mandarin, one also often hears the expression “the heart gives rise to thoughts,” which is to say that a person’s action depends on his or her heart. If kind-heartedness could lead human beings to value marine ecology preservation, it would be because this thought from the heart. Contrarily, if mankind keeps killing marine lives out of greed for excessive profits and avaricious appetite, it would also be out of the thoughts arising from people’s hearts. Kindness and malice are positioned on the two ends of a delicate balance that depends on the tilt of the heart. Then, how could a person detect the inclination of the heart from a glance of the appearance? One’s fundamental belief, which also embodies one’s thoughts in mind, actually lies within the heart. Unless two people get closer and become more familiar with each other, they would not be able to really know what lies in the hearts. Zheng has turned and welded thousands of fish hooks inside out so that audience would not be able to realize they were fish hooks. Once you got closer and looked more carefully, you would suddenly see that this heart was made with hundreds of thousands of fish hooks.

In fact, Zheng pointed out an issue worthy of further exploration and discussion. He allowed art itself to be educational rather than being didactic. Moreover, in my opinion, Zheng has also appropriately worked into this work the psychological theory that human beings are accustomed to hide in their own easy environment, making themselves incapable of seeing that the so-called blind spots actually exist in one’s brain. In other words, human brain likes things it recognizes and is familiar with; therefore, when one sees something familiar at first glance, one would immediately feel that one’s own experience is making a judgment, and then, neglect this familiar thing in front of one’s eyes. As a matter of fact, there exists something one does not know of.

Born in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia, in 1978, this artist has continuously attempted in surpassing his own habits in artistic creation through his own reflection; he is not kidnapped by his past creative mode, which the outside world is familiar with and has applauded, making us look forward to seeing more of his future works.

The traditional as the longitude, the modern as the latitude, and the contemporary as the weave of the two

Zheng Lu became interested in Chinese characters since he was little. Because his grandfather was very good at calligraphy, Zheng started learning calligraphy from him since the age of six. Zheng’s father was a man of letters, who excelled in poetry and literature and often contributed his works to magazines. Since the age of ten, Zheng’s father started asking him to transcribe his writing. For the child, some of the words were difficult to understand, some were comprehensible; however, whether he understood the words was never an issue. It was during this process, the forms of characters composed of strokes and dots had slowly taken root in Zheng’s mind. This specific experience could explain the reason why Zheng has chosen characters as a fundamental element for his artistic expression after he started his artistic career. In 2003, Zheng graduated from Luxun Academy of Fine Arts (LAFA), and obtained his MFA from China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing in 2007. The training in sculpture from LAFA understandably emphasized more on the traditional spirit of sculpture; nonetheless, this solid traditional training has given Zheng the ability to contemplate on changes in a dialectic approach in his later creative days.

Zheng’s use of characters as a base for his early creative work might have something to do with the fact that he had been immersed in poetry and literature since a very young age. However, I think his utilization of Chinese characters as a creative element is not to “express feelings and emotions.” To be more precise, he has been using characters as a foundation, on which his imagination is rooted and from which it could soar high. It is similar to the fact that Zheng has received a solid training in sculpture; nonetheless, he also understood perfectly that following tradition would be an easy, comfortable way, but in terms of artistic creation, such complacency would not be the reason why he chose to be an artist. Therefore, his first priority was not to let the meaning of the words become a restraint, but to allow the forms of the words to become the basic structure of his work. Secondly, Zheng has been endeavoring to escape the heavy forms of traditional sculpture, just as he has hoped that words should not limit his creative imagination. He wanted his work to transcend the existing framework from the appearance it has held to the meaning it could create, allowing imagination to run free and displaying a high degree of creative versatility.

As a result, Zheng started removing the heaviness in his chosen material. His method of openwork carving restored the characters into a “semi-hieroglyphic” state without resembling completely ancient hieroglyphs. Through the connection between characters, he was able to create a “structure” that served as the exterior appearance of his work. In the early stage, Zheng had still followed the “connection” between one word and another in a traditional sense, making the words recognizable. Nevertheless, making the words readable has never been his purpose. Moreover, when a viewer visually focuses on one thing, the viewer would gradually start to pay less attention to the world around him or her. After many experiments, Zheng saw the infinite possibility in extending and sculpturing the material as if witnessing the continuity of “water” at the same time.

Perhaps, from another angle, the artist is not aware of the fact that his days of being a Beijing drifter has created a desire in his mind that he could be like water and adapt to all situations; in the meantime, however, he might still feel that it is difficult to reconcile himself with the environment.

His family nurtured Zheng’s understanding of the traditional culture on the one hand, but studying art also enabled him to contemplate on how to free himself from the bonds of tradition. In different stages of his growth, Zheng has received impacts of different cultural waves. If history were water, the environment would be a “container,” giving the water different looks and forms. Nonetheless, the essence would remain the same despite the change of appearances. In recent years, Zheng has created a series, titled Water in Dripping, which could fully substantiate how this artist has found a very good foothold to maintain the balance between “the structure and the spirit.” This series has inherited the essence of Chinese calligraphy but is also empowered with the force of surging “water.” In a way, it is like quietly nurturing an individual life into maturity while achieving a sense of cultural inheritance in spirit.

Collisions give birth to magnificent ocean spray

Zheng’s solo exhibition at MOCA, Taipei, SHIOSAL, used the same title of a novel published by the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, in 1954. Mishima has always been one of the literary writers that Zheng likes. In the novel, through a story that took place in a simple, relatively isolated fishing village in Kajima (known as Kami-shima today) in Toba, Mie Prefecture, Japan, the novelist portrayed a young couple’s persevering pursuit of love. Mishima’s portrayal of the romance between a young fisherman and the only daughter of a boat owner stated that only through conquering obstacles, sustaining challenges, and experiencing all the sorrow and bitterness in life could real love be found.

The word, “shiosai,” refers to the sound of waves when waves splash the seashore. The stronger the force of the tidal waves is, the more magnificent the spray of the waves will be.

One of Zheng’s artworks in 2015 was titled Shiosai. Like an animation still frame, the work resembled a frozen image in time that depicted the towering tidal waves when they hit the rocks. In this work, Zheng used different processing methods on the material to create the appearances of the water in various density after the impact of the waves. The smooth-surfaced mirroring stainless steel plate reflected like a water surface, which was beautiful and tranquil. All of a sudden, giant waves toppled down after smashing onto the rocks on the side. The artist used the “mirroring” effect of the stainless steel plate to express the sense of “tranquility,” and employed a delicate but elaborate hammering technique to refine the dark, monstrous waves. Water can carry a boat, but it can also capsize it. The saying comes from past history, but is fully embodied here. This piece also reminded us of the waves in Katsushika Hokusai’s ukio-e painting. The difference was that in Zheng’s sculpture, Shiosai, audience could see the variation of rhythm as well as a sense of mystery, and even a sense of breathing in the waves.

The reasons why the curatorial concept was based on the theme of Shiosai were: 1. To pay homage to Yukio Mishima while generating more possibilities of imagination through literary thinking; 2. “Water,” with its fluidity, has been an emphasis expressed in Zheng’s works in recent years; 3. Only through frustration and collision could life possess its greatness and could the beauty in life be seen. In this exhibition, I attempted to integrate Zheng’s recent artworks and the various forms of “water” to demonstrate the reality that the appearance of things might alter according to the changes of the exterior environment. However, their essence would always remain the same.

Without doubt, this idea originated from the artist’s personality. On the other hand, it also responded to Mishima’s attestation of an unordinary life experience with a romantic story of two ordinary people. The so-called sublime had to come from the collision of two great forces, which will reveal the extraordinariness and preciousness of the sublime.

After Zheng gradually reduced his emphasis on Chinese characters in his creative work, and through his reflection on “water” to reconsider the essence of history or culture, he realized that nothing could only exist in one single mode. Instead, one should be more adaptable and flexible in different environment like “water” while keeping a sense of the self. This awareness also corresponded to the idea that the most magnificent ocean spray and wave sounds could only be seen and heard after the tidal waves have slapped onto the rocky shore.

When Mishima wrote Shiosai, it might look like the writer was telling an ordinary love story. However, the enormous disparity between the familial background of the hero and the heroine in the story, the conservative social custom, and all other elements have escalated together into various challenges for this originally ordinary relationship; and only through surviving these difficulties, one could witness the extraordinariness of this love. One might say that Zheng liked Mishima’s writing because Mishima had often written about the most common things, through which the writer could forcefully depict the inner landscape of characters different from the social norm of the time with his insightful as well as detailed delineation. Although the novel Shiosai was a love story, it also allowed its readers to see an attitude towards life and possible choices in life.


Zheng Lu is a typical Beijing drifter as well as an artist who is typically hesitant in expressing his thoughts. In artistic creation, he reminded me of the formation of a riverbed. At the beginning, a small stream might be flowing randomly without a certain path. The thing is, when small tributaries gradually form a small river, the water current will naturally follow the previously formed watercourse, which presents the least hindrance. However, to become a great river, one must go through constant flowing and scouring of the water.

In 1954, Yukio Mishima published the novel Shiosai. In 2015, Zheng Lu from Beijing presented his exhibition, SHIOSAL, at MOCA, Taipei. The two were 61 years apart. Literature and art encountered here, revealing many similarities while also highlighting some differences and changes that have taken place in time. Whether it was Mishima’s work 61 years ago or Zheng’s exhibition 61 years later, their points of view on and attitude towards life were equally worthy of our time for a perusal.