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Image and Writing Author:Pi Li


In the year 517 of the Hegira, Umar is reading a treatise entitled The One and the Many; a malaise or a premonition interrupts him. He gets up, marks the page which his eyes will not see again, and makes his peace with God, with that God which may or may not exist and whose favor he has asked for in the difficult pages of his algebra. He dies that same day, at the hour of the setting of the sun. 

——Jorge Luis Borges, A Personal Anthology, page 94 


Although what we can see in Zheng Lu's work is a symphony of shapes and characters, spaces, light and shadows, one can easily imagine the tremendous workload among the characters' transcriptions, trans-printing and re-grouping, as well as the cutting, welding and polishing of metals. Zheng Lu may be one of the few artists who keep their hands dirty while making art, which no doubt is a precious thing. Art since the 20th century, from the early Avant-garde to the later Conceptualism, seems to have already experienced a complete cycle: from canceling motifs, back to the media nature of art itself, then moving towards an emphasis on reality and conceptual nature. Today, we appear to have already entered an era of Pan-conceptualism, we pay attention to what the artists are saying, but rarely care about how they say it. We see concepts as objects, and techniques as containers: the former is fundamental; the later is incidental. The pursuit of a conceptual foundation, on one hand, has made art obtain its focus on the philosophy of the world and reality; on the other hand, this has pushed the system of today's art production into a quagmire of Utilitarianism. When we are so pleased with the artists' narratives of Conceptualism, we more or less ignore the necessity of an artist's techniques and the existence of his bare hands; thus, we find the hands of artists are getting cleaner; therefore, the art is getting easier. Perhaps because of this, we can see numerous solo exhibitions, group exhibitions, biennials, triennials, art fairs and auctions going on on a daily basis. We are surrounded by a flood of catalogues and irresponsible criticisms.


About the arguments among concepts and techniques, objects and containers, essentials and non-essentials have different notions in different eras. As the Postmodern visual fiesta comes to its very end, Masaaki Kanai, the new fashion leader of MUJI, says when sharing MUJI's mission that his goal is to create normal products; he compares MUJI's 30 years of work to making a bowl more like a bowl. He reminds me of the philosophical search for the language noumenon, on-going since the 20th century. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, "Don't think, just look!" Along this trajectory, Michel Foucault made his own famous conclusion: "Do not think you are talking words, actually the words are talking about you." Perhaps Zheng Lu's bare hands should be a powerful reminder at the moment which, in an era of excessive conceptualization and imagery, we should perhaps use the research of techniques to investigate an artists' theories.


Some critics often utilize the relationship between the imagery and the words in Zheng Lu's work as a point of entry, thus attempting to outline the artist's conceptual path. However, in my opinion, Zheng Lu's work seems more of a narrative of narratives. He employs texts, characters and later constantly appearing appropriated images. Ancient poems, his father's and former generations' calligraphy, Buddha statues from the era of The Republic of China (1912-1949), a cornet from Chinese opera — all these are remains of countless others' narratives. What he does is integrate different narratives of language and imageries from different periods of time, carefully covering the characters and the rest onto precise and delicate forms.   This carefulness actually contains many layers of meaning.



First of all, the sculptures of Zheng Lu both in form and content are a process of writing transfer. Turning text into characters, changing characters into positive and negative spaces, then plastering them onto forms, thus becoming a process of transferred writing.  When characters transform into light and shadow,  which is quite similar with the copying and imitation that is particular to Chinese art. Different from Western art, copying and imitation have their special significance; no matter if it is ancient calligraphy or the "Four Kings" led by Dong Qichang from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, what they emphasized was obtaining their own understanding through the repetitive copying of the classics. These are similar to the concept of play in the Western music, which comes about through experiencing different expressions, searching for a position of one's own in the world and in the narrative of the world. In this process, the artist follows the transformation of the forms and shapes to edit; thus, the shapes and the breaks in the texts change according to the shapes of the objects. The progression of transferred writing is a re-positioning of the artist toward himself, text and object. The copying and imitation in traditional Chinese art are based on "Ge wu zhi zhi" of Cheng-Zhu Confucianism, which means obtaining knowledge and wisdom through research. If one were to say that the inclination of conceptualization in contemporary art leads to the rationalization of art, then Zheng Lu's particularity or significance under the current artistic reality lies in the essence of his practice, not in the methodology of the traditional imagery, but rather, it is due to this era of overloaded imagerial narratives. He insists on the method of transferred writing that is fundamentally about discussing non-intellectual knowledge and wisdom, as well as the relationship between this kind of knowledge, wisdom and himself. In other words, his methodology also contains the possibility of a Chinese traditional way of narration and gives the artist the possibility of settling down.



The texts and images chosen by Zheng Lu are often intentionally kept within a certain correspondence; characters and the hollow space where the characters are cut out, images and the lights and shadows of the images are also kept within a certain correspondence. When in a physical space, the objects, reflections, physical characters and the hollow spaces of the works, as well as the works and the reflections in the air, these three pairs, totaling six elements, form an extremely playful and interesting visual and meaningful space. What is the most attractive to me is the relationship presented between the image and characters from the artist. From the artistic and social angles, the past is a history led by words, and since the era of Modernism, with the development of photography, images started to take the absolute lead. Nowadays, contemporary culture is not a print culture anymore; rather, it is a visual culture. The non-stop reading of texts only seems to belong to a few intellectuals. Daniel Bell once said the reading of texts can let us adjust the speed of acceptance, give us time to think, but images make us accept passively, only experience, leaving us no time to think and differentiate. In Zheng Lu's works, the characters appear in textual form and the meanings surface after the regrouping, providing us with an opportunity and space of imagination. However, the forms of the artworks and the forms of the characters themselves that are indicated by these characters constantly force us to return to the visual from the imagination. This is exactly where the contemporary property of Zheng Lu's works lies. Because the experience presented by his works, and exactly the "image and text feud" that troubles every intellectual today: on one hand, we are in the middle of an image explosion, we are dragged forward by images; one the other hand, we attempt to obtain certain analyses to be able to breathe in the irresistible movement forward.