Artist ZHU JINSHI at his home within the Tiantongyuan complex in northern Beijing. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

ZHU JINSHI’s four-meter-long maquette of Boat, a work he began in 2012, which is in his Songzhuang storage facility in Beijing. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

Mar 10 2015

Zhu Jinshi’s “Boat” Installation Floats to Hong Kong

by Michael Young

We sit in Zhu Jinshi’s modest and nondescript rental apartment on the eighth floor of Tiantongyuan, an estate of identical apartment blocks on the far fringes of northern Beijing. There are dozens of such blocks in the area, and it is easy to lose oneself among their uniformity. Built in 1990, the complex is typical of the numerous satellite estates that have sprung up around Beijing in recent years; each interconnecting road, communal garden and block is confusingly identical. Zhu has lived here for two years, and one senses that he eschews company, though he is generous with his time.

The apartment is not small. There are several rooms and a long walk-through lounge that ends at one side with a glass-enclosed balcony, which glows gold in the late afternoon light. Zhu rents two separate apartments on this estate; both serve as studios, though he lives in one of them. The apartments are not cheap, yet the space is generous by local standards. “Usually units [in Beijing] are only half this size,” Zhu told ArtAsiaPacific.

Although Zhu has established a formidable international reputation as an abstract artist, over the years he has also created several installations using xuan (rice) paper. The latest version of one his grandest works, entitled Boat (2012– )will be on show at the Rotunda in central Hong Kong to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong. This newest edition of Boat is over 18 meters long, 7 meters high and is composed of over 10,000 sheets of crumpled xuan paper, draped over bamboo poles that form a tunnel through which visitors can walk amidst a soft enveloping light.

Back at his apartment, Zhu sits formally and patrician-like on an oversized sofa, which is covered by a dust cloth that squirms under his weight. Given that his gallerist, Pearl Lam, is able to sell everything that he paints, up to 20 works a year, he remains reluctant to travel and hasn’t left China for five years. At 61 years of age he is not feeble, but recent back problems have caused him to retreat almost monk-like into the confines of his studio space, where his work has diminished in size, but has lost none of its vigor.

Canvases thickly layered with paint by ZHU JINSHI. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

In comparison to some of the monumental canvases that he has previously made, Zhu’s current paintings are modest in size, and their scale is determined simply by what can be brought through the apartment front door. His works are made in a square format, about 1.8 meters wide, but he also retains the option of creating multi-panel works. Even though he is plagued with back problems, he still leads a demanding work schedule, painting everyday from early afternoon until late into the night.

In Zhu’s apartment, numerous primed canvases lean against the walls of one room, while in another, dozens of additional paintings are stacked flat in drying racks. These canvases are encrusted with thick, spontaneously applied oil paint, for which he is known. Layer upon layer of impasto have been applied with spatulas and wok utensils.

Immediately before our meeting I had called Zhu’s storage facility at the Songzhuang artist community in Beijing. It is a vast warehouse packed with dozens of his paintings in which thick glutinous swags of oil paint cling to the canvas surfaces. Some of the canvases—many of which date from the 1970s—have buckled under kilos of applied paint, while others stand fast. The space is “my museum," says Zhu. "Most of the paintings I want to donate to a museum,” he added.

At the storage facility, there are several fragments of previous installations as well, including two Yongjiu bicycles from his 2008 work The Bicyclist, whose wheels are wrapped in bamboo slats, standing beside a mound of rock hard discarded oil paint.

Meanwhile, encased in a skeletal armature is a four-meter-long maquette of Boat, which was first shown in Beijing and Shanghai in 2012 and has since traveled to London and America. The Rubell Family Collection based in Miami acquired an edition of Boat. Pearl Lam says that the work is, “characteristic of the artist’s practice, which deconstructs Western theories of art and visual language by rooting them to Chinese traditions and philosophy.”

Zhu has long held a Western sensibility toward his materials, as a result of having spent ten years living and working in Berlin from 1986. He is fascinated with the surface texture of thick paint, with its unpredictable, sculptural qualities, which he applies with the deft assurance of a classical Chinese ink painter. “It is not so much the work that is beautiful, but [it is] the paint which is beautiful,” he said. Sadly, Zhu will not make it to Hong Kong for the unveiling of his most recent iteration of Boat, preferring instead to remain immersed in the anonymity of his Tiantongyuan aerie.

ZHU JINSHI, The Bicyclist, 2008, bamboo, YongJiu brand bicycles, dimensions variable. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

Boat will be shown at the Rotunda, Exchange Square, Central, Hong Kong, from March 9–31, 2015.