Zhang Yanzi was born in 1967 in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province. Zhenjiang is on the southern bank of the Yangtze River, a city whose positioning was once of historic importance in protecting Nanjing from attack. Her father’s profession was protecting animals from a different kind of attack – the threat of sickness and disease. Her father’s career choice had an unexpected impact on his daughter. Since her father was a vet, Zhang Yanzi was continually surrounded by medical paraphernalia.
She describes her experiences as a child: “When I was young, my father had a desk in our house, an old-fashioned one that could be locked. When my parents were not at home, I secretly opened it. I read all the things in the drawers of the desk, photos of his college, notebooks… Inside there was a special box containing a stethoscope, I put it on my ears and listened to my heartbeat, I also used it for karaoke... The stethoscope was one of my favorite toys... I also played with syringes, I took them and injected water into steamed buns – quite naughty. These things that it was forbidden to play with made my childhood full of fun.”
Zhang Yanzi was to have her own battles with illness as a child, causing her to spend time in hospital being treated for a blood condition. The young Zhang Yanzi grew up surrounded by medicine. As critic Barbara Pollack recently wrote: “Medical treatments were (for Zhang Yanzi) a fact of everyday life, rather than a sporadic response to an aberration in health.” Her medical experiences were to find expression in later life as an artist.
Recognized in her youth for her artistic talents, she at first dedicated herself to the skilful mastery of classical landscapes featuring the staples of antiquity: birds and flowers and mountains and streams. She also diligently applied herself to become an expert calligrapher. She sought solace and comfort in the classical style which was something of a calming agent to her own restless spirit.
Having studied art at Beijing Normal University, Zhang’s family life was the focus for her in the 1990s, the decade when she was to get married and have a daughter.
Illness and Inspiration
The 21st Century brought unwelcome news. in 2000 her husband became ill, and there was worse to follow. In 2001 her father died. Her mother’s death followed in 2003. The experience of losing both parents in short succession had a profound impact on Zhang Yanzi: “I was confronted with death much earlier than the general population. After that I went through a long and anxious process.” She has described how her mother was a particularly devout Buddhist. For the last month of her life, Zhang lived with her mother in the temple, and it was there that her mother died. “On the day she passed away, I did not cry. I spent a month in the temple, as if I was there to complete a ritual, like a show. We were all actors, there to accompany her. She was bent on going to the Western Paradise.” Zhang Yanzi believes strongly in the obligations of family and the virtues of filial piety: “As her offspring, we must fulfill her wishes.”
The sorrows of the new millennium acted as a positive catalyst for Zhang Yanzi’s career as an artist. The experience of her husband’s illness, combined with the death of her father, had encouraged Zhang to return to art with a renewed sense of purpose and drive for self-expression. In 2002, she entered the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where she remained until 2007, achieving a masters degree in painting.
Recognition and Acclaim
As she was coming to terms with her parents’ death, Zhang Yanzi immersed herself in her work, taking part in group exhibitions such as 2004’s “Slow, Slow Tune” at the 10th National Art Exhibition in China and 2005’s “Airs of the States, Courtly Songs, and Hymns” at the 2nd Beijing International Art Biennale. Shortly afterwards, in 2007, she was to win the Gold Award at the Lichang Cup for the 5th Traditional Chinese Painting Exhibition sponsored by China Federation of Literature and Art Circles.
In 2008, Zhang Yanzi showed her work in France for the first time, with a show entitled “Walk While Stepping on the Gauze,” before bringing the show to Shanghai in 2010.
In fact, 2010 represented a turning point for the artist, when she decided to de-emphasize traditional themes and instead focus on subjects from her everyday life. Recalling the medical history that had haunted her and the peaceful familiarity of the medical toys of her childhood, this was the point when she first began to depict medical tools and apparatus (necessary and continual accompaniments to our lives) within her work. This realization led to her breakthrough exhibition, “Remedy,” in 2013.
The memories of her mother’s death were also woven in: “The Remedy” is composed of tens of thousands of Buddhist statues: “deep down in my heart I had an idea that it was dedicated to her.” As Xu Lei wrote: “Very few Chinese artists have such an expression in their faith system, accurate, touching, indescribably wonderful.” With “Remedy,” Zhang Yanzi was focusing on universal truths with a Chinese lens. Her philosophies of the healing role of art in response to the innate human sicknesses was of great resonance. She mused on human tendencies to seek healing throughout our lives: “The remedy for childhood may be a lollipop or a doll… the remedy for our youth a wonderful moment of friendship, love or a journey, the remedy for adulthood are families, children, houses, careers, cars… With these, we temporarily forget the pain.”
Zhang was increasingly seen as a unique artist who formed a bridge between Chinese history and traditions, and contemporary themes of prevalent disquiet and malaise. Alongside her religious and medical imagery, she depicted insects in a kind of moving dialogue with past master Qi Baishi. She was beginning to meet with considerable critical success, and was receiving favourable reviews from leading lights of the artistic world. Xu Bing had this to say about the artist at the opening of “Remedy:” “For quite a long time, we have borrowed a lot of experience from the West, while we did not make good use of the extremely preeminent things in our traditional culture. As a matter of fact, we are still in dire need of the experience of how to utilize outstanding Chinese culture. This selection of work by Zhang Yanzi provides vital inspiration for us on this.”
The favourable reviews from her peers translated into garlanded success in competition: in 2013, she won the Gold Award at the Jinling Painting Exhibition of One Hundred Chinese Artists, and that same year she won the Best Artwork Award at the Lu Xun Culture Awards.
The immediate years following these awards were to see Zhang Yanzi travel extensively, taking part in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including a solo show at PAN Palazzo delle Arti di Napoli, Italy (2014), “Specials” at the Female Artists Salon at the Manet Art Collection in Beijing (2014), “Devotion to Ink,” organized by Galerie Ora-Ora at Hong Kong Maritime Museum (2014) and“Blooming Season and Solace of Art” solo show, Shanghai (2014). She also showed at the Today Art Museum in Beijing in 2013 and at 5Art Guangzhou and Art Basel in 2015.
History and Experimentation
In the summer of 2015, Zhang spent several weeks in residence at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences. She created a series of works entitled “Essence” which was the fruit of the stories and historical and personal insights that she uncovered during this experience.
The resulting show, which took place in July and August, 2016, demonstrated clearly that she is an artist who now thrives on re-inventing herself, and is embracing the opportunity to develop her art in new creative directions. The show expanded on her themes of remedy, healing and sacrifice, highlighted by the poignant installation work, “Resuscitation,” which was inspired by the tragic death of Professor Robertson at the institution during the Second World War. “Resuscitation” was made of sculpted angel wings decorated with “feathers” of gauze bandages; next to it were abstract square “paintings” of bandages on canvas, each impregnated with Chinese medical herbs. The artist had also harnessed medical tools to create ink paintings, including a series of seven entitled “Medi-Chips,” where aluminium blister packs were used as an ingenious printing tool. She was inspired by a surgical bed in the museum’s basement to create a wooden frame alternately wrapped in cinnabar-painted gauze and painted images from the museum’s herbal garden on analgesic plasters. Art critic Huang Zhuan argued that Zhang Yanzi “depicts both modern anxiety as well as its antidote and cure.” The show met with considerable press attention and critical success, endorsed by art critics Barbara Pollack, Pi Daojian and art historian Professor Julia Andrews.
The Artist Today
Zhang Yanzi remains based in Beijing and she serves as the editor-in-chief of CAFA Art Info at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
Zhang Yanzi’s art may be seen at the National Art Museum of China, the Jiangsu Provincial Art Museum, the CAFA Art Museum, L'Università degli Studi di Napoli "L'Orientale," the Audemars Piguet Museum among others.
She also exhibited at the 2017 Venice Biennale. In 2018, she have held two six month solo shows in the UK, one at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, and the other at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The artist invites us to consider how medicine cures the body and how art may attempt to cure the mind. Dialogue with psychiatrists demonstrates how this theory is being put into practice in the treatment of those with psychological conditions, with some positive effects. We invite you all to take part in the healing journey of Zhang Yanzi’s work, and to feel how art may be the starting point for a calm mind, and for a sense of inner peace.
Experiencing Zhang Yanzi
Zhang Yanzi continues to investigate the human condition, portraying constellations as clues to the origins of humanity, and as indications of passions and drivers within us which remain misunderstood. As medicine’s knowledge of the levers of humans grows stronger, perhaps this will complete our understanding of the human condition. However, Zhang Yanzi’s work points to the likelihood that the most beautiful mysteries will remain unsolved.