Елена Окунева
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DISTANT RELATIVE: Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang

DISTANT RELATIVE: Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang
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Photo: Natalie Bering for ArtAsiaPacific


It may seem to us in Ukraine that China is a completely separate world on the other side of the Earth, but the life and work of Zhang Xiaogang proves that in distant countries with people of the most seemingly different mentalities, a surprisingly similar story sometimes happens.

Zhang Xiaogang is a Chinese artist born in 1958, and the facts of his biography are strikingly similar to the painfully familiar Soviet context. If we remove the local terminology and Asian names, then one would think that we are talking about a colleague, for example, Tistol or Tsagolov, who are, in general, the same age with Xiaogang.


Zhang Xiaogang fell victim to the ruthless Chinese Cultural Revolution: his parents were taken away from him and his three brothers for “re-education,” and the boys were left alone for several years. Later he was sent to a remote village to “for the development of virgin lands”.

After studying at the Academy of Arts, Xiaogang wanter to get a teaching position there, but his candidacy was rejected for political reasons, for not observing the canons of “revolutionary realism”. Refusal was the last straw for the artist, and he plunged into the deepest depression, ending up in the hospital with internal bleeding caused by alcoholism.

It was the atmosphere of pain and despair that reigned in the ward that pushed the artist to a way out of depression, in a peculiar way inspired him to creative reflection. Returning home from the hospital, Zhang Xiaogang finds an old family photo album, and the pictures he finds there will form the basis of his largest and most recognizable series Bloodline: Big Family.

DISTANT RELATIVE: Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang
Untitled, from the series Bloodline: Big Family, 1997

One of the typical paintings of the series, which you see above, does not have a name, but it contains almost all the attributes characteristic of Xiaogang’s “Family tree”. We understand that a family is depicted along a thin red line, which connects all the characters and which always goes beyond the edges of the canvas, as if trying to involve the viewer to itself. The artist generally claims that the whole of China is one big family [1].

Almost all of the canvas is black and white because the author, as you know, is inspired by old photographs. Xiaogang tries to emphasize the unnaturalness of the official business attitudes and views of the people who came to the studio. Knowing the hardest time of repression, in which these photos were created, when the author himself was a child, the artist lays a contrast between artificially neutral facial expressions and violent emotions and feelings inside.

Color accents are a connection with modernity, because the artist himself is still influenced by those events. The fact that the boy in the picture is naked in the most intimate place illustrates the alarming discrepancy between the public image (smart clothes for the photo) and personal vulnerability, between the official “must” and his own consciousness.

DISTANT RELATIVE: Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang
Series Bloodline, “Big Family №3”, 2005

Another frequently encountered element of the work in this series is the young face of the mother. When the artist found old photographs, he was delighted with her beauty and amazed at the difference that arose over the years of persecution and suffering that turned the young attractive girl into a tortured old woman with schizophrenia.

Zhang Xiaogang also builds newer works on his own memories and moments of reflection. His witty 16:9 series is also such a game against time. 16:9 is the standard proportion of the displays that surround us: TVs, monitors, smartphones. Every day we watch Instagram Stories with exactly this aspect ratio.

In his series of paintings, the artist depicted a train rushing from the past to the future, with windows of the same proportion. Through these windows, the author shows us fragments of his past, which are also the past of all Chinese of that generation: a unified schoolyard, a forest that does not consist of trees, but poles with loudspeakers on the tops, a sad broken bed that resembles a hospital bed [2].

DISTANT RELATIVE: Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang
Train window – red meihua”, 2010

But in addition to eerie images that evoke the appropriate sensations, through the windows we also see classical symbols that are significant for Chinese culture, for example, the flowering meihua tree, personifying fortitude and hope.

Or the Chinese white pine, symbolizing endurance and longevity. In this series, the artist uses muted colors, and the horizon line between the gray sky and green grass sometimes merges into the line of the half-painted government wall, as in our hospitals, porches and prisons.

DISTANT RELATIVE: Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang
“Nothing to do with love”, 2010

Thus, despite the remoteness and seeming exoticism, the work of the Chinese artist seems to be quite relevant in our, post-Soviet space, because it exposes the same vices of the repressive system and the same vulnerability of an ordinary person that we are familiar with firsthand. Zhang Xiaogang explores these broad themes through a very intimate, personal art, in which, however, we often recognize ourselves.



[1] «Bloodline — Big Family: No. 2» from Zhang Xiaogang’s Era-Defining Series, Sotheby’s, 2020

[2] «16:9» — on Zhang Xiaogang’s exhibition by Today Art Museum for Google Arts & Culture


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