A Good Place with Beautiful Mountains and Clear Water

The Art of Zhang Defeng

By Zhang Defeng

Inside the Garden of Summer. Cloisonné sculpture, 2000

An Editor’s Note:

Zhang Defeng is a working artist and educator in Beijing, China. He is an Associate Professor at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts Department of Sculpture, and is active in the Academy’s expansive public art program. The Academy is located 10 miles north of Tiananmen Square and is a hotbed for artists trained in the integration of fine arts, architecture and urban design. When founded in 1918 (as the National School of Fine Arts), it was the nation’s first school for fine arts and marked the beginning of modern Chinese arts education. Academy faculty and students drew international attention during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests for their exploration of cultural symbolism, but censorship continues.

Zhang Defeng’s richly patterned, enameled cloisonné sculptures express a charged Chinese cultural symbolism by using phallic rockets, toilets, rounded stones and the figure of Venus de Milo. This complex imagery, the mix of Eastern and Western symbolism, and Defeng’s sometimes provocative siting demands thoughtful consideration; beautiful stones set in an ecologically barren, traditional garden and a toilet with a mirrored seatback quietly question values. His exploration of a rich artistic tradition as a means of current expression is a fundamental challenge for contemporary Chinese artists. Today, with increased censorship and the continual disappearance of artists, an awareness of work like Defeng’s – art that engages complex issues of cultural change and a powerful history – is more poignant than ever. Duchamp might have had some thoughts.

—Barbara Swift

Zhang Defeng Venus
Wear Bright Clothing Venus. Cloisonné sculpture, 2000
Rocket Zhang Defeng
Patriot No.2000. Cloisonné sculpture, 2001.
Zhang Defeng Toilet
Throne of Thinkers. Cloisonné sculpture, 2000 [detail:mirror seat back].

From the Artist:

Through a series of works titled A Good Place with Beautiful Mountains and Clear Water, I have interpreted my insights and understanding of the beauty in Eastern culture and expressed my love of life, nature and art. In 1999, I began using the cloisonné craft – which has a deep cultural and spiritual history in China – and traditional Chinese subjects to express cultural history but through a contemporary lens that reflects the spirit and issues of today.

I think that the most important pursuit of an artist should be more than ideas. It should include work that presents, actively and explicitly, an attitude toward nature and cultural traditions. This active and explicit attitude determines the contemporary value of the work, and as a result, contemporary art has a different kind of richness and vitality.

In this work I made great effort to integrate culture and nature, with the objective of showing the subjects – such as rocks, lotus flower and water – in a dreamlike atmosphere of beauty. These scenes form a distinct emotional space for the viewer, and with this a corresponding relationship with Chinese culture past and present.

I believe that Easterners associate beautiful mountains and clear water with the vital characteristics of nature, which are mysterious. My work provides its viewers – who through viewing become part of the work – with the intellectual and emotional capacity to re-imagine the past and the present. My work conveys the passion and goal of building a better place. Through the creation of space in my work, using only natural elements, nature and culture become one; the viewer is immersed and his or her emotions aroused.

Zhang Defeng is an artist and educator in Beijing, China. Defeng studied at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts – where he now serves as Associate Professor in Sculpture – and the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste Nurnberg, Germany.