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Liang Zhang

A conversation with Artcore’s 5th Annual Juried Exhibit Winner. The exhibit was curated by Allison Agsten and jillith moniz

 

July 22, 2019

L.A. Artcore Brewery Annex

Los Angeles, CA

Between 

 Pranay Reddy

Director, L.A. Artcore

and 

Liang Zhang

Artist

 

Pranay Reddy: Yeah, exactly. I think part of that is that it’s part of the character too of culture in a way. It’s just like those differences are the stuff that [Artcore] thinks is really important to us too, and I think important to telling an authentic story as well.

You were saying you got to speak to your family. Where in China are they? 

Liang Zhang: My whole family is in China. We have some family members who are artists too, painters mainly. I have two uncles who are painters. So my family knows how difficult it is to be an artist. My family really supports me and I am very happy. I feel very lucky that my family can support me to do this.

Reddy: So art runs in the family for you. Is that from both sides of your family?

Zhang: Mainly my dad’s side. I have an aunt who is an art teacher in China. [She] teaches very little kids.

Reddy: And that’s your dad’s sister?

Zhang: Yeah.

Reddy: Because my mom is like completely from an arts family, and my dad is not. He’s the opposite. He’s more into real estate and business and all that stuff, and so it’s kind of an interesting dynamic. What does your mom do? 

Zhang: She does human resources.

Reddy: So she’s got more of a corporate experience background.

Zhang: Yeah. But my dad isn’t an artist. He does accounting sort of things. 

Reddy: But your dad’s family is more in the arts.

Zhang: My dad loves art.

Reddy: Great. Yeah, maybe because he’s grown up with it? Were his parents artists?

Zhang: No, they are teachers. They are Chinese literature teachers, both of them.

Reddy: Did you grow up in the rural part of China or more urban?

Zhang: More urban.

Reddy: What was it like growing up where you grew up?

Zhang: I grew up in Beijing. Like tall buildings, very crowded, and the air pollution. We actually took our weekends into the mountains around Beijing.

Reddy: You took your trips there?

Zhang: Yeah. I went to school, primary school, very close to where I lived. I started to live in a dorm when I was in high school. Then, I came here for school for college. So I started to be apart from my family since I was fifteen, sixteen-years-old. I went back home on weekends only.  

Reddy: When did you start making art?

Zhang: I love art like my whole family loves art. So starting when I was very little, my family took me to the art galleries. There’s an art district in Beijing called 7-9-8. There is a gallery which had a giant red dinosaur sculpture in front of their door, so that was my favorite gallery. (laughter) 

Reddy: Curious, how old were you then?

Zhang: At that time, I was like twelve? 

Reddy: Okay. I’m interjecting, but one of my first obsessions was dinosaurs, and I think it’s like around seven or eight? [It] starts around seven or eight maybe? I’m from Colorado, so we have a lot of ruins, like a lot of dinosaurs. There’s an area in the northwest edge of the state that has a lot of dinosaur fossils. I needed dinosaur everything, like dinosaur shoelaces, dinosaur this, dinosaur coloring book, all this stuff.

Zhang: Oh. (laughs)

Reddy: So you were exposed to the galleries at a kind of a young age. Were you also taking classes?

Zhang: No, not really. I started to get professional art training after I left college. When I was a freshman I knew I loved this, and I started to take art classes and design classes. Finally, I fell into art, fine art, but it was called visual arts in my school. I was in Seattle at that time and, you know, in Seattle the weather is raining for a long period of time during winters. I spent two of my summers there going to school, and I felt the sunshine made my work so much different. During those two summers, I took ceramics classes. The professor was very nice and that was also one of the reasons why I started to love ceramics. The building is not on campus but a ten-minute walk from the campus, so it’s a very intimate building. All of our classmates were also art major students, and I felt it was a very safe to make art in that place. 

In my culture, there are still some people who think if you can’t do well on your math or science classes, then these people go to art school. But I don’t think we are the ones who are not smart.

Reddy: It’s a different but equally important kind of intelligence. 

Zhang: We are still taking criticism of our major.

Reddy: Right.

Zhang: It’s totally two directions, like this is bad, this is good. They’re all good! 

Reddy: Exactly. The need to divide forms of intelligence is unnatural.

Zhang: Yeah. And sometimes they’re related to each other.

Reddy: Yes, and they naturally are. Our rational mind should always be in dialogue with the irrational mind. That’s when we are most productive and creative, when those two things work together.

Zhang: Um-hm. There are some people who look at my work and ask me if I have a science background, because of the very precise dots.

Reddy: Right. I am interested in how the rational aspect of your work relates to the organic and spontaneous aspect.

Zhang: There’s a law in agriculture [in China where] sometimes you can find something at the very boundary of legal and illegal. So I was playing with how much I can go in the box. So when I made this series of art, I tried my best to put every hole very equally, just like a machine-made object. Then I used thread, cattle thread, (which is very organic to me) to make different patterns and also a practice for me. I would like to see how an organic thing like us humans, in a very constrained world, what we can do and do what we want to do in a right world.

Reddy: Yes, your work seems to toe a line between that which is outside our control—and how we navigate that. It seems that the boundaries between materials are so starkly related that it’s almost like there’s both a vulnerable and dynamic tension held between them.

Zhang: Yeah. Also, in the period [of China’s history] itself?

Reddy: Yeah, exactly. You are coming from a country that is going through a lot of change. I can’t help but to see that change expressed in your work.

Zhang: Every year I go back to China, go back to Beijing, I feel it’s so different than the last time I saw it. They are building the buildings very fast; the food delivery companies are also growing very fast; the bicycle-sharing thing in China is also growing very fast. Every time I go back to Beijing, I feel there’s something new, like a huge change.

Also, the relations between these two countries. This work was created in 2018, and that was also the time that Trump had already been president for, what, two years. And for now, the economic war between my country and here is very bad. People feel very sorry [about] this. Some people’s lives are changed by this action. There are so many Chinese students here that are thinking if they want to go back to China to work after school or stay here. Most of the art students I know want to stay here to make art, but they feel like it’s very difficult to live in this place, and it’s hard to get a work visa. So if you want to legally stay in this country, you have to have a job, and we only have one year to work here. It’s very tough. So there are so many people who want to move to Europe to continue being an artist or just go back to China to do their own business, make some money, and then make art.

Reddy: From your point of view, has negotiating one’s place in the United States as a non-U.S. citizen changed between changes in administrations? Is it easier or harder to work and live in the United States, being from a different country?

Zhang: It depends on what you want. I’ve heard that the jobs in Beijing are very intense. You work like six days, maybe, in a week, and the salary is not as high as here. But the food is cheaper, the living expense is cheaper than here. But there are just so many people in China.

Well, personally, I think Beijing is not a good place to make art. I would like to move down to maybe Shanghai or Shenzhen to live as an artist, because Beijing is too political.

Reddy: And it’s fundamentally a different culture, right? What is the difference in mindset? Is Beijing more connected globally than Shanghai?

Zhang: I think Shanghai is more connected to the globe, and Beijing is more politically connected to the globe, not the people.

Reddy: Wow, that’s so interesting! So in Shanghai, there are more opportunities to collaborate, or come together, and share social/communal space?

Zhang: Yeah.

Reddy: Do you feel like Shanghai is a possible next destination for you, to live and work as an artist?

Zhang: I don’t know, because at my age now, I think it’s very difficult to be an artist and sell my work to make a living. So I might go to another direction. I’m thinking of being a film producer to make a living, and then use that money to make art in the future.

Reddy: Right, I think that’s maybe a concern that every artist has: What do I do to support my creativity?

Zhang: Yeah, there are so many classmates in grad school, some of them when they graduated, who became art teachers, became flight attendants, or gym trainers, to make money to support themselves.

Reddy: Exactly. You know, the jobs we end up in are as diverse as we are. (laughter)

Zhang: And in Los Angeles there are so many artists in different areas.

Reddy: Right. We just pick one area that is natural. 

Reddy: How did you end up combining clay, paint, and thread? Where did that come from and how did that start?

Zhang: For the material in ceramic, it’s made of paper clay, which means this kind of clay has paper fiber in it. So when you burn it in the kiln, the heat burns off all the paper fibers. They just disappear, being like—

Reddy: Like ash.

Zhang: Yeah, like ash. So it’s lighter than the same amount of clay that would be in whole clay. The paper fiber also has more strength to hold the clay particles. So, personally, I feel the paper fiber is just like the relations between people, holding each other to support each other.

Also, [the sculpture] looks like an American flag. This is what I feel in this country. I’ve been here about seven, eight years now, and I still feel I cannot totally be in this culture. So this thing looks like an American flag, but actually it’s not for me. The stitches on the flag, they are like human connections, like the friends I met here, and the things I was very happy for, like [when] somebody helped me. I got so much help and support from this place—from the people from this place, not from this country. (laughter)

Reddy: That’s kind of the way it is, isn’t it? We see countries in the media as expressed in terms of their political bodies, and significantly less through the hundreds of thousands of communities that make up a country’s fabric.

Zhang: Especially in California, the people here are so nice. It’s so different between here and the East Coast. That’s also one of the reasons why I wanted to choose Los Angeles rather than other [cities], because I feel it’s very safe here.

Reddy: And you have your community. I used to live in New York, and I only thought that was great because I did a program, a studio program, and I met other people. So that knowing people before I moved back there after college, I had somewhat of a community already there. And I think that may be the difference—of maybe having that community wherever you are in the world. It makes or breaks the experience. But when I first went to the East Coast from Colorado, I remember how difficult it was to access people and people seemed very closed.

Zhang: They’re so busy.

Reddy: Yeah. Maybe it’s “busy.” But, what I think I misunderstood eventually was that it’s a very reserved culture. There’s much more of a restraint? And that’s just a very regional aspect; it’s all over the East Coast and Northeast. Not so much in the Southeast, but definitely in the Northeast. What I found funny was I think that people secretly desire connection.

Zhang: Secretly. (laughter) 

Reddy: Yeah! So once you make repeated attempts to connect, then I think the guard comes down. (laughter) And then I felt once I started to connect there, those people remember me still, and they’re never going to forget. There’s a strong sense of memory once that is established. It’s harder upfront to establish. 

Zhang: How long of the program were you in New York?

Reddy: That was like four months. It was through Maryland Institute College of Art. [It] is where I went to school. Then, there are private art schools. Otis [where you studied] was part of that. So, undergraduates apply to it, and then each school sends one or two students. There are like maybe fifteen students each semester. The program is not there anymore. It was in Tribeca, in downtown Manhattan. So that was a neat experience just for an undergraduate, because you’re in a kind of graduate setup. There are all these critics, curators, and all these different people that are coming through everyday. And all you do is make work and be in your studio. And then, the rest of time, you’re getting to know your peers, going out together and you’re seeing art in galleries and all that stuff. So you feel safe in that way. Everyone kind of shares knowledge. That’s what so special also about being in school, I think; it’s that you get this community that you take with you.

Reddy: You mentioned being here for almost eight years?

Zhang: I was in Seattle for my undergrad and then I moved to California in 2015, in the end of 2015.

Reddy: And then you were saying that you don’t feel you’re part of the culture. But I found that to be so interesting because on the surface, America, or the United States, doesn’t want to change. Growing up for me in the 90s here, the collective mood was so different. It was of optimism and possibility and all that stuff. And so, I think at this time, there is this elevated anxiety and all this stuff happening. What I’m getting is that this culture is really scared to change and to turn the page and to go where it needs to go, because essentially it’s looking backward more than it is forward.

I’ll send you a podcast that is really interesting about this dynamic, because it’s about how, at first, China was really good at copying, but now it’s really different because they’re starting to become really creative. China has become more creative and innovative. One of the hosts had talked about those food carts. You’re in traffic, and you can just order food, and then the food would come be delivered to your car by bike. (laughter)

Zhang: Oh, that’s so cool.

Reddy: I just thought when you said that [about food delivery in China], I have to send that to you.

I think what’s so interesting is a lot of the inevitable change in this country has and always will be defined and re-defined by people like you, who are coming in and giving us that sense of something different. And so, to me, that was what really struck me about your piece. That while I’ve seen a lot of abstraction, I think your piece felt like it was really coming from a really different place. It’s really interesting because in some way I think of you as being on the inside, and you are thinking you are on the outside. (both laugh)

Zhang: When I was in Seattle, when I wanted to go see artwork, I went to several art museums. Maybe, I don’t know, but I feel like there are more galleries and studios here in Los Angeles. It’s all around the city, it’s all spread out. But Seattle is more like people are in one place. And the museum setting is so different than the gallery setting. Maybe the people who [get] into the museums, they are already famous, they are already successful. But the galleries give the artists more chances, for young artists at the very beginning of their art career. So, personally, I feel I can learn more from a small gallery rather than a museum, because I feel closer to those artists. Or maybe we already have looked at or learned from books or from school about those famous artists who have works in the museums. But there are so many artists that I didn’t know before in galleries. So I always get new explorations from a gallery. Usually a gallery changes their show once a month. They have more new views.

Reddy: Yeah, the content cycle is constantly refreshed.  

Reddy: So, what’s the future looking like for you?

Zhang: I’m waiting/applying for an artist visa. So during this time, I will continue making art. If I can get the visa, I will think about where I want to live. Do I want to live in Beijing or do I want to live here? Because it’s not like a green card that you must live in this country for nine-months. There’re specific days you have to be in this country. For me, I would like to go around the world to see more works. It would be ideal that I can go around and then come back to here to make my art.

Reddy: So eventually you want to end up here in Los Angeles?

Zhang: Yeah, because I already have a community here. I know so many people who are artists and who love art. But if I go to another place, I have to start at the very beginning stage.

Reddy: Which can be tough without a proper foundation of support.

Zhang: It takes a long time to build connections with people.

Reddy: It really does. Are you scheduled to show or exhibit? 

Zhang: I want to, but I don’t have a kiln at home. So I have to have some place to fire my stuff. Being a ceramic artist, I have everything at my home, but I cannot just put a kiln in my living room. That would be so weird. (laughter)  

Reddy: Were you working differently before this series of work?

Zhang: In this series, I did ceramic installations. In my solo exhibition, there were ceramics on the wall. In the middle of the gallery, I had nine benches. Each bench had a ceramic piece on it.

Reddy: I saw a picture of that, I think, on your feed.

Zhang: Um-hm. Interactive artworks. There were instructions on the wall inviting people to sit on the bench and inviting people to touch the ceramic piece. As a ceramic artist, I play with clay ceramics everyday. So, I feel it’s very comfortable to just handle it. Like sometimes I don’t even have a thought that I want to make something, but I just want to have some clay in my hand. And that also makes me calm down. The temperature of the clay is usually lower than your [body] temperature. So I feel like I really want to have some kind of body connection with this kind of material. I want my viewers to feel the same thing as me.

Most people think that ceramics are very delicate and they are very fragile. They are very hesitant to touch ceramic things. Also, we are trained not to touch anything in a museum or in a gallery. [My] pieces are unglazed, so they can collect your fingerprints, or the sweat, or the oil on your hand, or whatever is on your hand. So, it’s like a mark of the history of this object.

Reddy: It’s also like a transfer of material, in a sense, because they’re imprinting something on the object. They’re also in the process (if it was handled by a thousand people, thousands of people, it might be more evident, because it would maybe erode in a certain way) so that the sculpture is in flux and it’s giving its self away. And people, with that dust, they’re taking a piece of you with them.

Zhang: There are so many second-hand bookstores here, and every time I go to those bookstores, when I look at those books, there are so many marks, underlines, or some kind of notes on the side. I feel like this is also this book’s history. [They] have already written this book and what it is all about.

Reddy: Your opening up of that boundary between yourself and the viewer is quite radical.

Zhang: Sometimes I want to talk to someone at the opening, and I don’t know how to start the conversation. So, this is the object I made. I want to talk to my audience, and maybe my viewers want to talk to me as well. But we just don’t know the right way to start the conversation. So the ceramic piece is like a connection between two strangers. We don’t know each other, we don’t talk directly to each other, but we have something here, an object here that has both of our thoughts or our actions.

Reddy: It’s a generous gesture. I feel there’s a sense of generosity in your work, because there’s an immediacy to it: a directness about the way in which you engage and articulate the connection between different things, and question the role of an art object as well in that process, and give that to the audience. 

Zhang: On the internet these days, there are so many pop-up installations. In China, there are so many projections on the walls. The work is moving, it’s very beautiful, and people go there and take photos. That’s one way to get [interaction] with the artwork. There are so many people [who] just go there and take photos of themselves and then post on the internet. I don’t know if it is a good or bad way to define that as an art. But I don’t want people to just come to my show and only take photos.

Reddy: Yeah, I think there’s a growing desire from more people, to engage the audience to become an active participant rather than a passive actor.

Zhang: I’m more like I want to share my thoughts with my viewers, not like those who take pictures and post on the internet and share with other people.

Reddy: And that’s why I think it goes into that radical space, because it’s establishing or proposing a connection, the actual connection. And that, to me, is the heart of art. (laughter)