DEEP IN THE FRENCH countryside in the medieval town of Cognac, Chinese artist Zhang Yu is at work in a dimly lit cellar. Crouched on the floor, he pours eau de vie into numerous porcelain bowls meticulously arranged in rows on the floor. His movements are slow and meditative. Towering over him are giant oak barrels and the air is thick with the perfume of liquor.
“This used to be the marriage room, a very busy area with people emptying barrels and blending cognacs from the 1900s until 1986,” whispers Jacques Menier, heritage director of Martell & Co, as the artist continues his silent ritual. Today, the cellar is part of a museum devoted to Martell, one of the oldest cognac houses in France. Normally, this area is forbidden to visitors, but the brand has made an exception for Zhang. By the time he has finished, the floor is blanketed with pools of glistening golden liquid. Beneath each bowl is a blue fingerprint, Zhang's trademark.
Known for his abstract paintings composed of thousands of fingerprints, Zhang is one of the most important artists of his generation. Widely credited as a founder of the experimental ink movement, he broke with tradition by abandoning his brush in the early 1990s, sending shockwaves through the Chinese art world. Today he's internationally recognised not only for his dramatic paintings but also for performances involving ink.
A long-time patron of the arts, Martell gave Zhang carte blanche to come up with a site-specific work in the heart of Cognac. With the recent fervour surrounding ink painting in the contemporary art market, the brand's choice of artist comes as no surprise. Besides taking over the sprawling cellar, Zhang created a second installation in Château de Chanteloup, Martell's private estate. Surrounded by vineyards, the 16th-century property is open to guests by invitation only.
When we meet the next day in the estate's living room, Zhang is perched on a yellow armchair by an ornately decorated fireplace. Classical European landscape paintings in rococo frames hang on the walls behind him and sunlight streams through the French windows. Dressed in a black shirt with a Chinese collar and oval spectacles sitting low on his nose, the artist has a professorial air. He has just finished pouring the last drops of blue ink into hundreds of cognac glasses laid out across the foyer next door. The installation is a reference to ink painting, one of the oldest forms of Chinese art.
“When I first saw a photograph of the chateau, I immediately thought how could I bring a lot of ink into this place, as much as possible,” he says gleefully like a child given free reign of a castle. “People think it's a commercial project, but I wanted to take a challenge,” continues Zhang, turning serious. “This is not for fashion, not for a commercial brand. It's about a crossover between two different cultures.” In filling bulbous cognac glasses with Chinese ink in the chateau, and Chinese bowls with a French spirit in the cellar, he created a dialogue between East and West.
The works grew out of his ink ceremonies performed in Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan this year involving a similar set-up of pouring ink. Asked from where he got his inspiration, he grins. “When you watch Chinese movies in the old days, there would be a few men trying to create a brotherhood and sense of camaraderie using these big bowls of Chinese wine for a ceremony,” he says, holding an imaginary vessel to his lips. “A ceremony is meant to be understood and accepted by the masses. It's not just me doing something for myself.”
Zhang's obsession with ink began when he was young. Growing up in Tianjin during the Cultural Revolution, he remembers copying propaganda posters on the streets at the age of seven. “When I went out I saw propaganda figures like Lin Biao. I just had a pen and drew what I saw. I did portraits in a cartoon style.” His parents were keen for him to become an artist and encouraged him to keep drawing. By the time he completed university the revolution was over. “After the opening of modern China, I wanted to make a breakthrough and exceed tradition,” he recalls.
Like many of his peers, Zhang began using Western painting techniques. He became fascinated by surrealism and created haunting figurative images. Yet he soon realised he wasn't using his own voice. “I had a serious internal struggle,” he says. “After that period of frustration in 1991, I decided to get rid of the brush and began to use my fingerprint.” Making this decision wasn't easy for an artist so entrenched in tradition. “Many other artists couldn't understand or face the reality of what I suddenly did,” muses Zhang.
Failing to receive recognition or support for his new works, he felt compelled to pick up his brush once again – but this time the results were extraordinary. He began to create abstract works collectively called the Divine Light series, dense black paintings shot through with light, evoking the cosmos. “At the time a very famous critic called Zhu Qi described it as the explosion of the universe,” says Zhang. “It stunned the world.” Several critics hailed this, the beginning of the experimental ink painting movement, as a milestone in Chinese art history.
However, Zhang wasn't satisfied. “The glory that Divine Light brought to me was just a process; it wasn't my direction.” Unable to let go of his original idea from the early 1990s, he began dipping his fingers in ink in 2001, filling scroll after scroll of paper with a multitude of marks.
As the works grew in scale, he began experimenting with installations in which finger-painted scrolls hung from the ceiling and unfurled across the floor of an entire room. In other works he eliminated ink, making more sculptural drawings where he used water to create indentations on xuan paper covering entire surfaces with small craters. I ask, what runs through his mind when he is making these obsessive works? “Emptiness. Everything has to be unloaded,” he replies, explaining that it's a Zen-like process.
Despite his recent experiments with performance and installation, his fingerprint series, which he began more than a decade ago, remains at the core of his practice. Why is he so fixated? “A great artist has to develop a unique language,” he says emphatically. Looking at the Western art world, Zhang says many artists have forged their own language using different media and achieved success. “However, the traditional Chinese art world only offers one single method, the ink brush. So many artists spend their whole lives working with ink. They all want to find a way to push through tradition and find their own language – I have a sense of responsibility as well.”
What do his parents think of him now that he's become a successful artist? “I think all parents hope that their children develop their career and follow a good path, but for me I keep declining, rejecting, redefining myself and doing new things,” he says. “They ask, ‘Why don't you just find something that makes you comfortable and earn money?' ” Gesturing at the ink installation next door he laughs and adds, “They would say, ‘No one will collect this. Even the ink is something you can't drink.' ”
Zhang however, remains unfazed. “Art is about creating a new perspective. You may not be able to drink the ink, but it's beautiful, with aesthetic value that people will appreciate and even worship, like they do cognac. This is the goal of the artist.” A restless spirit, his sole objective is to continue breaking new ground in the history of Chinese ink painting. “It's meaningful to take this challenge and show your uniqueness,” he says. “I don't know what's next, but I'm always true to myself and I hope that I can leave something meaningful behind.”