Dancing with Destiny
In the details of your own village you will find the universe.
Zhang Minjie was born in 1959 in Tangshan, China. Located in the north of Hebei Province, the city of Tangshan has a long, heartbreaking history. The place registers it ancient people working on the generous land since 4.000 years ago. Many cultures are interwoven in the area, including those specifically agricultural, those from the central plain and the ones embracing the sea. However, the city is better known for the 1976-devastating earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale . The catastrophe not only virtually destroyed a century of industrial progress in the city but also took the lives of an estimated 270,000 people. Further 164,000 people were recorded as being severely injured, ranking this natural disaster as the largest earthquake of the 20th century by number of deaths.
One year before, and recently graduated from high school, Zhang Minjie wanted to study art. Instead, the Cultural Revolution sent him off for one year to made rural labors, including weaving baskets, draining rivers and picking crops. After his service, in 1976, he came back to Fengnan District in Tangshan City, working as a stage designer as well as studying painting formally. However, the unexpected earthquake twisted again the path of his life. He was trapped under a collapsed house rescued, after hours, and then transferred to a hospital in Shijiazhuang. His sister was not as fortunate as the rest of the family and she passed away(…)
As early as 1991, when he just graduated from the Central China Art Academy, Zhang Minjie has already found his distinctive image. One that is recognizable at first sight by a suffocating atmosphere accomplished through the obsessive repetition of figures -being they individuals, horses or walls that fulfill the canvas. This horror vacui , where every square centimeter of surface is filled with details and data, displays a compulsive activity both in cutting/drawing the plates and in narrating the story. A number of his initial prints embodied soldiers and civilians, depicting the animated activities of a fortress or a city (that seems to be a stage) respectively, paying particularly close attention to the identical costumes and the emphatic gestures. But while these works demonstrate the artist’s attentive eye for detail and attest to his direct observation as a stage designer, they are far from simple recreations of an everyday life. The repetitive figures bend the flatness of the print with personal pattern-based rhythms. The powerful compositions, brilliantly organized and controlled, reflect a sophisticated artistic design sometimes imbibed by a surrealistic touch(…)
Zhang Minjie’s prints are like a magic potion made with several components that, once mixed, explode in something distinctively contemporary at the same time rooted in tradition. Painter and printmaker, he is also a craftsman who has exquisite technical and drawings talents. His large and panoramic compositions suggest a vision of the world informed by their technical/cultural heritage, personal experiences as well as the historical circumstances of his country. In this way, and by re-working traditional Western and Eastern aesthetics, he deals with the constantly shifting present of Chinese society, politics, and economy, while maintaining a connection to the country’s deep cultural background.
Tolstoy famously said that if you paint your village, you paint the whole world. By engraving his “village”, Zhang Minjie presents an insightful and universal vision of the world-a vision that not only distinguishes the artistic production of this remarkable creator but speaks to all of us about the never-ending dichotomies of freedom/oppression, sadness/joy and life or death.