Tuesday to Sunday 10:00-17:00 (Last admission: 16:30)
Closed on Mondays
The Train Garden is open to the public every day
Mo: Let’s start with the title of the exhibition, “Modern Fossil”. Why do you use the term “modern” instead of “contemporary”, which is a more emphatic attribute for this present moment?
Zhang: I chose “modern” intuitively. Perhaps this is because I am not concerned with a certain historical period, but the change of the individual existence and emotion within the framework of modern life. There is always a subtle ambivalence between individuals and reality, a competitive relationship between the reconcilable and the irreconcilable. I try to express this hidden relationship through the object, material, and visual language, condensing the indescribable abstract emotions into a landscape/still life work.
Fossils are matters precipitated over time, and this is the perspective from which I understand the relationship between “modern” and “fossil”. All the matters in an era have an interplay of contradiction – reconciliation – resistance – absorption with human beings. In this process, the immaterial emotional experience generated by individuals is evidenced by its residue.
Mo: In terms of the exhibition, “modern” is indeed a more appropriate phrase. The expression of “contemporary” as a historical period is closely related to the massive city renovation movement since the 1990s, and your works seem particularly restrained than those of that era, while sharing the common theme of the “ruins”. How do you understand “ruins”?
Zhang: I grew up in a different environment from the artists of that era, so as the massage that I absorbed, digested, filtered, and presented. Artists at that time maintained a rather direct attitude in the stimulation of external factors and social reforms. For us who live in an era of greater density in material and information, we have to face the suppression caused by this density. The individual is a condensed reflection of his/her times. My practice as a reflection and feedback changes with it as well. I am more concerned with the alienation in the proximity, a cyclical repetition of wanting to escape but constantly being restricted. Therefore, my practice mainly explores the connections and layers between people, materials, and space, while dispatching the infusion of individual emotions into the material space in a restrained way.
For me, “ruins” is not only empty remains but an inclusion (construction) and disintegration (demolition), a place where the more enduring “invisible space” exists. It is not the end, but the beginning that “lures” me to go deeper. I have tried to “describe” the “shards” of urban life in conjunction with industrial systems, which are as small and sharp as if they were permeated in the skin of the city. In fact, the power cycle hidden in the architecture (the form of the era), as well as the garbage (the leftovers), are planted in the city all around.
Mo: The process of ruination exposes the “interior” of the domestic environment to the “exterior” of the city, while your practice places them back to the “domestic” again. How do you understand this relationship between “interior” and “exterior”?
Zhang: The transformation of “interior” and “exterior” has always been hidden in my works, sometimes even unknowingly. The occasion of the exhibition “Walking on the Fade Out Lines” (Rockbund Art Museum, 2018) was the first time I realised this characteristic of “dislocation of inside and outside” when discussing with the curator, as if the city could be folded and compressed into the space through the transformation of intermediate media such as gravel, tiles, and peepholes. In retrospect, the two exhibitions before 2016, “Things that I Don’t Understand” (Muskmelon Man Commune, 2011) and “Cut | Off” (Don Gallery, 2014), focused on the “domestic” and self-expression. The installation work Superposition (2014) exhibited in “Mountain Sites: Views of Laoshan” (Sifang Art Museum, 2016) might be the first time that the desire leaked out of the “domestic” environment. In this work, I have collected iron gates with different patterns and arranged them in a stack. By highlighting the linearity of its patterns and the sides of its frame, I dissolved their original defensive function and turn them into moving and shifting lines. If the “door” is a metaphor for the desire to get out of the “domestic”, then in my subsequent solo exhibition “Building Opposite Building” (Don Gallery, 2016), I forced two concrete models of buildings facing each other, tied them with wire and hung them on a tiled surface. When the building of the “outside” is squeezed and shrunk, the tiles, decorations, and daily matters of the “inside” are then confronted, enlarged, and extended. The “dislocation of inside and outside” thus naturally emerges, and awakens the connection between the individual and reality by alternating and transforming creative approaches. The “decoration” series, which began in 2017, goes further toward the “outer” part of the city. I am inspired by the fragility and violence implied by these material forms, such as building debris or twisted steel. They have thus “rightfully” became my language and acquired their role as “modern fossils”.
Mo: In this way, “modern fossil” can be understood as an “internalising” process of urban ruins. Can you elaborate on how this concept is presented in this exhibition?
Zhang: You have mentioned Wu Hung’s A Story of Ruins, and I was impressed by the book’s commentary on the film Spring in a Small Town. The subtle relationship of the characters within the ruins, and the emotional changes that life brings to the individual, are repeatedly wandering on the boundaries of the wall. The “building debris” also reveals subtle emotions and becomes a reflection of the past, through the remaining traces of steel or brick. As Jacques Derrida once said, “presence” is always corrupted by the past and the future, but its core is precise “absence”. The works in this exhibition, Dessert (2021), Desolation of Memories 1-2 (2021-2022), and Sleepwalking about the Space (2021), also form this connection and extension to the modernity of everyday life.
Dessert (2021) was inspired by my residency project in Scotland in 2017. The cake cups are daily objects widely used in local life and carry the social attributes of a cheerful atmosphere. Converted to concrete, the cups become fragile, while the original cake is replaced by a spherical cactus that has dried and shrivelled into a specimen. The spacing of “communication” is thus adjusted, and the everyday relationship between people is questioned.
As mentioned earlier, we are in an age where the self is constantly congested with dense material and information. The Desolation of Memories 1-2 (2021-2022) demonstrate the reinforcement and metaphor of this congestion, precisely through the squeezed flat form of Decoration – Layers (2022) and two concrete platforms that were originally in the space.
Perhaps Modern Fossil (Pipe) -1 (2021), is the one that associated tightly with “ruins”. It was inspired by the “Decoration: Building Debris” project in Tongren Road in 2020. In the house to be “renovated”, I happened to realise that the pipes hidden inside the building were acting as an invisible connection as well as a prying tube, bringing in sounds and smells from elsewhere. In this work, the pipes are juxtaposed with plants, solidifying them into a discarded irregular “fossil” displayed on a mosaic-covered platform, bringing the daily flow of the city to a halt indoors.
Mo: When it comes to The Desolation of Memories 1-2 (2021-2022), I feel that the exhibition captures the structure and character of the space very acutely.
Zhang: The space is quite challenging. I have tried to mobilise and even change the viewing experience of space through the arrangement of the works. Daily Accessory (2021) creates a staircase on an existing staircase, echoing the “door” of Sleepwalking about the Space (2021), which is located around the corner, to stimulate the desire to get out of the “domestic” and the awkwardness of being rejected at the same time. I have also shifted the entrance from the front to the side, so as to create a more roundabout and subtle viewing experience.
Mo: Your mobilisation of the relationship between the work and the space almost completely reconstruct the space. This is also an aspect that you continue to focus on in your different exhibition projects. In addition to this, the “grid” is also a recurring element in your work. Rosalind Krauss once pointed out in Grid that the “grid” is the epitome of modernity, which excludes all narrative and literature yet in the meantime realises an extreme pure vision through restrict order.
Zhang: Krauss’s description of the “grid” is very accurate. I studied printmaking during my undergraduate degree. The production process of this medium is complicated and rational, but also full of chances. This experience have influenced my understanding and application of the concepts of repetition, restraint, and trace.
In my early work, I experimented with tracing, tampering, and distorting different kinds of plants (cactus) I cultivated on industrial calculation paper. The grid was used to shape the object into an irregular abstraction. Later on, after a series of site-specific projects, the cactus begins to be separated from the “grid” and becomes a real object. At the same time, the “grid” appears as an absolute flattened form in three-dimensional space, transferred through the most common construction materials. The silk-printed “grids” on the walls of this exhibition are an extension of the earlier paper-based (calculating paper) paintings in real space. The grid regulates the space, while the tiles and mosaics are also “wrapped” and defined by it.
Mo: Another recurring element is the “cactus”. In the city ruins, it is the plant that finally takes over the collapsed space and gives it vibrant energy. But in your works, the “cactus” is shaped in an almost restrained way, even when compared to the “building debris”.
Zhang: What attracts me most about the “cactus” is its slowness and distances. As mentioned earlier, the cactus has undergone a transformation from the image to material object in my work. The transformation between industrial materials and living organisms intensifies the contrast between its slowness and the density and speed of the time.
I have transformed the cactus or the inserted steel bar as a whole by the concrete. It is through the contradictory properties of the concrete itself, which are both hard and fragile, that increased its silence and restraint.
Mo: Ultimately, the concrete “cactus” constitutes a complete existence, wrapping any possible narratives within itself, while the “building debris”, with its residual traces, tells the story of the missing part in an incomplete state.
Mo Wanli is a curator and emerging architecture scholar, editor of Architecture China. her research focuses on contemporary Chinese architecture from a global perspective.
ZHANG Ruyi (b.1985) currently lives and works in Shanghai. ZHANG Ruyi’s artistic practice unfolds around everyday logic. Her work occupies a unique space which reconciles artifacts, the industrial experience, and urban life. The artist finds inspiration in everyday materials. In her main narrative approach, she begins with inner intuition and explores the hierarchical interactions between individuals, material, and place. Her work mainly involves installation, sculpture, and integrated media. She uses “reality” as “model” for drawing out moments of individual perception as the city shifts around its inhabitants, planting them within the material to bestow a significance which extends beyond the material.
ZHANG’s work has been shown at He Art Museum (Guangdong, 2022), Power Station of Art (Shanghai, 2021), K11 Art Museum (Shanghai, 2021), Pace Gallery (CA USA, 2021), TANK Shanghai (Shanghai, 2021), Shanghai Doland Museum of Modern Art (Shanghai, 2020), and other institutions. Her solo exhibitions include “Modern Fossil” (SSSSTART, Shanghai, 2022), “Consciousness of Location” (Don Gallery, Shanghai, 2019), “Bonsai” (François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, 2019), “Building Opposite Building” (Don Gallery, Shanghai, 2016), etc.