Creating a personal ecology of motifs.

In the Bow neighbourhood within East London, artist Vivien Zhang addresses notions of being ‘digital-native’, ‘trans-border’ and ‘placeless-ness’ in her work, navigating the boundary-less- ness of these terms through the medium of painting. Oscillating between the controlled restriction and the ability to let loose (with layers of illusions, tricks, and fantasies), her body of work is very physical, marking a relationship to the human body and to natural forces.Tackling current issues around technology, the digital information age, our emotions and behaviour today, the paintings demonstrate her ability to captivate across contradictory tones through the use of numerous motifs that cross contexts. Pillars, pixels, stickers, cells or chromosomes are just some examples of these motifs and in almost all cases, they possess a duality – they take on multiple interpretations or have been displaced throughout history. Ultimately, the artist thinks about spaces and layers when she’s working, remarking that paintings can’t just hang on a wall and remain reticent – “they didn’t come about that way in the studio,” she says. And that’s another through-line of all her paintings: that the point of stability is moving.


Having lived in China, Kenya, Thailand and the UK; you have a diverse cultural past and often refer to the ideas of ‘third-culture’, ‘trans-border’ and ‘placeless-ness’. What do these terms mean to you and how do you feel they influence your work in terms of past and present? 

There’s a kind of boundary-less-ness that comes with these terms, and I think another term that’s relevant here is “digital-native”, which Pati Lara at The RYDER Projects coined for me. In many cases, it’s a feeling of being the “other”, as if there’s nowhere to belong and there’s no claim to any position. On the other hand, I do feel strongly that I can assert myself (simultaneously and comfortably) in diversely different places and situations. There’s a fluidity – which is not just about being “third-culture”, but is also about the heightened connectedness of our entire generation. These terms are affirmative and I believe it’s how socially and geo-politically we’re progressing. In my work, the terms dictate the motifs and images I use and my imagined audience. They make me think about extensions of the self. For example, Nam Jun Paik is a proponent for the idea that technology is an inevitable extension of ourselves. I see that globalisation is an extension of the necessity to preserve individual localities.

Following your education at the Slade and the RCA, you received the Cité Internationale des Arts artist residency in Paris, the Chadwell Award and the 9-month long residency at The British School at Rome. Do you feel these experiences helped develop your work or consolidated your practice? 

If anything, these residencies opened up my work instead of reinforcing anything. Each experience was very different though. I had an amazing summer studio at Cité des Arts and that was during the summer break of my RCA years, so it filled up a chunk of time which otherwise could have been idle. It also revealed to me a deeper understanding of the complex relationship the French have with painting. Then there was the Chadwell Award which gave me a year-long studio in East London right after I finished art school. It was such a crucial springboard for me because it provided a lot of stability at a time that’s quite daunting for new graduates. And Rome! Where do I even begin…! When I meet other friends who have been to The British School at Rome like Phillip Allen, we just nod to each other and agree: you don’t really believe it’s life-changing until you’ve done it – and it totally is.


During our visit you described painting today as “…the computational aggregate of multiple sources and influences”. With this in mind, your work explores a dialogue between old-school technical dexterity and contemporary freedom. So, what does it mean to paint? (A question I noticed pinned to the wall of your studio) and why do you like to be reminded of this question?

That quote is from Laura Hoptman, formally senior curator of Painting at MoMA. I think it’s super befitting of the current climate of painting. To paint is inevitably somewhat self-indulgent. However this question is evermore compelling now, precisely because we are in an era that’s overloaded with digital imaging tools, augmented and virtual realities, which in essence, emulate much of the functions of painting: to create illusions, tricks, and fantasies. The challenge painting today is not unlike when Photography was invented, and so I believe working in this medium is evermore compelling. Painting is relevant, if not even more pertinent. Painting possesses the most extensive history as an artistic form. Its transformation is symptomatic of social, political, and cultural changes; painting is the evidence of our changes and mutations. So instead of asking why painting, perhaps we can ask why is the direction of painting disintegrating today? Why are painters throwing all kinds of visual tropes and clutter into the tight space of one canvas? Maybe it reflects on the accelerating rate of our information age, the abundance of resources we now can access, and the ability to refer to vastly diverse points of history and narratives. (To power our information and communication technology ecosystem, we consume more energy than some countries – so you can just imagine the ginormous amount of data we are producing and retaining.) Today we’ve become more image-based, and it is painting that delivers image in the most immediate form. Painting is an access, it is an entrance and it’s exposed. It’s something you can take away after seeing it… The idea of ownership is changing and accessibility has become a currency. This makes painting more interesting today. So these are some reasons to “why painting?” and there are infinitely more…

Working to your own personal algorithm means keeping a rhythm and formula in which you repeat the sequences. Running parallel to this however, are often interruptions to this rhythmic process. What is the significance of these repetitions, as well as these glitches to the algorithm? 

Repetition is a big part of my work for several reasons: the repetitive action allows me to relinquish control as the process takes over the painting – usually there’s a rule to follow at the outset. The finished look is unknown to me and this provides a level of surprise for myself. Surprises also happen when a mistake occurs, like when paint bleeds outside a stencil, and I take pleasure from that. Repetition in essence is an anticipation or an expectation; it’s not about sameness because a duplicate or reproduction occupies a different temporal space. So conceptually, against smudges and errors that are allowed to manifest, repetition in my work is to disrupt assumptions. I get frustrated when people want to put labels on me and my work, like when a collector once asked me, are you a Chinese artist or a British artist? as if there’s no middle ground. Things are much more fluid now and I want to resist these assumptions which shut down so many conversations.

By the repetition of forms, associations build with the ideas of mass production. Is this intentional or in any way linked to your background; in terms of China being at the forefront of the worlds manufacturing? Does the use of silver within your work relate back to the notion of mechanical production and ideas of consumption?

Not consciously, no. It’s interesting how lots of people make this association because they see that I’m from China. I do have a lot of respect for labour and effort, but maybe this is just cultural. The silver borders in my work simply act as a framing device. I want to contain the repetitive fields in my work and make the point that the repetitions are not endless. The paintings are independent, definitive, and I want them to reject associations with patterns and wallpaper.

There is such a graphic component to your recent works; with connotations to the layers of browse windows or dragging, warping or distorting elements within Photoshop. Yet there is always a level of human attribution. Has the juxtaposition between graphic and organic always been paramount in terms of your works intentions? 

The graphic component in my work is probably symptomatic of our generation –growing up with tools like Photoshop and Illustrator, where graphic distortion has become our vocabulary. Though the tools have prescribed rules and limitations, it’s up to the user to work with the instruments, as it always has been; the tools do not direct the course of action. So yes, my work is about this negotiation. I think about what we can’t dictate (at least cannot dictate as much) and manipulate: physics, gravity, the inorganic world. Painting is very physical, both in relation to the human body and to natural forces. It’s uncontrollable and can be a very rough, and I want to return the works to this principle as well.

By using different mathematical tools and stencils of your motifs to create your repeated forms, are you hoping to achieve a certain level of precision within your works?

Clarity is important. Though, maybe it’s because precision and clarity allow me to do more of the dirty work. For instance, I make my own stencils from cartridge paper. These can be rather crude and often paint bleeds over the edges in delicate ways. I then have to decide whether to keep the flaw or clean it up – it’s about a push and pull between control and the organic.

In order to create your painted digital landscapes, there is such a deliberate discipline yet very clear moments of disorder. Almost like an aesthetic rebellion, it leads into the notion of fragmentation. How do you feel the digital has contributed to the idea of disconnection and disruption in both art and experience? 

There are many levels of paradoxes to the digital – some we are aware of, whilst others are more hidden. A simple example is the interconnection between people. As we become more connected through the web and social media, in real life we might have become more distant. My parents and I text frequently, they live in Hong Kong. This connectedness makes me feel like we share our everyday knick-knacks, but it’s an artificial kind of closeness. We rarely speak on the phone anymore, perhaps once every few months, and more routinely our text messages are rudimentary, skittish even. With the growth of the digital, we’re also being trained to navigate an increasingly fragmented realm. Take Facebook, Instagram, or Reddit. They disintegrate the mind, collapse thought into pieces. So much cognitive power is needed to navigate these platforms and it’s a constant process of disrupting, reassembling, attending, </repeat>. Discontinuance is the apparatus wielded by new powers – the information giants. With art it is the same, there’s a sense of disintegration in the direction art is moving. Though I feel this is neither positive nor negative. There’s just no “greater cause” to fight for collectively. Art has become more individual, more private.

Keeping with the concept of fragmentation, you are currently involved in a group show at PLUS-ONE Gallery with your ‘Manifesto Manifested’ – a writing of fragmented thoughts. Your first version of this was back in 2014. Are you able to tell us about the work and how it has evolved? 

This work of writing is a “manifesto” and is composed of a loosely connected train of thoughts. I started it back in 2014; in 2018 it took its current form and was released at my first solo show at Long March Space, Beijing. It’s divided into sections which discuss, in contradictory tones, current issues around technology, the digital information age, our emotions and behaviour today. These reflect the things that I’m constantly thinking about and really inform my practice. It’s also sort of a “pseudo” manifesto because of its paradoxical nature. In one point I may be praising automation and confirmation biases, and in another I would be questioning our lust for the illusion that technology creates. So there’s an openness to the manifesto. I want it to reflect on the many different facets and trends of value systems and beliefs today. It’s about fragmentation again. An updated version of this was released at a show I co- curated with PLUS-ONE Gallery, Antwerp, last December – titled Echo Chamber. You can also find a free copy of it on my website under “Texts”.

Is there a connection between your repeated motifs and the now symbolic use of emojis within this technological world? Is this a comment on how we function in a new digital age?

Not exactly. The motifs in my work are all very personal to me, and I edit my selection quite heavily precisely because I am very conscious of how freely we wield images and visual tropes today – from making memes to making works of art. In almost all cases, the motifs I select possess a duality – they take on multiple interpretations or have been displaced throughout history. Take the kilim for example, this is a central motif for my next solo show at Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai. I wanted to focus on this object because it’s a metaphor for “borderless-ness”: the pattern names in these rugs are not named according to countries or tribes, but rather wider geographical locations, as they’re primarily used by nomadic tribes. Kilims also have multiple functions, for instance as prayer rugs and covers, but also spatial dividers for the temporary shelters that nomadic people erect.Spiral columns are another example. The first known Western pair is the one in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. However, these were originally taken from the Temple of Solomon in today’s Israel. It achieved a heightened status in the Baroque period; nevertheless they are one of very few secular objects used in religious settings. Ultimately spiral columns also transgressed beyond this context, as the columns didn’t actually provide any architectural function. Over time they were deserted by the church setting, but remained heavily present in paintings and prints for their decorative nature.

Would it be correct to say that the use of so many motifs can relate back to your consistent change in locations growing up?

Absolutely, I kind of think of it as creating a personal ecology of motifs.

An interesting motif used within your work is the Gömböc. You mentioned it’s the physical form of a math formula, and that it is theoretically the shape of non-living organisms like rocks, just before they reach the last step of evolution, becoming the sphere – the ultimate state of perfection. How do you relate to this object in terms of your position as an artist – does it relate to the concepts of evolution, change, stability, etc.?

The first time that I came across the Gömböc, I immediately associated it with my own upbringing. The Gömböc has only one stable point and one unstable point, so resting on a flat surface it would behave like a roly-poly toy: no matter how you position the shape, it would roll around until it’s found the stable point. This idea made me reflect on my childhood having moved around so much. One can say that the Gömböc is an unstable shape. Yet, isn’t it also a super stable shape! It would always return to that single point of stability. So I wondered how I should look at my upbringing and the background of many other international kids like myself, that the point of stability is moving. It’s like what you said in your previous question – “consistent change”. Coincidentally, I met the scientist behind the Gömböc in 2017, Gábor Domokos. We’re really good friends now and often exchange emails on new ideas and projects. He recently told me that NASA scientists, for example, are applying the Gömböc theory to understand Mars’ evolution, by looking at the shapes of rocks on the planet. So the Gömböc is kind of transcendental for me.

Within your studio, there is such an emphasis on research and categorisation. Tapped to the walls are groupings of items under headings like: ‘manicules/cursors’, ‘emotional attribution’, ‘terrain’, ‘architectural tapestry’, etc. You have used very specific terminology that highlight the diversity of your research; how did these phrases come about and why are they used to link your areas of investigation? Does each work contain one of each of these elements?

I think that I’m a sick child of this information age. My attention span is short and I’m interested in too many things at the same time, hence the multiple terminologies. So to combat this I’ve designated areas in my studio that focus on singular terms or phrases. Sometimes the term comes from a podcast or something a friend had said in passing. I really need to visit The Warburg Institute, it has a special system of classification – category-focused, like the way I work.

Going back to research, what do the initial stages of a work look like for you? How do exercises like mind mapping indicate or help shape the direction of a project?

I do a lot of drawing and painting on paper before I start a work. Along the way, I also draw models, systems, and repetitive formations to work things out. I don’t know what the painting would look like at the end, it can be very process-led and I negotiate the layers along the way. This probably makes it a more tedious process but I’m not interested in drafting an entire image and then representing that. Spider-maps help me visually weigh up the references I’ve used in different works. They help me evaluate connections between works and consolidate ideas for shows.

Trompe L’oeil is an art technique that you have spoken about previously and can be seen in much of your work. Why has this become such a vital component to the structure, meaning and outcome of each piece?

Trompe l’oeil for me is also about disrupting assumptions. The illusion it creates extends another space in my work. I think about spaces and layers when I’m working. Sometimes at the beginning of a piece, I cut out small strips of masking tape to make guidelines and grids on the canvas. Then towards the end of a work, I would simulate those guide-tapes by reproducing them in thick paint, so it looks like the tape has been left on the canvas. I want this to give the viewer an entryway into my process.

I noticed you had a scale model of an exhibition layout within your studio. How important is having an understanding of scale, spatial awareness and layout in terms of an exhibition space? 

Because I don’t work in series, my works can seem rather tangled up in the studio, at least for an unfamiliar spectator. So when thinking about a show, I like to de-thread them and a scale model helps me do that. In recent years, I have exhibited abroad a lot and because I can’t visit the exhibition spaces physically, it’s vital that I understand the space through other ways, for instance SketchUp or foam board models. Also, I see my paintings like different members of a family – a sister, an uncle, a cousin… and so, how they communicate or stand off each other is important to the show. Ultimately, the artist is orchestrating an entire experience. Paintings can’t just hang on a wall and remain reticent – they didn’t come about that way in the studio.

There are a few spots within your studio dedicated to certain artists – Hannah Höch, Charline Von Heyl and Joe Bradley that I spotted. How have these artists influenced you and your practice? 

Hannah Höch was instrumental to my work when I was studying at the RCA. Her collages make me think about my relationship to image-gathering, to layering, and to collage itself. Charline von Heyl has become increasingly important to me in recent years. I’m drawn to her energy, her recurring use of motifs (again there’s a strong element of collage in her work too), and her languages. Joe Bradley may be the odd one out here. He’s not a hero to me, though I want to think about his last Gagosian show: the roughness of those paintings, the chapped surfaces and the contained aggressiveness. Maybe it’s because these are things I don’t allow as much in my work and I want to be liberated to do them.


You mentioned a show at Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai, in the near future. What will this entail?

This will be my first solo show in the region, titled ‘Soft Borders’. I made eight new paintings for the show that contextualise notions of cultural and geographical fluidity, and the challenges of assuming a third-culture and digital-native identity. Dubai will be a very special context for me to exhibit, because of its fluid makeup and the transient nature of its inhabitants. Lots of works in the show reference the kilim. As I mentioned before, the kilim is border-defying – from the way its patterns are named to its connection to colonial history. I have referenced kilims quite a bit previously, so for this new show I started devising my own kilim patterns in the paintings, with symbols like programming brackets “{ }”. Kilims traditionally are woven by women who invent new motifs and pass them down as intangible cultural heritage. As a female artist, this is an important detail for me too. Other works in the show will also deal with memory, the politics of borders, the anatomy of AI power structure, amongst others.


Words by Vanessa Murrell


Vivien Zhang

Yambe Tam

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