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Vivien Zhang has created a personal style based on her own experience: having lived in many countries, and influenced by the cultures she’s encountered, her work reflects a need to understand what does it mean to belong somewhere. Object repetition and varied palettes invite the viewer to understand a vast personal world based on the meaning of objects and their representation in an hyper-connected world that is not ready to leave the offline dimension.
First of all, I would like to ask you about your artistic origins. You lived in four different countries – China, Thailand, Kenya and the United Kingdom –, a fact that’s made you have a rich and varied background. How has living in so many different places with such different cultures and history influenced your artistic perspective?
I’m very lucky to have lived in different places and now have these experiences live in me, especially given the fact that my formative years just brushed against the booming millennial generation. This is a generation that defines our growth into an increasingly globalised and fluid world. My exposure to different environments helped me understand a growing population that’s ever more third-culture, like myself. It’s an ability to empathise and is one of my biggest assets as an individual and as an artist.
I think having grown up in many places, I am also drawn to the palimpsestic nature of different cultures and history. This can be anything from languages like Singlish, where people naturalise English with Chinese and Malay words to suit local needs, or a city like Rome, where layers of culture and history are both superimposed and adjacent, forming a metropolis of intertwining past and present.
In your paintings, one can observe different patterns and objects represented in realistic forms, such as tribal images or internet-age icons like pointers. What is the meaning behind these representations?
I think you’re referring to the kilim when you say ‘tribal’. Kilims are a special type of flatweave rug from Central Asia. I grew up with them in my house in Nairobi. My mother often hung tapestry in the house as paintings, so I started thinking about tapestries that function more than just an overspread. I find kilims fascinating because they are used for religious worship, as room dividers in tents by nomadic tribes, and have a presence in modern households because of the heritage of the Silk Road.
The most gripping characteristic of the kilim is that it embodies transborder properties, with which I associate and highly cherish: kilims’ designs are not named according to the tribes or the national boundaries in which they’re made; rather, they’re named after larger geographical locations. I am sensitive to this fluid property, now more so than ever because of the unsettling conversations we have these days – China’s territorial claims, Brexit, the racial crisis in the States, and so on.
Recently, I’ve also become very interested in the lineage of things – for example, how pointy hand indicators in 14th Century manuscripts, ‘manicules’– influenced modern advertising gestures, and then subsequently, hand-shaped computer cursors. This is why you see some iconic 8-bit cursors in my work.

Repetition seems to be a central aspect of your paintings, where the patterns and shapes are duplicated and distributed along the canvases. Why using repetition? What does it represent to you? Is it related to industrialisation somehow? Maybe to the lack of new ideas?
Repetition challenges assumptions. I first started using it in college. Back then, people didn’t know how to respond to my work without having to resort to the rudimental reference of Chinese culture – and only Chinese culture. They even referred to mass production because they saw I was from China, and to the idea of over-population because my paintings were crowded with fields of objects. I felt so subdued by that. To overcome it, I started collecting and using objects in my paintings that bear multiple ambiguous definitions as a system to confront what one might assume.
Repetition emphasises the object repeated, but at the same time, it reduces its significance and so makes it redundant. I want to ask the question: What is the significance of the objects and motifs I depict in my work? I select my motifs very carefully, but what is their relationship to painting? The repetition in my work is always achieved by hand, often in a crude way with a cut-out stencil. What looks like a computer-generated copy-paste facsimile, on closer inspection, is actually something organic and human.
I also modify my motifs and re-use them in future works. This is like repeating something that’s already been said. Though across multiple works, I want my audience to detect the transformations – it’s like seeing repetition on a macro level. This essentially builds a direction for my work that’s sustainable. My mind runs faster than what I can physically do. Rather than ‘a lack of ideas’, what’s more difficult is the editing and filtering of ideas. We live in an era where excess is continuously thrown at us. Painting allows me to slow down because what I envisage might just not work in that way with the brush and paint.
As much as the shapes of your paintings are crucial in your art, your colour palette is also very representative, using pastel, bright or metallic shades to fill your creations. What is the process of choosing these palettes? What do colours mean to you?
Some are very specific, others are more of a response to the hues we’re surrounded by in our daily lives. Take an older work, for example, Order, Oscillation, and Pretence Gesture (Shape Green). In 2013, I wanted to make a red painting because I find warm colours a more difficult palette to handle. I was reading Swiss artist Johannes Itten’s theory on colour at the time. He designated a shape to each of the primary and secondary colours – green is a rounded triangle because it is the result of combining blue (a circle) and yellow (a triangle). I was able to find a means to make a red painting this way.
Most recently, metallic colours have come to play a role in my work because I’ve been thinking about the aluminium foil as a motif in itself. Here, like the repetition I use, I wanted to disrupt assumptions. Aluminium is a robust material; yet, it can be manufactured into a thin, delicate, and malleable sheet. When it is crumpled up, we speak of it as being ‘broken’, though it’s not broken in the conventional sense; it doesn’t have to be in bits and fragments, it can still exist as one entity. I like the duality in this. I started thinking about material qualities, so putting metallic paint adjacent to trompe l’oeil renderings of the foil made sense to me.

The Internet era has not only brought technological advances and a higher quality of life, but it has also developed a particular notion of contemporary art and has created new artistic movements on its own. What is your opinion on contemporary art in our era? How do you perceive yourself in this vast online landscape?
I finished art school at the height of the exposure of ‘flipping art’, and I also remember people started talking about making works solely to view on a computer or phone screen. I want to usher people’s gaze back to the real from the digital. My work actually has lots of rough edges up close. In the metallic border of a painting, you can see a good number of rubbing marks, scratches and so on.
I believe I am an observer in today’s online landscape, someone who has the liberty (as an artist) to take an extra step back and brood on digital evolutions that are recasting our lives slowly but tangibly. I simulate digital interfaces in my canvases because I find humour in how User Interface (UI) has progressed – the new chestnut emoji has become more 3D, for example. I notice how the changes affect our reading and unpacking of information – how browser windows and tabs collate, and the finger gestures we use to navigate UI.
Also, artists are currently living in a strange time. The rebellious potential of art is subdued. Activism has changed, no longer defined by protests on the streets or even an underground movement; instead, a mere re-post on Instagram suffices. As part of this snowflake generation, one is all too easily bruised and upset. I often think we don’t have enough to say. We orbit in self-contained, self-absorbed huddles.
Currently, the most relevant issue of our vast online landscape is accessibility: net neutrality and AI – I can’t wait to see their effects in the not-too-distant-future. Could advancements in the arts and culture be simply AI–generated? Would artists face elimination, as seems to be happening with translators at the moment?
Since your art is so related to the digital era, have you ever thought of putting brushes and painting aside and become a digital creator, using computers and other gadgets as your tools?
Sure, perhaps in the future. At this moment though, I am engrossed in the conflict between the digital and physical, and that’s precisely why I still want to create illusions with the brush and paint, and embrace all the imperfections of doing something by hand. Painters have a real love affair with their materials – I should show you my collection of brushes. I’m not nearly ready to put all that away yet!

In the past years, your art has gotten to be known and renowned not only in the United Kingdom, where you reside, but also in many parts of the world. Forbes even mentioned you as one of the list of Top 30 creatives under 30 of Asia, being one of the biggest accomplishments for a young artist. What does this exposure mean to you? Has it affected your art in any particular way?
It means my voice has been extended. It feels amazing to think one person’s activities in an East London studio has such a widespread ripple effect. Though again, it’s a token, and I don’t simply identify as a badge-collector. My Forbes 30–Under–30 2017 listing was quoted in some press at Art Rotterdam this year, but shortly after, I felt ‘well, that was 2017, in the next second it’ll be old news!’
But the Forbes recognition has given me the chance to meet a group of unbelievable game-changers from our generation. They are all absolute visionaries in all sorts of industries, whose eyes really do sparkle as they think about how to change the future for the better. I am in awe when I think my work has brought me to these great people, and they remind me of what I need to do.
With many exhibitions around the world, such as in Berlin, London, Shanghai and Seoul, your art is being exposed in an international panorama. As said previously, your art seems to revolve on your many cultural backgrounds due to living in many countries. Can exhibiting in new parts of the world expand your notion and sense of place?
Definitely! First of all, it’s taken me to unbelievable places – Castiglioncello di Trinoro (Italy), for example, where I ended up having a great conversation with an elderly English woman (who grew up in 1930s China during the turmoil of the Republic of China and rising Japanese aggression), her Italian husband, a British Jewish rabbi, and his Hungarian husband. Castiglioncello di Trinoro is a very tiny Italian village near Siena where an Etruscan aqueduct lies nearby and an ancient castle has just been recently excavated, Yet it felt that I was conversing with the world and skipping around temporal space.
I do like to use the word “placelessness” when I talk about my work to tear down categories and demarcation. I’ve met so many incredible people along the way – the inventor of the Gömböc (do check it out), brilliant historians, and remarkable social entrepreneurs. How does one define such encounters?
Also, I went to primary school in Beijing and that was enough to convince me I would belong to an ‘institution’ after I finished my education – you know, work for an organisation and get a pension, have health insurance and so on. Doing art has changed this completely. Indeterminably. My personal space has expanded.
What are you currently working on? Any projects we should know of and that you can reveal?
I am looking at kilims again and objects I’ve collected in my residency in Italy, for example, Solomonic pillars. I can tell you I’m doing a project in Berlin during Gallery Weekend, and one in Beijing in September, so keep your eyes peeled.

Irene Ramón

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