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Artist Zhang Jian-Jun on life, balance and his exhibition, “Human Traces”

Jointly presented by the K11 Art Foundation and the Royal Academy of Arts, Chinese artist Zhang Jian-Jun’s travelling exhibition Human Traces is now at its final stop in Asia, available for viewing in Quarry Bay until 14 November.

A pioneer of Chinese abstract art, Zhang Jian-Jun has dedicated his artistic journey to exploring three core concepts — the interaction between nature and humans, the traces people leave behind over the course of time, and the relationship between traditional and modern living. 

Human Traces is a dynamic exhibition that follows the process of life in its multitude of ephemeral concepts. From Shanghai to Shenyang, and finally to Hong Kong, Zhang constructs subtle changes within each exhibition space, reflecting the interaction between the artist and location. As the last stop, the Hong Kong exhibition brings together the dynamics of this ever-evolving showcase, directing us to question the true nature of what it means to be human. 

We take a moment with the charming and gentle Zhang (“Just call me JJ,” he says) to dig deeper into his personal journey with art, time and the world of change. 

Zhang Jian-Jun / Human Traces / K11 Art Foundation

When did the art bug bite? Did you know from a child you enjoyed creating or did that passion manifest later? 

When I was around five in kindergarten, I still remember clearly, they were asking kids, “So, what is your dream? What do you want for your future life? Your career?” and I said, well, I wanted to be an artist. 

I have no idea where this desire came from because of none of my family members or relatives are artists. They’re more technicians or with engineering backgrounds, but I have just enjoyed art since I was young. Of course, later, I was very lucky when I met a good teacher and then went for my formal art education. 

Wow! That’s very young. What sort of medium were you using at that age? 

A lot of crayons! And also, I started to experiment with mirrors and walls, too. I grew up in Shanghai. Once, I remember when I was stuck at home during a sick day, I started drawing on the walls of our home. I was so proud of what I did, but when my parents came back, I remember my dad being furious. 

Zhang Jian-Jun / Human Traces / K11 Art Foundation

Over the course of the past few decades, you’ve produced works in ink, photography, videos, performances and paintings. Which do you find is the most challenging medium? And your favourite? 

It depends on the type of work you do is because you always have to ask yourself, well, what is the best way to express your concept or your work? My first major in art school was oil painting, then western-style drawing, and then later, after moving to New York, I studied sculptures and installations.  

I have my phases. On certain times I, of course, enjoy painting, but when I start to work in installations and envision the sculptures in the space, maybe it’s charcoal with water. And then I’ll change back to painting, again. It’s a good question because sometimes, within a particular time, I just try to follow my heart. I like integrating people’s participation with my exhibitions. It’s part of my exploration with connection to society. So, whenever people ask, “Are you a painter? A sculpturer?”, I stop them and say: “I’m visual artist.”

What is your overarching philosophy when it comes to art? 

I’m not a philosopher, but a word, or concept, that always draws me back is “balance.” 

My personal philosophy is a dialogue with both nature and human nature. A lot of my work incorporates nature materials directly on my canvas. I’ve done multimedia projects that use flowing water or timing of the Sun to help modify the piece.  

As humans, we’re inherently connected to nature, and when we leave this world, we all leave behind our own marks. There’s always a spin in my work where everything is connected and balanced. I look at society and human history, too. So, for instance, this phrase, Human Traces, I started this series in 2019 in London and continued around the world. In general, artists have one iconic object — mine is the concept of balance. 

Zhang Jian-Jun / Human Traces / K11 Art Foundation

Where’s your next destination? 

I’m not really planning yet because travel is not easy, but I’d love to go to Italy or Greece next. And then I will think about Mexico or even exploring Africa. I want to try to cover more and more people with different backgrounds; share their pictures, their voices, their ideas.  

Was there an event that inspired Human Traces? 

In the ‘80s, I started working on another ongoing project called “Human beings and their clock”. The first painting started in ’85, the second finished ’87, and the third one I finished in 2005. My fourth series was completed in 2016, and now I’m working on the fifth. This piece is horizontal and features five people standing near each other, looking up. 

This transcends boundaries with humans ranging from kids, adults and different ethnicities. The characters looking up can be traced back to my childhood memories. Looking at the sky. Looking at the night stars. When I was five or six, my father told me that what he looked at was “the past”. Thousands of years ago, the stars were already there, and we look up today at the same stars. Thousands of years from now, humans will still be looking at the same sky, too. So that’s eternal.  

The series demonstrates the same pose, the same structure, but sometimes, I change the people around because, well… People change. My work is within a process. I’m not particularly interested in what breakfast you ate. Or how old you are. I want people to look at the big picture and ask deeper questions. What was the saddest experience you ever had? What was the happiest? What do you want to say to people living 100 years from now? 

Zhang Jian-Jun / Human Traces / K11 Art Foundation

That’s very beautiful. Thank you for sharing. What is a piece of advice you’d give to young artists? 

First of all, you have to be passionate. It has to be a happy love for what you do. On the other hand, there’s a lot of mental power that’s necessary because you have to work hard and self-motivate. It’s about the technique, true, but it’s also about how to find yourself, how to express yourself. True art is being able to open people’s eyes, giving them a fresh experience and perspective. So that’s what creativity means to me.  

Human Traces is available for viewing until 14 November at K11 HACC, L2, K11 Atelier King’s Road, 728 King’s Road, Quarry Bay. 

Sandra Kwong
Features Editor
A perpetually hungry individual paired with an acute dirty martini obsession. You'll catch Sandra waltzing around town from gallery openings to various happy hours. Usually waxing lyrical about her 10-step skincare routine or her latest gadget. Currently missing: long ski runs in Hanazono.