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A few days ago, my ex Konstantinos joined me to see the two shows that are currently taking place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Pall Mall metres from Buckingham Palace. The first one was that horror show called the Bloomberg New Contemporaries which I have already reviewed here. The second one was Shanghai-based artist Zhang Enli ‘mural’ at the ICA theatre. After seeing what Chantal Joffe and Ryan Gander had selected for the Bloomberg concoction of spoiled youth, I was in a foul mood but since I live on hope, I decided to carry on and delve into the depth of the ICA theatre which is at the end of its long building.

My first impression was not good due to the fact that even though Zhang Enli transformed the ICA Theatre with a painting encompassing the floor and walls, there was nothing stylistically or iconographically interesting about the painting. In the past, Enli’s paintings featured seemingly mundane urban objects such as tangled wires, empty cabinets, cargo netting and stacked cardboard boxes. As with the objects he paints, the spaces are empty rooms that show signs of decay and come complete with dirt marks. So I decided to look at the whole thing from a conceptual point of view.

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The more I looked at the floor, walls and ceiling of this room, the semi-transparent layers of paint and the traces of brush strokes emerged as indicating not only the painting’s materiality but also how that paint generated the illusion of space through colour but also, and most importantly, light and texture. There is indeed a rupestrian aspect to this way of painting that even though brings the space forward, somehow avoids generating claustrophobia. The key to understand this is the light. Enli always paints with artificial light in a studio located in Moganshan Road art district, an industrial compound filled with galleries and artist studios in Shanghai. Looking at the tones and colours that permeate his work this lack of natural light is evident and enhances the presence of an artificial atmosphere which at the same times reveals itself as ‘pictorial’ (or ‘art’).

That artificiality of colours and the way the walls seem to fall on top of the viewer while at the same time holding back as ‘art’, made me ask the room vigilator how he experienced the room working shifts of six hours there. What I was actually asking him was whether he ever felt claustrophobic in that environment. To my surprise, his words were more helpful that any of the texts facilitated by the ICA. He said that it felt gloomy sometimes but that he liked to see it as a discussion on the boundaries of the exhibition space in the same line of Rachael Whiteread’s work. In other words, he was suggesting me to see the whole experience from the point of view of post-minimalist sculpture. He was totally right because even though the walls drew my attention as paintings, those walls were not thematised through their affirmation as in Whiteread’s sculptures or Annish Kapoor’s reflections on shiny concave surfaces but instead through a pictorial negation of them as ‘the frame of the work of art’. The fact that the artist did the whole work himself add an additional layer of meaning to this, mostly if were bare in mind that this is a contemporary Chinese artist. To be honest, this must be the first work by a rather successful Chinese artist that was actually made by himself.

So it is impossible to remove the ‘intensive labour’ factor. In fact, according to the ICA’s text ‘Enli’s work embodies a very personal relationship with his surroundings and for the ICA he aims to stretch colours across the space ‘like human skin’ with thin washes of pigment creating a ‘space painting’. Bewteen ‘skin’ and ‘space’, this show works though an acknowledgement of intensive and, often, unnecessary human labour. I don’t think that I am too far from the truth if I say that there is some expression of forced confinement in this kind of exercise. Has the ICA theatre been transformed into an allegory of China’s, sometimes, inhuman contradictions of consumerist freedom and repressive politics?

Having grown up in the provincial town of Jilin in the north of China, Enli’s work embodied that very transition from communism to hyper consumerism. The ICA says that ‘He represents this extreme contrast to the smaller city he was accustomed to, not through the consumerist preoccupation so common in contemporary Chinese painting coming from its major cities, but by looking at the ordinary, unpretentious objects that surround him and the immigrants travelling from the countryside to Shanghai’. I would add to this the issues of confinement, hard labour and a desperate attempt to keep sane against all odds. Just a thought.

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