Zhou Li Landscape of Nowhere: Water and Dreams No 7
Zhou Li says she grew up “in the discipline of a traditional family” in Yiyang, in Hunan province, China, where Mao Zedong was born. It’s where “the Zijiang river is so clear” and that she says is her “deepest memory”.
Li’s grandmother is from “a landowner family, the Wens of XiangXiang, which is the same family, in the same village, as Mao’s mother. But my hometown is also close and shares the same Dongting Lake, inspiration for ‘Peach Garden’, the famous fifth-century poem by Tao Yuanming. Everyone is proud of one’s hometown. Every hometown has stories.”
But her father, because of his family background, “was not permitted to live inside his institution’s neighbourhood unit. He had to live in a solitary small bothy, close to a brook, and I remember the sound of the fishes jumping every night.”
Her father, an artist, “taught my brother painting, often brought him and his students to the wharf to draw from life. I followed, was given a brush pen and rice paper and I began by practising Chinese ink-and-wash painting and calligraphy.” Li, born 1969, still practises calligraphy every day.
At 16, she went to GuangZhou Academy of Fine Art, where today she is a guest professor. “Technically speaking, going to the academy means something serious can happen from then on.”
For Li, the 10th/11th century Chinese artist Fan Kuan is very important. “Part of the beginning of landscape painting, he sees nature as the true teacher which is not only an aesthetic concept but the core of the ‘Philosophy of Mind/Reason’ since the Song Dynasty and just shows that many shared values today are so deeply connected. People should see that nature has no boundaries between ‘east’ and ‘west.’”
Li’s early work explored how “the world is also the mind, so seeing the world is also the process of seeing oneself”. Her new work is, she says, “about water and dream, which are connected to, or part of, nature. They are all perceptions, intuitions, from life experiences. They are not ideas, not those you can have in the shower. I must have actually seen them before I start to paint.”
Li lived in France from 1995 to 2003, where she “saw important artworks face-to-face and understood Impressionist paintings immediately when I saw the sunshine and every colour it brought”. Now Shenzhen-based, she thinks “so many good things in China have never been seen by the world. The stereotyped images of China are too strong”.
Do different nationalities respond to her work differently? “The stereotype says the French are ‘romantic’, the Germans ‘rigorous’, but it doesn’t help anyone to understand anyone at all. I prefer to see and feel people as everyone is special.”
This deep, fluid, shimmeringly-beautiful painting, Landscape of Nowhere: Water and Dreams No 7, began the day the pandemic closed Shanghai. “If you like, you can see different forms there with cliff and surge. Some lines are from Huang Binhongs’s drawing of a mountain, in a bigger scale, in different thicknesses. The dream part is about personal dream scenes, not the ideal one. All my works with their palettes and touches are largely representative and present directly what I’ve seen. They are there as phenomena and they can be shared.”
She doesn’t see herself as part of any tradition but if Romanticism sees the beauty in nature and life, “then I hope I could be part of it”.
‘Water and Dreams’ is at Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, until August 20, and Chateau La Coste, Aix-en-Provence until August 31; zlartstudio.com; Instagram@zlartstudio
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IMMA until Saturday