Beautiful and desirable things, such as birthday cake and strawberries, are painted as tainted rotting food for rats and cockroaches, but even in decay they are transformed and aesthetically appealing, writes Jenny Hammond.
Rats, festering waste and garbage - perhaps not something you would ordinarily seek out to look at and ever consider beautiful.
However, now polluted and rotting environments have been given center stage at a new art exhibition at Shanghai's Shine Art Space. They offer surprisingly aesthetic images that depict the transient nature of splendor from the artist's own unique and fresh perspective.
"An Entropic Vision," of deterioration and transformation by Zhang Xiaotao, depicts pleasant objects, such as strawberries and birthday cake, that have rotted and become repugnant in the real world.
Yet the artist renders them beautiful and compelling. Most of the paintings are based on his photographs of decomposing waste - feasts for rats, cockroaches, ants and other vermin.
The exhibit of oils on canvas represents Zhang's belief that all things, despite any apparent beauty, have a coexistent repellent side - an ugly truth that he takes to represent the state of society's disorder and decline.
"I want my work to speak for itself. Contemporary art needs to be seen in its context, and the artist needs to have an individual personality and opinions. Artists should not blindly follow popular culture," says Beijing-based Zhang. The paintings are overwhelmingly based on his photographs.
"My creations may come from reality, or from my being, they may be made up, but it is difficult to say. Contemporary art has its own decoding machine for life. My work is where I stand and how I feel," he says.
His exhibition comprises images ranging from representations of discarded condoms to rotting strawberries, waste heaps and even a red frog.
The artist says it is curiosity that drives him to produce his images. "I want to use a microscope to observe individuals in this time of great change."
Likening modernization in China to a boiling pot, Zhang says, "every one of us is in it, like a group of ants running and seeking food. The pot is boiling hot, and the ants are suffering. Generations of Chinese people have endured this pain in silence; in such an unsettled world in China, we should in our works witness and record our mental trail."
Through his art, Zhang says he wants to show what effect the oppression of materialism and commercialism has upon people, and the nonstop wanting that people have in a society that is so full of opportunity.
"I want to express the mental and physical breakdown of people in a society that is full of desire; something which applies to every culture."
Images need work and direction to have visual power and mental impact, says Zhang. "This is the test for a contemporary artist: Do you dare to go against the traditional structure of beauty, and what questions and opinions will you generate about our time?"
Linking images and words together can tell us what we think about present society and which age we are in, Zhang says.
"As a child, when you see ants moving from one place to another, the link you process is of a fairytale, a game. When you grow up and see this, you see the hard work and cruelty in life; time destroys innocence," he explains.
Therefore, working with contemporary art today and facing such a wide variety of images, you must choose carefully: pick out the things that really touch you and provoke thought. The energy that comes through a piece of work is relative to how deeply the artist feels for the image he continues.
"No matter where this picture comes from, if it is strong enough it will touch all people, whatever their background: It is an experience of life, not just the image itself," Zhang says.
Describing the process of his art creation as "long and rather uninteresting," Zhang says he has his own artistic language.
"I like to work slowly through every step in my thoughts. Most of my paintings derive from photographs. I always have a camera with me wherever I go, taking photos of things that touch me," he says.
"I am creating something that is disappointing and yet has great hopes - a cycle of positive and negative energy that is in a constant state of renewal," Zhang explains.
"Contemporary art has always been and always will be a fantasy stage for both the deceitful and the genius," he continues. "Not only is intelligence and good planning needed, but more important, the power to reach the soul."
Date: January 27-February 23, 10am-6pm
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