An ongoing series
Offerings from believers who survived dangerous incidents depicted in the images, ex-voto paintings are commonly seen in churches and chapels, especially in harbour cities. Often painted on wooden panels by amateurish hands with bizarre compositions, contrasted by the seriousness of telling personal stories and of being grateful to God, to the Virgin Mary and to different Saints, those paintings appear to be samples of propagating religion and faith, which made me think of communist propaganda images. While a Christian carries the notion of sin and redemption, a person under the communist ideology is constantly reminded to be grateful and loyal to the government and alerted to the imagined enemies. Disasters are always present in a totalitarian regime's narratives, for they are destined to be overcome by the regime's leadership. From this point, I started to create a series of contemporary ex-voto paintings that expresses and reflects the perspectives of a Chinese person living in the West, whose memory is piled with disastrous events: flood, pandemic, personal dramas, and most of all, political chaos—something I grew up with and can never escape from. In my ex-voto series, the concept of disaster is sometimes not specific, mixed up with a certain ambiguity, as being implicit is necessary for someone coming from a totalitarian state. I am used to expressing myself artistically through symbols, which also coincides with the means of expression in religious paintings. The themes and the role of ex-voto paintings also relate to the question of memory and address the idea of drama beyond the concept of detachment valued by our current time’s minimalism and psychological well-being by encapsulating and cherishing our collective and personal traumas. Favouring the sarcastic style of the parody both as a reflexive act on the history of ex-voto paintings and as an emotional strategy to face difficult situations, my series of ex-voto paintings expresses the intricacy and the paradoxical texture of our memory’s emotionality. I am interested in the idea of gratitude in the votive gesture that praises life as being at once simple and dramatic, and in the way painting as a medium can be used in the everyday life beyond the art market.
Being coherent with the tradition, my ex-voto paintings are painted on wooden panels—often worn-out religious icons that I found at second-hand markets. Regularly exploring second-hand markets in France, I’m fascinated by the question of the historical selection of objects and how some of them cease to be used and find a new life with new uses. This question is all the more important to me as a Chinese person because old objects and materials have become a rare sight in China where both the Cultural Revolution and the development of capitalism have violently suppressed the aesthetics of the past. The old printed wooden icons I collect and reuse to paint my ex-voto paintings raise the same issue: mass-produced items of religious memorabilia, they relate to the consumption of our cultural heritage, of what we collectively decided to retain from our history. By reusing them, I expand their story and reassert the importance of craftsmanship against capitalist mass production.
The art form of ex-voto paintings asserts the necessity to remember, to perform memorial acts and to create material things. Because they are both images and objects and because of the universal idea of disaster they carry, ex-voto paintings hold a sense of materiality and intimacy and thus concretely connect us to the abstraction of history. Their simplicity and their emotionality incite us to rethink our relation to the past and to our memory in a vibrant manner.
(An Easter Painting)
oil on wooden panel
36 × 31 cm
Last December, the sudden and unprepared removal of Covid restrictions in China caused numerous infections and deaths. On social media many people posted the emoji 🐏 to suggest they were Covid positive because 羊 (sheep/goat/lamb) has the same pronunciation as 阳 (positive). Such strange phenomenon felt like a parallel universe, like the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Replacing the figures from the original poster of Stalker with people wearing white protective suits enhanced the sci-fi feel even more. At that period of extreme insecurity and fear, trolling posts saying “Thank you, State/Government, for protecting us for three years” went viral. I quote it in the painting in the form of a red slogan banner.
"Yi Ke Sai Ting", One Racing Canoe
A parody to Peter Doig
oil on wooden panel
35 × 45 cm
My childhood memory of summer is full of images of floods on TV. As I lived by the Yangtze River, those images were particularly striking to me. Unlike China’s current political scene when the coverage of the floods is centred on overview shots of the floods taken by drones (as if they were travel channels screening beautiful sceneries) and is marked by the absence of the President, floods used to be an opportunity for the Communist Party to demonstrate its greatness and correctness in leading the fight against natural disasters.
The scene of the former President Jiang Zemin inspecting the flooded area is exemplary of such propagandization surrounding natural disasters. The theatricality of this news image recalls the Latin world’s tradition of ex-voto paintings that are commonly seen in churches. In France, the votive paintings are often inscribed with the word EX-VOTO while in Italy the inscription is usually P.G.R. or G.R.—(Per) Grazia Ricevuta.
I simulated the old CCTV (China Central Television) logo , replacing its letters with P, G, R (P and R are overlapping). The image of a small boat on the immense water also reminded me of Peter Doig’s canoe paintings. I imitated the composition and some brushstrokes in Doig’s work, adding an extra flavour of traditional Chinese landscape painting (shanshui), with the ancient shanshui paintings’ yellow-brownish tone (caused by light and humidity over time) recalling the colour of the muddy flood. At the same time, in accordance with the regulation of traditional Chinese figure painting, Jiang Zemin’s size is enlarged (while the young Wen Jiabao by Jiang’s side comes second in size).
In the recent decade there has been a subculture of jokingly or ironically idolizing Jiang Zemin among a number of Chinese netizens, largely stimulated by the frustration related to the current stifling political environment. Jiang’s unconstrained and Western-like style seemed much preferable in comparison and has become an inexhaustible source of numerous internet memes and slang (often nonsensical). For example, he once made a remark in English: “Exciting!” Thus, the Chinese transliteration 一颗赛艇 (yi ke sai ting), meaning “a racing canoe,” became a keyword of the subculture (it is also the title of the painting). The surname Jiang 江 meaning River in Chinese, the racing canoe somehow holds a certain Dadaist sense. Netizens also hybridized ancient sayings or poems with Jiang’s phrases. For example, changing 水能载舟，亦能覆舟 “Water can carry the boat, but it can also overturn the boat”—a famous saying describing the relation between the ruler and the common people—to 水能载舟，亦可赛艇 “Water can carry the boat, and it can also have a canoe race (i.e. ‘yi ke sai ting’, or ‘exciting’)”.
There are other references to this subculture in the painting: the number PLUS1S written on the boat, referring to the slang “+1s” or “extending one second”, an internet collective joking act of “donating” one second of one’s life to Jiang in order to extend his life infinitely (which evidently didn't work out in the end, for Jiang died in Dec 2022). The watch on Jiang’s wrist is another one: wearing a watch is 戴表 daibiao, which has the same pronunciation of the word “represent” 代表; and Jiang’s guiding socio-political theory is called “The Three Represents.”
oil on panels with old wooden frame
54 × 72 cm
The scribble around the nude women is the copy of Mao's comment (written in the margins of a report) on the issue of nude models addressed to Lu Dingyi, Kang Sheng, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen. It reads:
Comrades: This thing should change. Nude models — male, female, old and young — are necessary for fundamental training in painting and sculpture, no other way. Feudal thinking — putting prohibition — is inappropriate. Even if a few bad things emerge, it's unimportant. For the sake of art disciplines, we must not grudge small sacrifices. At your discretion. Mao Zedong, July 18th, 1965
I like the fact that Mao wrote the word "model" directly in English, which he misspelled as “motel” at first.
Ai Weiwei Getting a Haircut in a Refugee Camp
acrylic on wooden panels with frame
49 × 59 cm
In his documentary about the global refugee crisis Human Flow (2017), there is one brief scene of Ai Weiwei getting a haircut from a migrant barber at a refugee camp in Greece—interestingly, Mr Ai is known for enjoying doing haircuts for others. Considering the fact that Ai himself is in exile from his home country, this scene is particularly intriguing and powerful.
In an interview Ai Weiwei spoke of this act as being symbolic (apart from him being in need of a haircut): it meant he had permanently left some of his hairs on this ground and they would never come back to him.
The drone in the painting refers to the many scenes shot by drone in Human Flow, which have raised debates over the ethical problem of "drone height" against human height.
oil on wooden panel
38 × 29 cm
After my arrest in December 2017 (for painting an empty blue chair—a homage to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate—in a mural at a biennale in Shenzhen, China), the police searched me and my belongings. A man from the National Security took out my camera from the camera bag, and I saw a small pile of folded flyers underneath. I suddenly realized they were flyers in support of Liu Xiaobo that I had accidentally gotten from a friend some days before. They had nothing to do with the blue chair I painted and I had casually put them in my camera bag and forgotten about them. While trying to quickly invent a story of how I got the flyers, I quietly watched the man taking them out of the bag. He took a quick glance, and with a slight hesitation, he put them back without unfolding them—he was too intrigued to check the digital photos in my camera, thus he neglected the material “evidence” that he was so keen to look for. Six days later, I walked out of the detention centre with my camera bag, the flyers were still in it. If they had been discovered, it would have been a much more serious matter, and I wouldn’t have gotten away with a few days’ detention. I bought a lighter, went back to my hotel room and burned the flyers in the bathroom. At first glance the flyers appeared to be Christmas cards, with the image of a Santa Claus head in pop art style, while it was actually Liu Xiaobo wearing a Santa Claus cap, with “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” printed in both Chinese and English on the image—Liu’s birthday was during the Christmas holidays, and the adjudgement of his 11-year-sentence was announced on the Christmas Day of 2009 (dissidents are often tried during the Christmas holidays when the West is celebrating and thus not paying full attention to China). The flame gradually swallowed the Santa, and I realized that Christmas would be in four days, and three days after that would be Liu’s birthday, only he would never be able to celebrate.
All these years I’ve regretted burning the flyers (I didn’t even take a photo). Now I can finally get over my regret by making a painting of the scene that has been engraved in my memory so deeply.
Missile Throwing Show
oil on wooden panel with frame
33 × 48 cm
A hybrid parody of communist propaganda poster and Christian votive painting related to the conflict surrounding Taiwan in the summer of 2022.
Featuring Foreign Minister Wang Yi as the knife/missile thrower, the propagandist Hu Xijin who threatened to shoot down Pelosi's plane as the flag bearer, Ambassador to France Lu Shaye who claimed to "re-educate" the Taiwanese people, and the spokespersons Hua Chunying, Zhao Lijian & Wang Wenbin, all known for their "battle wolf" style. Interestingly, I painted Zhao in Marine uniform, and five months later he was demoted to the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs.
Nancy Pelosi on the plane takes over the place where the Virgin usually appears in an ex-voto painting.
Chinese Idiom Lesson
acrylic on wooden panel with frame
33 × 48 cm
In August 2022, after Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, the Chinese Foreign Minister and the Spokesperson to the EU published enraged comments cursing Taiwan and the West, with a massive use of four-character idioms. Shocked by their tone that reminded me of the language of the Cultural Revolution, I copied a 1950s anti-illiteracy propaganda poster, replaced the original text with the current propaganda language and literally translated those words in English. I also updated the figures with contemporary clothing, as well as masks, for the Covid restrictions had not been lifted yet at the time of the incident.
A Mural of Mao
oil on wooden panel
39 × 27 cm
Years ago I saw a poorly painted mural under the Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge, where Mao made his historic swim in 1966 (because of this, people are still permitted to swim at their own risk in the urban areas of the Yangtze River even today). Amused by the seriousness of the failed portrait, I copied it on a small wooden panel, with dried sunflower heads scattered underneath. In Mao's China, since the Sun is the symbol of Mao, sunflowers thus became the symbol of common people.
The slogan reads: "The water is deep and dangerous; at your own risk".
JLG en GiLet Jaune
oil on wooden panel
35 × 25 cm
In April 2020 during the first lockdown of Covid-19, I watched the Instagram Live interview of Jean-Luc Godard. Being unfamiliar with the platform, I was a bit distracted by the comments floating on the screen, and I noticed that about 1/3 of them were in Chinese. The following day, an absurdly false transcription of the interview was spread on Chinese social media. At the same time, sellers on Taobao were promoting the same green vest that Godard was wearing in the interview. This somehow gave me the idea of picturing Godard in yellow vest, for he once said he was thinking of making a film about the Gilets Jaunes movement. Later I learned that yellow is also the colour of the Quarantine Flag, aka the "Yellow Jack."
The hand is reference and echo to Leonardo's St. John the Baptist's hand pointing up to the sky. Godard also quoted this hand in his film Le Livre d'image.
I combined my initials with Godard's in the signature. HMJ can also be the abbreviation of "huang majia" 黄马甲, "gilet jaune" in Chinese.
Herzog Meets Gorbachev
oil on wooden panel
30 × 40 cm
After hearing about the death of Gorbachev, I thought of the touching documentary about him made by Werner Herzog a few years ago. In my painting, the text written next to the fictitious mural portrait of Gorbachev on the Berlin Wall are lines from Mikhail Lermontov's poem "I go out on the road alone" which Gorbachev recited in Herzog's film:
I see no hope in years to come,
Have no regrets for things gone by.
All that I seek is peace and freedom!
To lose myself and sleep!
But not the frozen slumber of the grave...
I'd like eternal sleep to leave
My life force dozing in my breast
Gently with my breath to rise and fall;
oil on wooden panel
26.8 × 17.5 cm
Viktor Tsoi, the legendary soviet rock star of Korean descent, whose songs became hymns for the young generation expressing their love and agony, their anxiety and demand for change during the Perestroika period, died tragically in a car accident at the age of 28, just one year before the collapse of USSR. He would be in his early 60s now. Gorbachev used to quote him in his speech; Zelenski performed his songs before becoming President. Nowadays, people in Russia still sing his songs to protest against war and totalitarianism.
The famous dissident director Kirill Serebrennikov made the film Leto about Tsoi in 2018. He had to edit the film under house arrest.
A Wild Duck Called Yaya
oil on wooden panel
30 × 27 cm
In the spring of 2016, my wife and I saved a little motherless wild duckling from the river Saône near our home and raised her in our flat for four months. Unable to provide her the necessary space to fly in our home and having failed to set her free back into the Saône for she always followed us closely, we sent her to a wild bird centre. Since then, we think of her every day and feel grateful for the love and joy she brought us.
Black Sesame Hutong
oil on wooden panel
42 × 42 cm
Through her life on the roofs, in the houses and among the small shops in Beijing’s old alleys, Lulu, the mother of my cat, has been the witness of urban planning and of the progressive disappearance of the old way of life in the hutongs.