Spending just a few minutes in front of one of Vivien Zhang’s vast, graphic canvases is a hypnotic experience. Having spent her childhood in China, Kenya and Thailand, the artist is now based in east London, creating cultural kaleidoscopes out of motifs from different countries, centuries and shared experiences. Her source materials range from central-Asian kilims and Baroque churches’ spiral pillars to video games and a 3D mathematical shape known as a gömböc. Zhang's aim, in collating and converting these into works of art, is to write a new visual language and set out what she calls an ‘alternative landscape’ for generations growing up away from their parents’ original cultures.
"I see a canvas as a site for assemblage – a space where different fragments and references come together as one," says the artist. "Often, one can observe a series of layers in my paintings; each demands a shift in gear, in terms of speed, scale or register. I also believe in ambiguity – it is paramount for art to be read in a multitude of ways."
Indeed, plurality is central to Zhang’s outlook: repeating patterns, layers and shapes provides the backbone of her process. "I use repetition as a method to prod on the expectation of sameness – and to think about challenging assumptions,” she says. “Monotony gives me permission to do something else next: an erratic, less rational move; an interruptive gesture."
This artistic modus operandi stems in part from her theory about technology’s evolution: like many others, Zhang is concerned about the way automation and AI is informed by, and relies on, actions taken by humans in the past. "Inevitably, past inaccuracies, omissions and prejudice become the basis of our prediction of the future. By making them automatic, these flaws may become amplified over time," she says. You can see why she values disrupting a recurrent sequence of events. Her thoughts on the matter have been condensed into a manifesto, which will be on show in a mesmerising exhibition of Zhang’s latest artworks that opens next week.
Researching these new, large-scale creations, Zhang found inspiration in polyhedral world maps (as seen in 'Geogrid 2', above). "There is a treasure trove of different iterations out there. Against the backdrop of media distortion and increasingly polarised narratives, I have begun to look at certain maps as a response to some of the unbalanced narratives in society today. I use them as metaphors for the desire for fairer geo-political representations of our planet," she says. "Cartographers go to lengths to map our world in ways that provide fewer distortions to land mass – and hence, better, unprejudiced, representations of countries’ sizes and the relations between them."
Another recent influence is hand motifs of all sorts, from computer cursors to the index fingers guiding viewers around the cosmos in the astrolabe room at Rome’s Trinità dei Monti. But her favourite is perhaps ‘manicules’ – the miniscule hands drawn in the margins of ancient manuscripts to highlight key passages. The artist explains, "They are often anatomically bizarre, with elaborate sleeves, and are often incredibly comical." Like Zhang herself, these intriguing motifs point the viewer in the right direction, but leave it up to us to work out exactly what the message is.
‘Vivien Zhang: undo undo undo’ is at Pilar Corrias from 26 April until 28 May.
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