Zhang Zuo hails from a small rural village in northern Hebei province. Born in 1986, his work, usually ink and paint on paper, relays the journey of migrant youth through images of birds and trees. Ahead of his first solo exhibition, Solace of Youth, Time Out finds out more
Your work reflects on the angst and joy of migrant youth in China. Why is this important?
I am reflecting on the present state of my country and myself. There are many young people like me who migrate from villages to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. According to an official survey in 2011, of the nine million who migrated to the cities, four million of them are aged 20-34 years old, accounting for 47 per cent of the migrant population. This figure is set to grow. For the millions of youths who move, their objectives are very similar: to seek a better life, to find a decent paying job, to pursue their aspirations. Most of them came from villages where conditions are harsh. When they arrive in the city, although many are unprepared for the challenges, they wait it out despite the uncertainty. They endure the struggles, and bury their desire for the familiar, for their family. But they persevere knowing that the journey will be long – for this is the spirit of youth. For our generation, we did not suffer under the revolutions, we have benefited from the grace of development. Although we struggle, we know that this is our time. It belongs to us.
What do you want to convey with your work?
I know some people say my paintings express the beauty in sadness, but I do wish that people could see hope from sorrow. I believe there is hope in the city.
Which artists have you been most influenced by?
I am influenced by different artists at different stages of my life. When I was a kid, my first contact with Western art was through paintings by Matisse, and I emulated them countless times. I also like Edvard Munch’s works and hence in my works there are moments of shades of grey. Once I took an interest in sculptures from the Sui and Tang dynasties. Later on, I appreciated the grace and arrogance of works by Chinese artist Zhu Da. Most importantly, my life experience affects me.
Your first move from home was to Beijing and while there you worked in a company that creates mass-produced artworks to sell. Did you feel that compromised your creativity at the time?
It is a reality of life. I bear no grudges. Imagine a person who has just graduated from a fine art course, goes to Beijing’s Songzhuang artist village hoping to pursue his artistic creation but needs a stable income. Working in a painting factory is probably the best option. He can paint, earn an income and perhaps create his own works in the evening. Those mass-produced paintingshad minimal impact on me, but the job allowed me to better understand myself and sharpen my creative endeavour. I value the importance of inspiration; I appreciate the role of technical competency.
In 2010 you joined the army…
I always feel people should try different things, have different life experiences. The rules of society differ from the rules in the military. I wanted to express my gratitude and appreciation to my country. Another practical reason was that afterwards I was able to repay the student loan that I took up. The pay was almost equivalent to three years of my family’s crop income.
Finally, what do the birds in your paintings represent?
The birds represent the many young people who are like me. I believe that every artist sees themselves in their own works.
Solace of Youth is at LWH Gallery from Friday 10 to Tuesday 28 January.