For this instalment of the March Mostra Meet the Artists blog series, we spoke to Vivien Zhang, our 2016-17 Abbey Scholar in Painting. Here Vivien reflects upon the progression of her work since the December Mostra, her approach to the upcoming March Mostra, and her projects for the next three months at the BSR.
Vivien Zhang’s work looks at the idea of repetition and painting as a site for assemblage. Context-specific motifs, such as the mathematical shape gömböc and aluminium foil, enact as well as interrupt fields of repetition. Layering in Zhang’s work often simulates algorithms found in digital imaging software – an approach influenced by our ways of engaging with visual material today. Zhang explores through her work our expanding accessibility to images and information today, our shifting authorship and authority over such materials, and our increasing re-identification as trans-border inhabitants.
This is your second BSR Mostra – have you noticed a significant change in your work or your approach to your work since the December Mostra?
Yes, definitely. I think my work for this Mostra will be more experimental, more unfamiliar for myself. Whereas for the last Mostra, it was the first time so I was still getting to know what the BSR is and what Rome is like. So partly, I think the December Mostra was more like a presentation of my known practice, whereas for this one I might be able to unpack what I do a little bit and introduce things I am interested in that I have found in Rome.
When I look at your work, I see all these different layers and I have to really study it to work out which layer is on top and how they are woven into each other. Can you talk me through the process of building up a piece of work?
Someone recently asked me how much of the painting would I know before I first start one. I know I progress a painting through the different layers. I don’t start with a vision of what the final painting will look like, but I usually know which basic shapes and forms I would use in a work – for example the pebbles in this work [see image below]. So the first move here is the background in silver, and then I add these bands which are images that haven’t properly loaded on the internet. The third move is the addition of this math shape, the gömböc. The scientist behind the gömböc originally tried to find a pebble as a natural physical example of a gömböc; that’s why the pebbles are here. The process of thinking about the space [on the canvas] happens while I am doing the work, instead of it being predetermined and knowing how it will look at the end.
Since you met Gabor Domokos, one of the creators of the gömböc, have you revisited the shape and have you been looking at it in a different way?
Definitely! [Shows the gömböc] They manufacture this shape in different materials, and this is a new synthetic plastic which is cheaper, lighter, and more affordable for students. It always rocks back to that stable point. If you play around with it for a little bit, it doesn’t roll for as long as I had hoped it would before returning to its stable point – the inventor did say that the heavier the material is, the better the demonstration. When I met him – for the first time in January this year – he told me lots of political stories that surrounded his research and the production of the shape, and that was incredibly fascinating, adding another dimension to the shape.
Is there any particular site or gallery or space in Rome that has made a particular impression on you?
That’s a question I might have to answer after the BSR! Because at the moment, everything is captivating… But I did go around yesterday, looking for something I want to focus on next term, and that is the flood markers around Rome. Rome has been a long victim of flood and since the thirteenth century flood markers have been put up all around Rome to mark various catastrophic ones – this one outside Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. They’re like markers of history. All the buildings and sites in Rome are markers of history, and they are so because they are allowed to survive in the city, to remain. These flood markers, on the other hand, are symbols of a particular happening, marking a relationship to the rest of the standing history of Rome. What’s more, they were actively placed and were made to have a kind of elevated status – are they like commemoration plaques? What’s their relationship to the rest of history, the city and its people? This is something that’s interesting to me.
Gavin Brown is a gallery that’s made an impression on me. It’s a commercial gallery in a dilapidating church in Rome. Using the site as an exhibition space is quite challenging. Obviously for any artist who has a show in that space, it’s very impressive and an exciting opportunity.
Have you got an idea of where you’ll be in the gallery and do you know what the other artists are going to show, and have you thought about how your work will interact?
I think we make a point in every Mostra meeting that this is a show without an overarching exhibition theme, but there have been interesting new conversations. For example, this term, we have Sinta [Tantra, Bridget Riley Fellow] who is an artist who works much more with abstraction and Caroline [Cloutier, Québec Resident] who works with trompe l’oeil. I feel like I identify with their works much more perhaps than works in the last term. But last term was very challenging in a good way, because I usually don’t show with figurative artists. The context gave a new twist to my work and maybe to the way people read my work.
It will be interesting to see this Mostra after last term, as it will be so different with the December Mostra all being figurative painting.
Last term the artists were all very ‘painterly’ and the conversations painters have amongst ourselves are quite distinct, just for example the mere fascination with a colour or medium, talking about how ‘buttery’ or ‘creamy’ paint can be, the painterly gesture, and so on. But just this morning I was listening to Morgan [Gostwyck-Lewis, Scholars’ Prize in Architecture] talk about his work and how he wants to activate the exhibition space and use his findings with the Etruscan tombs, and the kind of bands in tombs used as horizons. Again that’s really interesting and makes you think more about what you’re looking at, absorb his perspective and approach and then use it in your own work and when it comes to staging the show.
Have you found it a challenge keeping a balance between the BSR and travelling for meetings or exhibitions?
It’s difficult and I think everyone is trying to balance the opportunity of being in Rome, in the BSR, and the other opportunities that come around. I think at the end of the day I just go organically with what is on offer. For my Pescara show [at SOYUZ], the curator originally found my work somewhere and then learned that I was in Rome coincidentally, so it was nice to piece something together. With the Milan art fair that’s coming up later this month, the gallery applied knowing that I was in Rome but with no expectations. And when we got in, it’s like wow, that’s a really nice addition. It will be nice to travel to Milan and see it as a tourist but also to do work there. Also Pescara would probably be at the bottom of my list for places to visit as it’s a new town, it’s been bombed during war and all the architecture there is from the 70s, but when I visited I received a real sense of the Italian lifestyle – I was there hanging out with Italian artists, curators and architects, and just socially you experience a different totality.
Your award is nine months long; do you think that the knowledge that you’ll be here for that amount of time affects the way you work, given that you can plan ahead as to how you’re next going to use your time in Rome?
Yes, definitely, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad – taking things at a leisurely pace maybe. But I think because of the nine-month timeframe, I can keep my normal practice going which I don’t want to leave aside, but also absorb this new place. Nine months seems long but it isn’t actually. I can imagine that for the people here for three months, it might be almost like a teaser to Rome.
Is there anything else you would like to to say about the work coming up for the Mostra?
I am interested to see, because there is so many site specific works – Caroline and Morgan’s –putting together the show will be a very different process. In December, it was a case of bringing all the work to the gallery, swapping and changing and seeing how things fits together. This time we have two pieces that have to be in specific positions, and then everything else has to be coordinated according to these two works – which I think could make it simpler. It’ll be a good challenge again, because I have never worked in an exhibition with very big site-specific and trompe l’oeil work. The test is maybe how to install mine and Catherine’s paintings on canvas: when these pieces sit next to larger installations, paintings can become decorative touches or appear very introspective, so the challenge is to avoid that problem.
Vivien’s work will be exhibited alongside the five resident artists in the March Mostra; open 16.30-19.00, Saturday 18 March until Saturday 25 March 2017, closed Sundays.
Interview conducted by Ellie Johnson.