To the Film A Flower Does Not Talk
Among the various artistic technologies that Xiaopeng Zhou is trained in (he works in film, sculpture, different graphic techniques, and might have learned three or more new skills since we met last week), he is also an expert draughtsman with rigorous academic training from a Chinese art school, and is extremely experienced in putting his rich talent to use in reportage-like excursions into live drawing. In recent years, he has accompanied and drawn a Chinese cook at his workplace on a daily basis, and has witnessed and recorded preparations for events like the traditional sacrificial holiday Bairam in a Kurdish butcher shop in Berlin. He has also researched the origin and contemporary fate of limestone plates prominently used in lithography, traveling to quarries, museums, and archaeological institutions in different locations all over Europe—research that would then offer a background for his master’s thesis. These projects have helped him not only to improve his drawing technique, but also to enhance his tremendous observational skills. These skills allow him to transcend his undoubted technical expertise; they open doors to conceptual perspectives and mindsets most people would not expect in drawing, or drawn reportages.
For this project, Zhou has chosen drawings from a completely different situation. For over a year, he has been teaching drawing to someone whose artistic skills lie in the remote past, and it has been a source of both income and professional inspiration for him. Working in one or two weekly sessions of several hours with E.S., a lady in her early 80s, Zhou has now turned into a teacher as well as an observer, a reporting draughtsman, a conversationalist learning more German from his student than he knew before, and a dedicated and friendly companion. Depending on each day’s weather conditions and motivation, he and E.S. sit together either in her apartment or a public botanical garden. Both started making drawings of the same plants, widening or concentrating their attention for external circumstances and long-term and short-term memories—or for each other. Zhou’s drawings from that exchange form the bigger part of the exhibited works, because it is not his intention at all to expose E.S.’s renderings of plants and other objects to the critical eye of an anonymous art public. He is not trying to ask futile questions like whose drawings are more ‘artful’ or ‘accomplished,’ which of them should be considered ‘art’ or ‘non-art,’ or whether or not there is a visible ‘learning curve’ or ‘progress’ through the teacher/student set-up. He exposes his own perspective as the record of a long-term negotiation; a continuous re-shuffling of personal space, trust, and curiosity; a shared fight with boredom, forgetfulness, and superficiality.
While only three drawings by E.S. are exhibited here, Zhou shows a variety of his perspectives from this dynamic of working, learning, discussing, and playing together: one can see the same plants that his student has been facing for her own exercise, but they are rendered together with her portrait and other elements that add external reference to their artistic get-togethers. These elements can be pieces of furniture like a table, a chair, or a Persian rug, but also botanical labels detailing the scientific classification of each plant-object. Since Zhou often replaces surrounding architectures with a limitless, paper-white space, E.S.’s living room and the greenhouse seem to merge into each other, building a shared space for the two drawing persons, for their teaching/learning relationship, and for all the ‘third objects’—books with meticulously copied titles, all of which represent, to different degrees, lexicographic knowledge, botanical nomenclature, art history, biography, travel literature and poetry—the cultural stand-ins for E.S.’s past cultural life and for her social relations to her sons and friends. Those relations are part of the journals she has continued to write for decades. They include not least a memory of her late and beloved husband, who is said to have invited her to use her (unschooled) drawing skills as a recording technique to work on a catalogue or illustrated list describing the thousands of technical spare parts used in his own workplace—probably in order to have her closer to him during the daytime. During the time of Zhou’s lessons, those drawings finally resurfaced in E.S.’s belongings, and here they allow one to look back on older experiences of drawing.
The common space Zhou creates in his pictures confronts the academically-grown and institutionally-framed greenhouse plants, with their holding and supporting addenda, their possessively inscribed labels, their connectedness to semi-automatic survival tubes and instruments, the not-too-comfy benches one is allowed to sit on for some hours in this public wilderness. They sit alongside the private details that personalize E.S.’s apartment: a cordless telephone, a candle holder, shopping lists, clothes, a painting on the wall, a chandelier that hangs from the ceiling, candy, a sketchpad filled with biographical data of modern artists, fruit, vegetables, a COVID-19 mask, a teacup, golf balls, a magnifying glass, a teddy bear, a box of pencils, a box of cookies, a tree outside the window. These are presented with E.S.’s own drawings—plants and flowers, lists of words from narrowing recollections, a portrait of the teacher-friend, a sketch of a real cow and its prehistoric ancestor on a wall in Lascaux, fruits and doodles, stories and notes, her sadly missed old car. Zhou’s presentation of his own reportage drawings opens channels of artistic ‘influence’ that—with all the differences these two lives have—can run both ways. You can feel it.
Xiaopeng Zhou (*1985) is an artist, lives and works in Berlin. He received his MA in 2014 from the Kunsthochschule Weissensee, Berlin. He recently exhibited at KW Institute for Contemporary Art (Berlin), Kunsthaus Dresden and After the Butcher Gallery (Berlin) in 2021; HOW Art Museum (Shanghai) and Inside-Out Art Museum (Beijing) in 2020.
Clemens Krümmel (*1964) is an art historian, curator, and translator. He lives and works in Berlin. Kümmel was the editor of Texte zur Kunst from 2000 – 2006, and has worked at Merz Akademie, Stuttgart, and ETH, Zurich. He currently works at the Kunstraum of Leuphana University Lüneburg.