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Zhou Jirong

An Essay:Tally Beck

Everyone who has come and gone intermittently to and from Beijing in the last ten years says the same thing: the city is virtually unrecognizable each time one returns. Chai () characters give way to rubble, the seeds of which sprout cranes and earthmovers. The machinery of construction is soon replaced by glass and steel towers, and the urban landscape is transformed.

It follows logically that Zhou Jirong’s style has changed radically along with the city he has so keenly observed. His vision of Beijing is personal, even intimate at times. He invites us to understand the city through his eyes. His silkscreen prints of Beijing street life that he began producing in 1987 are formally clean and frank. Their mood is elegiac with a hint of wistful melancholy. Singular human figures linger in hutongs, quietly drinking in the charming atmosphere as if for the last time. Architectural elements, such as doorways and facades, are isolated as ruins and superimposed onto murky backgrounds, creating a surreal effect.

Formally, Zhou Jirong’s Beijing series bears little resemblance to his current work, but, upon careful consideration, his surface treatment forecasts his style in this series. His use of contrasting tones and textures lent the old walls and buildings a distinctive inner life. In his current work, we can see his rendering of this energy in a more painterly style. He has undergone a radical change from the rigorous technique of printmaking to his more expressive use of mixed media. This shift has further imbued his work with luminescence.

The dynamic nature of Beijing merits artistic witness, and Zhou Jirong proves his ability to deliver a personal and penetrating vision of urban transitions. In the essay in this catalogue, Zou Yuejin deftly underscores this artist’s deeper, philosophical relevance. As the Chinese capital transforms itself with effects we have yet to understand, Zhou Jirong’s testimony will provide a captivating record and help us ponder what has been lost and what has been gained.

October, 2008


The Illusory Nature of Existence: On the Meaning of Zhou Jirong’s Fantastic City Series: Zou Yuejin

In a way, Zhou Jirong’s Fantastic City series of recent years lend themselves to many interpretations, but I am most willing to approach them from the perspective of his unfailing attention to the artistic logic of China’s modern urbanisation.

Industrial production defies the logic of ‘work-by-day-and-rest-by-night
Zou Yuejin

I believe that in the works that make up Fantastic City, Zhou Jirong is clearly not offering realistic depictions of urban forms shrouded in darkness or bathed in fog. Rather, they hint at those beautiful forms in which truth and fiction become difficult to distinguish. He considers this unprecedented form of the modern metropolis from the perspective of philosophy and particularly metaphysics, and in so doing, his voices call into question the foundations of modern urban existence. As I see it, this thought process is double-edged.

Viewed directly, Zhou Jirong’s Fantastic City series depicts vistas of the modern metropolis, the contrasts that form between the bright sky and the dark city, demonstrating how the artist handles the entire formal and conceptual register of the modern city. However, as any urban-dweller can tell you, a city is not a single entity, and in fact can only exist in the imagination, as no one is able to grasp it in its entirety, let alone understand its true meaning. In other words, in relation to the modern city, we can only work as Zhou Jirong depicts, seeing the full range of its external appearance and then imagining its completeness and boundaries. We have no way of observing its interior, its full meaning and essence. Zhou Jirong uses his Fantastic City to represent directly the beauty of the modern city while exposing the existential dilemma of the urbanite: this intense visual interest is accompanied by emptiness and illusion.

In another way, Zhou Jirong’s artistic exploration of modern urban life in Fantastic City is philosophical. There is a metaphysical manifestation that voices uncertainty about modern assumptions. This reflection and scepticism is Cartesian. We know that Descartes, as the representative of rationalist philosophy, worked through a process of scepticism toward everything and developed the maxim Cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’). He built a rational foundation for a philosophy centred on subjectivity. Although Zhou Jirong and Descartes both begin from doubt, they arrive at opposite conclusions. Descartes uses scepticism to reach a solid rational foundation for the world and the subject, while Zhou Jirong carries doubt about the foundations of modern urban existence to the limit, ultimately ending with a sweeping negation of metropolitan civilisation.

The urban form that has gradually developed on the foundations of the Industrial Revolution is no doubt a transcendence and subversion of the principles of nature. Industrial production defies the logic of ‘work-by-day-and-rest-by-night,’ forming a cultural foundation for the modern city. Automobiles and transportation networks transform the city into a giant, artificial organism. The counterintuitive essence of the modern city is perhaps for Zhou Jirong the route to its emptiness and illusion. For this reason, just like a mirage, it can disappear in an instant. Zhou Jirong’s Fantastic City can thus be seen as a way of using beautiful form to portend human fate.

Before Fantastic City, Zhou Jirong focused his expressive powers on the Beijing courtyard house, creating a range of works on the subject of Old Beijing. In these works, Zhou Jirong depicts this nearly extinct cityscape and the leisurely lives of old Beijingers as a way of expressing nostalgia about traditional Beijing as a giant village and its imminent disappearance. Perhaps it is precisely this sentiment that makes Zhou Jirong able to confront directly the illusion of modern urban civilisation. From the perspective of art history, the first artists to address the metropolis were the Impressionist painters, full of romantic visual musings about its sunlight and dynamicism. A century later, Zhou Jirong continues to explore a romantic visual language, but as an artist, he no longer imagines the city as the pinnacle of human civilisation or as a springboard for an optimistic vision of the future. It seems that this is the true meaning carried by the mystical urban spaces in Zhou Jirong’s Fantastic City.

Born in Xin'an, Guizhou
Graduated from the Printmaking Dept., Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Beijing
Vice Professor, Deputy Head of Printmaking Dept., CAFA

Solo Exhibitions


Uncertain Landscape – New Works by Zhou Jirong, Red Gate Gallery

Twilight City – Zhou Jirong New Works on Paper, Red Gate Gallery

Zhou Jirong Exhibition, LAFA
Zhou Jirong Print Exhibition, Belgrade Serbia
Zhou Jirong Print Exhibition, Cambridge, UK
Fantastic City, Red Gate Gallery

Landscape, Zhou Jirong Print Exhibition, Yun Gallery
Shadowland, Red Gate Gallery
Illusion, Red Gate Gallery
Mirage, Red Gate Gallery
Zhou Jirong, Red Gate Gallery
Time • Space • Memory – New Prints by Zhou Jirong, Red Gate Gallery
Art from the East, Salamanca University, Spain
Zhou Jirong, Concha Marquez Gallery, Madrid
The City: Between the Old and the New, Red Gate Gallery
CAFA Gallery, Beijing

Group Exhibitions


National Project for the Creation of Fine Art Works on Major Historical Themes

Two Generations – 20 Years of Chinese Contemporary Art 2012 Australian Tour: City of Sydney Chinese New Year; Manning Regional Gallery; Damien Minton Gallery; University of Newcastle Gallery; Melbourne International Fine Arts (MiFA); Linton & Kay, Perth
20 Years – Two Generations of Artists at Red Gate, Island6 Art Center, Shanghai
20 Years – Two Generations of Artists at Red Gate, Red Gate Gallery
Being here – Audio And Visual Experience – Works From the China Printmaking Workshop Alliance 2010, Guan Shanyue Art Museum, Shenzhen
First Contemporary China Engraving Academic Exhibition, Today Art Museum, Beijing
ReGroup: New Opportunities in a New Climate, Red Gate Gallery
Silk and Sand – Contemporary Printworks of China and Australia, New South Wales, Australia
Chinese Contemporary Printworks, Berlin
Art Olympic Games, Beijing
Red Gate Stars, Red Gate Gallery
Different Perspectives, Red Gate Gallery
2nd International Printworks Tour, Beijing, Korea, Canada, USA
11th International Printmaking Biennial 2006, Canada
To the Watchtower – Red Gate Gallery's 15th Anniversary, Red Gate Gallery
Constructed Winds, Dashanzi International Art Festival, 798 Art District, Beijing
1st Beijing International Art Biennale, National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), Beijing 
Beijing International Prints Biennale, Beijing
Calendar of Contemporary Printmaking, Philip Hayden Foundation Fundraiser, Red Gate Gallery

Golden Harvest, Zagreb, Croatia
Chinese Contemporary Art, Belgrade, Serbia
West, North, East, South – China, Oslo, Beijing
Square Studio, Guangdong Art Museum, Guangzhou
Century Spirit: 50 Chinese Contemporary Artists, Beijing
Clues to the Future – Red Gate Gallery’s 10th Anniversary, Red Gate Gallery
Eastern Wind, Norway
Eastern Art, Norway
China / Japan Prints Exchange, Japan
Macao International Prints, Macao
Qingdao International Prints, Qingdao
Square Studio, Shenzhen Art Museum
Art From China: Square Studio, Berlin
Through Art to See China Today, The Tree of Life, Qing Ping Gallery, Boston
Faces and Bodies of the Middle Kingdom, Galerie Otso, Espoo, Finland
Retake: A Selection Reviewing Red Gate Artists’ Signature Works, Red Gate Gallery
Square Studio, Beijing International Art Palace
Three Printmakers from CAFA, Red Gate Gallery
Faces and Bodies of the Middle Kingdom, Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic
China's Contemporary Printmaking, Portland Art Museum, USA
Research of Asian Printmaking, Hokkaido, Japan
Red Gate Gallery 5th Anniversary, Red Gate Gallery
Change – China Modern Art, Switzerland
New Art From China – Post '89, Marlborough Fine Art Gallery, London
Sino – Japanese Art, Hiroshima, Japan 
8th National Works of Excellence, NAMOC
20th Century – China, NAMOC
I Don't Want to Play Cards with Cezanne, Asia Pacific Museum, California, USA
Beijing – Taipei, Modern Print, CAFA
New Generation Art, NAMOC
23rd International Contemporary Art, Monaco
Young Mainland Printmakers, Taipei
7th National Fine Arts, NAMOC
3rd Asian Art Biennial, Bangladesh

China Modern Art, New York Modern Art Expo, New York
Beijing Print Biennial, NAMOC

The recent urbanisation in China has made cities like Beijing less particularly Chinese and more like any other international city - with all the associated environmental problems, upheavals of social order and overturning of traditional moral principles brought about by such progress. Driving around the ever-expanding city of Beijing, it is hard to recognise its unique characteristics. My relationship to the city has become blurry, hazy. It seems I have placed myself in a dream-world with no special features, no self, no sense of belonging … in a ficticious space....

Zhou Jirong



9 am - 5 pm Daily
Levels 1 & 4,
Dongbianmen Watchtower,
Dongcheng, Beijing
Beijing International Post Office
Box No. 9039,
Beijing, China 100600
(+86 10) 6525 1005
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