interview/ qian ye art with zhang xiaodong 张晓栋

Zhang Xiaodong, image courtesy artist and his studio.

Zhang Xiaodong 张晓栋 (born 1981), pioneer of Qian Ye art (Thousand pages art) is a handmade book artist and an inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage of dragon scale binding. Some of the selected exhibitions include China Japan South Korea Book Binding Exhibition, Dragon Costume Seoul Design Square (2016, Seoul, South Korea), World Handmade Book Exhibition (2017, California, USA), first stop of the Waves-Art international tour, Venice Art Biennale (2019, Venice, Italy), Dunhuang Lotus Grottoes (2021, Nanjing, China). His work is part of the following collections:  Artron Art Center Shenzhen, King’s College London, Kingswood School, Crafts on Peel Foundation, and The National Library of China.    

The renowned Italian curator Vincenzo Sanfo reviewed his approach as, “…Zhao Xiaodong, goes beyond the simple technical data of paper cutting, using them as a pictorial medium and thus managing to create true works of art of intense and inspired beauty. At first glance, his works leaves one surprised and bewildered as they are not easily decipherable, whether they have elements of Tibetan and Buddhist culture as their subject or as, in my opinion, more pertinent abstract forms. In fact, I find that the abstract-informal side of him is a new, brilliant, and strong path with a great visual impact and above all with a great poetic-evocative force. Zhao Xiaodong like the great masters of the past manages, with his expressive language, to keep the tradition alive and thus, to enter into an existential union, with the silent poetry of the world…”.

VERA GAN: Dragon scale book binding is not yet familiar to a larger following. Only few members of audience are familiar with the once-forgotten technique. Could you briefly introduce it?

ZHANG XIAODONG: Dragon scale book binding, first made in the middle Tang dynasty, is one of the traditional book binding techniques in China. It is a transitory of book binding format from scroll to thread bound book.

To put it in another way, before the invention of dragon scale-bound book, the notion of pages was not manifested. 

The modern understanding of a book format was introduced after the birth of dragon scale-bound book.

The technique was described in ancient times as follows: on top of a long roll, the pages are stacked and pasted one by one with spacing. Together they conjure a look of dragon scales. While it can be rolled up like a scroll, as people open or unfurl the book, the edges of each page-namely each scale-slightly float and fly in the air with rhythm. There are two basic parts, one being the long roll of paper as the base and the other being the dragon-scale-like pages.

VG: Indeed, the book before was in a format of scroll. It is comparatively flat and the reader has the ability to check out everything at a glance. After dragon scale-bound book, the thickness grows and it is more three-dimensional. You can image a duplex in housing. Vertically the volumes increase.

ZX: Right. Just as transforming from a bungalow into a building of two or more stories.

VG: Could you share how you interest grew in this specific book binding format? It is often said that paper media is nowadays in a downfall. Compared to other artists who engage multi-media or new media, you instead walked into a rather ancient world.

ZX: It was around 2008 when digital book’s visibility increased as mobile network prevailed, while people were talking about whether digital book would take the place of paper book in the future, in Shanghai such discussion moved forward into the revolution of school textbook. Digital book seems a better option to store information and both searching and reading are easy.

I personally think the development in human history is fuelled by the desire to better fulfil our six senses–eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. Regardless digital or on paper, an object can be preserved in eternal once it naturally satisfies the six consciousness.

As a tangible object, book is a substance with material property. Binding technique among other manifests its material property. For example, no matter a scroll, bamboo slip, glue binding or thread binding book, its material or physical characteristic is clear and apparent.

It was then I started to feel the urge to explore my understanding of book from its physical form. After taking a deep dive into the book history, dragon scale binding came into my sight. It has a significant historical meaning, not only because of its place in the history of bookbinding, but also because it has marked a change of how people perceive a book.

Compared with a regular book we are familiar with, a dragon scales-bound book, as pages glued one by one with intervals, has a more complicated and diverse spatial demonstration. I found myself free to imagine outside the box with such binding format. Each page is a space for expression, for sure. Edges of each page in line up make up a new space. As rolled or unfurled, you can evidently see the magical change of this marginal space, hidden and appeared.

To me, dragon scale binding shall not be trapped and left over in the long-gone past. What it presents to the audiences is very modern and even futuristic taste. I started my study because I see the potential of dragon scale binding for carrying further my understanding and imagination of what a book can be.

VG: A tactile interest is more obvious and significant for dragon scales-bound book. Beyond merely reading, the beauty will at the greatest level be revealed when the publication is stirred, flipped, unfurled, or rolled by audiences.

ZX: We here in the world are to see, to hear, to taste, to smell what’s good, to sense the world with varied sensory systems and to take the feeling in. If a work, for instant the dragon scale-bound book, is able to engage with our sensory system comfortably, it is deserved to be documented for inspiration. The structure of the dragon scales-bound book suggests diverse ways of reading -that interaction is prone to change according to different readers, under different circumstance and even subject to different spaces where they are in.

VG: It seems to me that dragon scales-bound book, through a series of interaction mentioned above, is more likely to establish more intimate and personal relationship with readers. Do you see that also endue the book itself with an aura of being a piece of work beyond simply being a product?

Z: Product, for me, is the modern understanding of book under the backdrop of industrialisation; book to the ancients were a piece of work, right? Book is a piece of work containing the wisdom of technique, art, and literature. It is a materialisation of human civilisation, meanwhile is an excellent representation of what we people ultimately seek after spiritually along the history. Whether in the east or the west, one of the important collection for noble families is book, for them indicating the family’s intellectual pursuit.

Qian Ye series-Spring, 180x80cm, Custom rice paper, mineral pigment / 千页《春》80x80cm ,定制宣纸、矿物颜料. Courtesy Zhang Xiaodong and his studio.

VG: When your books unfurl, a complete image made through edges of several individual pages is revealed. Do you consider dragon scale binding an image-friendly format due to this feature? Would you ever balance the word and image or how is your selection determined between these two? How do you usually decide the theme and content for your works?

ZX: It is necessary to think from reader’s perspective. Image and picture stay primary in reading, text comes second.

A space made up by edges of all pages is what everyone first sees when unfurling the book. It self-evidently acquires to be filled with the most direct elements. Image would be the perfect option if available. It is eye-catching enough to persuade readers to further explore what’s behind, by turning over each page to read what’s inside.

In terms of the content and theme, whether the content is solid enough to stand against scrutiny is my foremost concern. I usually prefer classic content that has been reviewed over hundreds of years. The secondary concern is the inter-relationship between audiences and the piece of work. What they see at the first glance and what is the rest for them to further discover. All needs to be taken into consideration.

VG: When talked about the inspiration for Qian Ye (thousand pages) series, you mentioned the accident in Lhasa when the pages randomly curled up because of the relatively dry weather. It subsequently brought a rather new look for the work. Would you share your thoughts along the journey from the accident to later the new series of work?

ZX: A beautiful mistake, I would say. At that time, the China Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center brought my works to Potala Palace for exhibition. The pages were curled up because the weather in Lhasa and in Beijing are very different. It should have been a mistake. However, I noticed the audiences slightly touched and stirred those curled up pages, the Buddhist images revealed in a flash. A strong emotional bonding with the works appeared to them, bringing them an inexplicable but special spiritual strength. In a different way though, the exhibition still received rather good feedback. After I brought these works back to my studio in Beijing, I found out whoever came visit had done something similar to the works unknowingly. The question arose that what exactly sparkles such common actions. Are they something instinctive? It is worth to study and discuss how people instinctively react on certain spiritual needs and desire.

Two years later, an idea came to me out of the blue what if I cut off the curled part. What was hidden from the view before ideally should have been exposed again. But in real world, it is hard to cut out a strictly straight line with bare hands, most of them are twisted and curved, which are unexpectedly but surprisingly vivid and lively.

The curled – up pages in fact formed a tiny three-dimensional space, which turns cutting off paper edges into a space-carving like procedures. A flat surface in our eyes is an outcome of a compressed three-dimensional world. With that saying the paper edges cutting I have done in the Qian Ye series somehow introduces a middle ground, a 2.5-dimension space where I can freely create without limits.

VG: Except viewing from the standard front, viewers can possibly find more hidden beauty by observing from the other angles. Are you prone to purposely guiding audiences or do you support the naturally occurring viewing, choice of the audience?

ZX: Yes, people can view the work from different angles. Loads of possibilities are there for them to discover, and they could gain a richer visual experience when they venture outside the typical and standard viewing mode. But I don’t see it necessary to explicitly guide them. Audiences are already curious about the work, they approach and check out works from different angles or different perspectives in response to their curiosity, where findings are often marked by surprise and unpredictability. It makes me happy and grateful.

VG: Could you briefly introduce your recent practice and works?

ZX: At the end of last year, I finished my first stage experimental research on classic artworks, subjects including mural statues from the Mogao Grottoes, some Buddhist works in Potala Palace, and Fresco in Fahai Temple. After the new year, my interest shifted towards paintings from the Song dynasty. I hope to better shape and amplify the representational readability of my works. Like the recent work Metamorphosis(蝶变), a pure black based piece from the Qian Ye series presenting various changes with lighting.

I have done a few pure white pieces such as Dust Free(无尘) series, later also with added colour. The development throughout my artistic practice could be concluded as adding up and subtracting, drawing out and pouring in, in order to increase more and more personal touch for perception in every piece of work.

Qian Ye series-Wood of Words, 228.5x113cm, custom paper rice, mineral pigment / 千页《语林》,228.5x113cm,定制宣纸、矿物颜料. Courtesy of artist and his studio.

VG: I remember you had added light box behind some of your new works.

ZX: Yes, light is extremely important for the Qian Ye series. Space can only be generated with light. Qian Ye series draws attention to the invisible space which is formed by light – they only appear as light slips in from the interstices of pages. The subtle change in the tiny space between pages, produced by light, is also something important in my expression.

VG: Have you ever assumed how readers view, react to, and even understand your works? Is there anything you hope they can go away with?

ZX: I never predict any certain specific reaction. The work contains my feeling, thoughts, opinions, and reflections during the time of creating. Frankly speaking, it is hard to foresee in advance how much would the audiences receive and how they digest. I think it is a healthier communication that the audiences are not framed into certain way of perceiving. I personally look forward with the uncertain and unexpected surprise coming from the free interaction, which to me also extends the context of the work.

VG: Among all your works, do you have works you are personally particularly connected to? Is there any background story that can be shared?

ZX: All these years are like the metamorphosis, a journey of self-extracting and completing, a process of transforming into butterfly, back to pupa, and to butterfly again.

Back to the very beginning, it would be the dragon scale-bound Diamond Sutra in 32 styles of seal characters (三十二篆金刚经). It led me from the modern world to the past history to study everything I need. What I have learnt became a solid ground and a fundamental structure for later practices. Book, I believe a medium for human civilisation, stays forever. It is a space ship traveling in time and space and is the one containing all.

The second piece of work I want to mention is the dragon scale-bound A Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦). It is absolutely challenging, no matter the size, the time to produce, or the details to polish. It took me over four and half year to finish, the piece weighing at the end over 200kg. I once rented an over 3000m2 exhibition venue for the display of this piece of work, but if it is folded, it only takes less than 1m2.

Later would be the Qian Ye series. Including the Dust Free (无尘), Beyond Appearance (无相) and Not Black (非墨), Not White (非白) series, I explored what I previously said – the 2.5- dimensional space, to play with the lighting and explore the coming-after change in our eyes and perception. Especially the recent Metamorphosis (蝶变) and Awake the Blue from the Deep Lake (唤醒湖底的蓝) are, for me, a remarkable new start after 14 years of professional practices.

All of them urge and guide me to outreaching my limits, revealing and conveying a more real me to the world and my audiences, through the ongoing self – scrutiny and trimming.

VG: I believe everyone has similar feelings. Undoubtedly a great amount of effort is spent on every piece of work. A tiny error happens while gluing each page would cause an evident error at the end result, when the image no longer matches.

ZX: Indeed, it is a complicated and time-consuming work. But I think many good artworks require the artist to perform delicately for a relatively long time. For the reader, it may seem smooth to turn over 217 pages one by one. It is in fact exceptionally hard to finish the work without any single error. Mistake may occur any time amidst over 50 procedures. To be perfect, how long does the artist practice before and how good does he or she master the skill matters. You can picture walking on a blade. Neither leaning toward left or right is acceptable; only running in a very limited area, straight forward, can lead to where you want.

VG: Have you come across any extremely frustrated moments?

ZX: Surely, I did. It took me around two and half years to finish my first work, which was painful or even let’s say suffered. The process of making one piece of work is somehow like the journey of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang heading to the west for sutra, in the novel Journey to the West. The Buddhist sutras can only be obtained after 81 adventures are undergone. I can analogise all these difficulties during the creation to the steps for obtaining the Buddhist sutras; they are necessary for the final complete work and themselves become indispensable compositions of the work as well.

VG: Would you share with us your next plan?

ZX: I think artistic practice and creation is forever here in my rest of the time, a road sign to guide and encourage me. I found my life meaning within it. For exhibitions, there are still obstructions to realize them, for a we-all-know reason – the pandemic. I opened a solo exhibition this March in Art Shanghai Gallery. Back in 2019 when my exhibition was held in Venice, I was connected with the Director of the Central Archives of the State (Italy) who found my work exciting. He would like to establish a further exhibition plan inside the institution and probably other venues. Yet the global pandemic has suddenly stopped everything. I hope we all can move over it and therefore my exhibitions plan in Italy and Europe could possibly continue.

The interview was conducted by interviewer Vera Gan with grateful support of Skylar Yu.