The Call of Utopia | Zong Ning (China)

Herzliya Museum Of Contemporary Art, Sep-Dec 2016

The installations of Zong Ning (b. 1984, Mongolia; lives and works in Beijing, China) combine painting, photography, and found objects, and in many cases performances, too. His works draw on Chinese culture yet also make reference to western influences. Zong Ning’s works often present conceptual pairs considered opposites by western culture, such as exterior and interior, micro and macro, chaos and order, or life and death; however, in Chinese culture, which regards Yin and Yang as inextricable parts of all things, they are seen as complementary opposites. According to this outlook, nothing is absolute, perfect or pure, and all is in constant flux. As it says in the Tao Te Ching, “One thing seems long by comparison with that which is, comparatively, short. One thing is high because another thing is low,”1 and “stillness in movement is the way of the Tao.”2 Such thinking finds diverse expressions in the artist’s work: he depicts wild exterior landscapes within the museum’s interior; attaches to huge paintings small-scale photos of them, a tangible demonstration of the belief that local, seemingly banal events resonate in the universe’s grandest events and vice versa; and the pond water which is part of the installation, symbolizing life and renewal, is set among images rendered in a dark palette conveying gloom and despair. Zong Ning accentuates the traditional Chinese outlook in order to offer scathing criticism of modern Chinese society and of the ways by which it deals with issues such as moving away from family values, class differences, contempt for human life, materialistic aspirations and a growing distance from nature. As he explained in a conversation with me, he uses harsh imagery to prod awake the viewer who is part of a materialistic society that neither seeks nor appreciates truths. “People only see what they are comfortable with,” he says. He uses a monochromatic palette and unprocessed raw materials to express his objection to seductive commercial art which, he says, “is not made with the heart.” Contrary to such art, his work aspires to simplicity that does not entice the viewer but rather reflects spiritual values like truth-seeking. Zong Ning quotes his father, who lived through the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and 1970s, who said to him, “Only scientists and artists are capable of telling the truth.” He has always cherished this assertion. The logs scattered across the gallery are an expression of this outlook. They are a Buddhist symbol of natural, unprocessed elements as containing the potential to be anything, contrary to processed wood (a table, for instance), which no longer holds such potential and is therefore closer to death. In Taoism, the wise person is often likened to an unprocessed log of wood, a brook of water, an insane person or a fool, all of which are regarded as close to the source of all things.

His nude figure images (portraying himself and others) express, in fact, an aspiration to find release from the hold of the physical body. In this context he quotes in our conversation the popular Chinese saying, “Forego your body to realize your dream.” In the face of the tensions prevalent in Chinese society between the Hans, who are the major ethnic group in the country, and the many minorities living alongside them, the artist presents figures without any status symbols or signs of social status. He himself is of Mongolian extraction (a minority in China, which conquered parts of Mongolia in the 1950s) and married to a Han woman.

The installation’s form resembles that of a traditional Chinese garden, enclosed by walls and featuring plants, rocks, and water. In this way, the artist invites us to experience the installation as part of a process of endless becoming both in the world around us and within ourselves – thereby rendering present another key element in Chinese philosophy: the notion of the “path” (in Chinese, Tao). The Taoist aspires to behave in ways that are in keeping with the Tao, informed by attention to its inner voice and awareness of it as part of the world; he seeks to be one with the path, constantly changing as he travels along it. “It is the nature of the Tao, that even though used continuously, it is replenished naturally, never being emptied, and never being over-filled” (Tao Te Ching). However, contrary to traditional Chinese gardens, which create an atmosphere of calm and harmony, this one is full of menacing motifs and provokes unease. Zong Ning’s work is informed, at one and the same time, by belief in the transformative power of art on the one hand and a dystopian view of reality characterized by fear and existential loneliness on the other. In this context, the artist quotes Milan Kundera, an author who has greatly influenced him, whose story The Joke describes how that which appears to be utopian paradise is revealed to be hell.3 On the one hand, Zong Ning’s garden includes expressions of harmony among people of all classes and ethnicities, between genders, and between humankind and nature. On the other hand, in keeping with the traditional view of complementary opposites, he renders this longing for harmony through harsh images, such as a huge spider web, a bare tree and crows – and finally, the sculptural object turning on its axis in the museum’s inner courtyard, portraying menacing, repulsive animals. All of the above, however, is accompanied by the image of the water pond on which photographs of the artist’s childhood are floating, an image associated with movement, change, and flow.


  1. ספר הדאו, תרגום: דן דאור ויואב אריאל (תל-אביב: עם עובד וחרגול, 2007), עמ’ 24.
  2. שם, עמ’ 26.
  3. Milan Kundera, “Author’s Preface,” The Joke, trans. Michael Henry Heim (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. xii
דזונג נינג - קולות האוטופיה מוזיאון הרצליה לאמנות עכשווית, ספטמבר-דצמבר 2016
דזונג נינג - קולות האוטופיה מוזיאון הרצליה לאמנות עכשווית, ספטמבר-דצמבר 2016
Skip to content