Amnesia And Memory No. 21 (2003) by Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang's light bulb moment

How does this bare bulb symbolise the father son relationship of one of China's most famous artists?

Memory, in its deepest sense, is a central theme in the Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang’s work; the inconsequential things that linger like the taste of Proust’s cake in Remembrance Of Things Past, things that take on an unlikely intensity in later years. Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu’s Disquieting Memories is the definitive and most exhaustive monograph to date on Zhang Xiaogang, whose work reflects his deeply felt personal experiences of growing up during the Cultural Revolution and its attendant repression and upheaval - his parents were taken away for three years during this period for “re-education”.

One of the key motifs in Xiaogang’s paintings of the early 21st century is a distinctive electric light bulb with an extension attached, which is the subject of 2003’s Amnesia And Memory No. 21 (2003). It recurs in two melancholic, interior studies, 2009’s Green Wall No. 1, a homage to a 1970 portrait by his mentor Lin Ling, and 2012’s My Mother, in which the artist is represented as a small, bespectacled boy sitting at the opposite end of a sofa from the drab, preoccupied figure of his mother.

The electric lightbulb hangs to the side of her. It was only years after he had first painted the bulb that Xiaogang had a flash of recognition as to its meaning. He recalled how his father had always been in the habit of plugging extension cords into light sockets. The bulb was an unconscious symbol of his father. 


Green Wall No 1 (2009) by Zhang Xiaogang
Green Wall No 1 (2009) by Zhang Xiaogang

For Xiaogang, memory is, as Walter Benjamin had it, a “theatre”, on which all of his work plays out, his themes of the relationship between the private and public, of family and history, solitude and love.

For greater insight into the life and work of this important Chinese contemporary artist check out our great new book Disquieting Memories here. And if you want to get a greater knowledge about the Chinese art scene, past and present, take a look at The Chinese Art Book while you're in the store.