Soft Borders: A cultural travel through fragmented memories.

Hello dear readers, as you may already know if you follow me on social media, I attended several art exhibitions during the last week of January at Alserkal Avenue. One that definitely caught my attention was the "Soft Borders" exhibit by the artist Vivien Zhang at Lawrie Shabibi art gallery. It felt amazing to travel alongside the artist and share her experiences and emotions by simply looking at her art pieces. Needless to say, I felt the urge to share with you my thoughts about this installation as well as the meaning behind each painting. Moreover, I was lucky enough to interview Ms. Zhang regarding her working process, her inspiration, and her viewpoint about ART. If you are interested in learning more on the subject than this article was made for you.

Under the Moon Bean by Vivien Zhang, 2019

Biography of Vivien Zhang:

Vivien Zhang, born in 1990 in Beijing, is a London-based artist who grew up in China, Kenya, and Thailand, she received her MA in Painting from the Royal College of Art (London) after completing her undergraduate at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL (London). Named on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list, and the recipient of the Abbey Award 2016–17 at the British School at Rome, Vivien Zhang’s works have been exhibited internationally in the Andrew Xue Collection (Singapore), Aspen Collection (UK), Star Museum (Shanghai), Swarovski Archive (Global), and White Rabbit Collection (Sydney) amongst others. Zhang’s recent exhibitions include Codescape (solo); Long March Space (Beijing); Echo Chamber (group); and Generation Y (group). When asked about her artistic revelation, Vivien Zhang said: " There wasn’t really a single turning point. I’ve always had this gut feeling that I’d make art and from an early age I was heavily encouraged. The endeavor became more real around the time I was applying for university. It became clear then that, although I was also pretty good at some other subjects, art is where I’d unequivocally devote more time and effort. So I told myself to pursue art before trying anything else"


About the exhibit:

Based on abstract paintings that play with fragments of memory from places and times lived by the artist, Soft Borders evoke opposing senses of both familiarity and strangeness reflecting Vivien Zhang dislocation experienced as a third‐culture citizen in foreign countries, and her regular involvement in a digital realm where time and place are navigated both physically and virtually. This constant polarity can be noted throughout each painting as a guideline from which the art pieces should be comprehended. Zhang’s paintings present a cultural and geographical fluidity that questions the multi-layered nature of contemporary culture which is sometimes referred to as "pop culture", and the challenges and paradoxes of our information age where ideas are constantly shared freely. "I am from Beijing and grew up in the city until I was ten. Inherently inbuilt in me are ways of viewing the world from a Chinese perspective, this is definitely evident in my work. For instance where I play with space in my work, one can sometimes notice the use of flat layers and a flattened, diffused perspective, much like how it is in traditional Chinese ink painting, where the illusion of depth and foreshortening are ignored. Some other influences are probably more subconscious. After leaving China at the age of ten, I spent my formative years in Kenya and Thailand moving with my mother’s job. These two places have influenced my work tremendously as well." said Vivien regarding her cultural influences. This constant interest from the artist lies in the collection and assembly of motifs from a variety of sources including ancient text, architecture, and science which compose a resourceful kit of inspiration. For instance, recurring figures in her works include “manicules” found in early European manuscripts, Solomonic pillars found in Baroque churches, and the mathematical shape Gömböc; combined together using bright colors and dynamic abstract forms that appear as accident on the canvas, suggesting both order and chaos that comes from interrupting memory and the visual experience of digital technology. The installation is made of eight new paintings that expand upon her investigations of the fluid and arbitrary nature of memory where boundaries do not exist.


Soft Borders by Vivien Zhang, 2020

Soft Borders:

A number of paintings return to her earlier works where the Central Asian kilim is used as the starting point of her craft. Zhang’s interest in the kilim is spurred by the fact that the names of kilims traditionally are not bounded by national or tribal borders, but rather according to wider locations and yet can be found all over the world and away from their original context. In the painting Soft Borders, 2020 the image of kilim firstly appears dominant, although, on closer inspection, only fragments of each pattern are materialized thus presenting the composition in a fragmented light, where each pyramid-like pattern alludes to an AI anatomical map devised by the AI Now Institute specifically the Sierpinski fractal. This raises the question of how much information is needed to represent something and what assumptions come with perception. Across the painting, Zhang inserts black and white drawings of mountains reminiscent of Chinese landscape paintings which actually alludes to mountain peeks tracing country borders where political conflict happened between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; North and South Korea; China and India; and finally Russia and the Crimea. This is Zhang’s most overtly political painting in the exhibition, alluding to geopolitical border conflicts that arise out of what are natural geological formations and the place of the global migrants and refugees crisis in this debate.


Spiral Columns (Paper Trails) by Vivien Zhang, 2020

Spiral Columns:

In the paintings, Red Venom, 2020 and Marble Messages, 2020, Zhang reintroduces the Solomonic or “spiral” columns first inserted in her works in 2017, which appear to emerge out of color-radiant and iridescent digital planes in those paintings. Originally engraved in Roman and English churches, as well as in numerous Baroque paintings, spirals columns came to Vivien Zhang’s attention when she spent one year living at the British School in Rome while visiting St. Peter’s cloister. Due to the artist’s own understanding in the insistence of forms and objects transcending time in eternal repetition, the recycling of elements like St. Peter’s cloister which had existed in the old basilica and are said to have been brought from Jerusalem via Greece strengthen her belief in the passage of architecture and its arrangements through world cultures appearing centuries later and continents apart. In my opinion, this also states of Ms. Zhang's close understanding of both art and architecture as a timeless means to convey unified ideologies through space.


Cultivar Bearer (Woven Portals) by Vivien Zhang, 2020

Cultivar Bearer:

In the large-scale painting Woven Portals, 2020 Zhang introduces images of the rose-apple that haphazardly bounce across the canvas. Native to South-East Asia, the fruit draws upon the artist’s personal memories of her time in Thailand and China. Painted against a backdrop of horizontal colors that are pixelated, the painting’s composition is a reminder of our digital world, appearing almost like a screenshot of a video game. Adding to the dynamic effect is a series of loops that recur in the kilim patterns and the arch which is a revered shape in architecture that dates back to 2000 BC but was perfected as an architectural structure by the Romans. The painting’s choice of images reflects the way in which our own memories work, bouncing from one recollection to another often by chance, as well as how images appear across our screens in ostensibly random ways.


Under the Moon Bean:

Cascading shapes also make their mark in Under the Moon Bean, 2019 which appears against the backdrop of a splintered red, green and white kilim-like pattern devised by the artist through ‘brace’ brackets from programming languages. The round shapes bring to mind grapes perhaps because of the images associated with kilims and feasts in ancient miniatures from Persia although their color and texture are more like the barren landscape of the moon. These round three-dimensional organic forms contrast with the flat digitized background creating two different kinds of space that reflect our own interface with the online world.



When asked to point out the meaning of Art, Vivien described Art as a logic, a way of thinking and a way of conduct. It is safe to say, Vivien Zhang’s paintings are games of visual hide-and-seek: in their abstract surfaces, you might find motifs and images from different times and places challenging you to take a closer look. Her practice deciphers memories of images and motifs that appear on her paintings as if by chance, conveying our disrupted world. Meticulously painted by hand, Zhang’s simulation of the painted image is a contradiction to production in a computerized world. In fact, her skill is in her use of the rudimentary material to create paintings that arouse the experience of our hyper-digital age, this installation is available from the 20th Jan 2020 until 5th March 2020. Personally, the first emotion I had while looking at each painting was confusion that I couldn't explain yet I was not able to take my eyes away from the paintings as if they triggered something in me which made me want to learn more about what I was looking at. The more I got to learn about each individual art pieces, I got to connect deeper with each shape, colors, brushstrokes, and symbols like a puzzle's pieces that were connecting and creating a bigger picture. Soft Borders definitely changed how I thought I should approach a painting and helped me trust the first emotion I have while looking at an art piece as part of a bigger plan from the artist's wills.


I hope you enjoyed this article and that you will take the time to go visit this amazing exhibit at Lawrie Shabibi. Moreover, if you are interested to read more of the interview I conducted with Vivien Zhang, head to my Instagram profile. Until next time, take care ♡

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