For more than two decades Chinese conceptual artist Zhao Rongjie has focused on incorporating new materials and distinctive elements into her Breathing series that articulate her personal growth and artistic evolution. When the pandemic swept across China in early 2020, Rongjie “cocooned” herself inside her studio-cabin and set to work on an immersive iteration of Breathing that realigned her relationship with the natural world. Despite restrictive lockdown measures, she spent two years with local mushroom hunters, conducting fieldwork in the mountains of southwest Yunnan and documenting rare fungus species that grow on the slopes of a sacred Buddhist mountain, Jizu Shan.
Finally, on May 14, 2022 Rongjie exhibited her work at Little’s 空间 (Art Space) in Chengdu, Sichuan. What follows are some of her reflections from opening night and a short video montage of the Breathing exhibition.
One Exhale, One Inhale（一呼一吸）
One Stillness, One Movement（一静一动）
One Yin, One Yang（一阴一阳）
Within the basic explanations of natural life in Daoist theory, duality exists inherently.
I consider myself very fortunate to have spent my childhood in the countryside. My mother was in poor health at that time, so my grandmother took care of me. I remember following older children into the mountains, climbing trees to fetch bird’s eggs, fishing in the river, stealing fruit from the orchard, growing vegetables and harvesting crops in the fields like adults. I moved to large industrial cities in northeast China throughout my school-aged years, before deciding to return to the countryside in my mid-twenties. I’m a product of concrete and soil. And I’ve tried to integrate that duality into the Breathing series to reflect the impact and contradictions of humanity’s relationship to Nature.
The first day of the exhibition was a great success. One visitor was moved to tears. I watched a four-year-old child examine each of my works closely, and afterwards he asked me questions about each one. His parents were shocked because their son had never reacted to art so seriously. I was moved by the resonance between my works and the audience. The power of the natural world and the visual impact of the works produced direct sensory stimulation without the need for textual annotations.
900 cocoon boxes and 900 mushroom spore prints shot in high-definition macro-photography were displayed on canvas to magnify the diversity of each species and draw the audience’s mind toward the subtle patterns and intimate cycles of the natural world.
At the entrance I placed a crystal ball wrapped in newspaper. Every visitor who entered the exhibition hall invariably noticed something curious about the headlines pasted on the crystal ball and asked a question. Through their interpretation of the crystal ball, I wanted each visitor to develop their personal connection between Breathing and the natural world. When they encounter the silkworm cocoons in boxes, I want them to feel isolation, to think about their home and communities, to sit with a profound sense of bondage and depression. Alternatively, when they move to the miraculous and exquisite mushroom spore prints, I want them to be overwhelmed by the microscopic, unseen world and by the role mycelia play in natural ecology.
The fundamental idea behind Breathing is that respect for Nature is respect for life. Throughout the process, I have felt the integration of my social values and my self-worth. The works emit what they want to express. There are no obstacles.
It is important to note that the Breathing exhibition was held at a time when the arts are suffering tremendously in China. Most galleries are still closed and public exhibitions are only now returning to the few that are open. Art industries have been coerced into creating political propaganda. Film scripts are subjected to strict political review in order to obtain shooting licenses. Musicians and stage performers are prohibited from publicly displaying their tattoos; they must now wear long-sleeved jackets or cover them with skin-toned tape. This is a dark era for artistic creation, one that necessitates the use of metaphorical expression.