Geometric Nature

The artistic language of Ruyi’s work boils down to basic geometries such as squares, circles, triangles or rectangles. Her work is a combination of simple forms and intricate details, represented with single, paired or grouped shapes. Her personal perception is approached and extended in a rational and controlled working methodology, together with the logic presented in this structure. All the works exhibited, from paintings to small installations scattered around in the space, express subjective intentions to filter, edit or synthesize information gained from reality, which is also the result of a series of motivations including an escalated venting of emotions and controlled use of language.

Ruyi has created her unique style when constructing paintings with structural geometries. They are contradictory but at the same time, struggling to reduce the conflict, in order to correct the different existence of the background and the object. Her work is constructed by stacking multiple layers of planes, as dramatic as stage settings. The transparency in colors makes the overlaying possible. The usual dark background sets off the bright objects in the foreground, or in other cases, lighter background is used to bring out the darker collage-looking object as a way to present the relationship between front and back. Painting to Ruyi is more like an experiment to set up a stage. The palette is affected by the original color and pattern of the grid paper, losing the basic color contrast and showing as analogous colors. Her work is both microcosmic and meticulous, deserving close appreciation. Plants in still life style or their variations are metaphors that become the main content in the center of the images, constructing their own limited volumes in a quiet and almost weak way, with the crossing points on the structural lines and the heterostructures growing out of the lines structurally supporting the images. Her works appear plain and mild due to their limited sizes. Every single piece presents obvious locality, describing only a fragment and condensed to its essence. A series of paintings will undoubtedly connect all the units and elements, highlighting the continuity of connotation in all her works.

In Ruyi’s work all geometries express a sense of order, rationality and balance, highlighting structure & reasoning and also emphasizing omission. The contraction of space and shapes is her tool to transfer from nature to geometry. In the current contemporary Chinese art scene, discretion and rationality is not a common thing, thus there’s not a large body of work expressing these qualities, but that’s the differentiator and value of Ruyi’s exploration.

Ding Yi

Space As Still Life: Review on Zhang RuYi's Works

“We will all be disciplined by the world, yet we can choose the way how we are going to be disciplined.” - ZHANG Ruyi

ZHANG Ruyi's solo exhibition "Building Opposite Building" at Don Gallery has recently been concluded. The sculptures and site-specific exhibitions on show this time are grouded upon the artist's investigation of possible space throughout her paper-based practice over time, and then rely on an architectural perspective to further make up binary oppositions between buildings, pillars, doors and windows in the agency of house/domestic space. The artist puts her hand to transform typical forms and finite volumes of matters with the unflinching look and exquisite compression of still life.Installation view of ZHANG Ruyi's solo exhibition "Building Opposite Building" at Don Gallery (2016): As a sort of common material for building and decorating, ceramic tiles are often present to the washroom and the kitchen. Washroom is absolutely a private space which only belongs to a single person at a time, while kitchen is open, where more opportunities for communication and interaction can be evoked. By a generous laying of ceramic tiles integrated to some of the particular works in this exhibition, the artist calls attention to a nostalgic experience among the audience. However, its grid-shaped texture on the surface is vitally interrelated with the artist's graphic work in the early days. Greenhouse 5 (Mixed media on paper, 23×26cm, 2011): The foundation of constructing possible space in the artist's early graphic work is not the Western tradition of optical naturalism, but the planar structure of composition oriented to graphic symbols in Chinese landscape representation - taking diagonal lines from the sloping shoulders of a triangular motif of a mountain or a gabled roof in a direction perpendicular or parallel to the line of sight, to form parallelograms that can suggest recession in space. With the nature signified by the plant elements placed, cacti in the most cases, the "industrialized" landscape is produced.

In her recent practice, the artist mainly embraces concrete, an ordinary building material, as the predominant component of her sculptures and installations. As a rather typical kind of artifact in industrial society, the major constituent of concrete is cement, yet coming from sand, gravel and some other natural kinds. By the operation of transforming a natural kind into an artifact, the artist starts to question one's living existence in the material world, about how the external conditions of industrialization are brought together to have developed the orders of everyday. Hence, transformation is gradually becoming a primary part in the artist's authoring language, being applied in the reconciliation and entanglement between sculpture and architecture.Open or Close (Concrete, second-hand door and steel, dimensions variable), Superposition (Second-hand iron gate, dimensions variable), Building Opposite Building 1 (Concrete and iron wire, 19×10×15cm), “Mountain Sites: Views of Laoshan”, Sifang Art Museum, 2016: The artist draws inspiration from the local recycling station for construction waste in Nanjing and examines how the discarded materials for building and decorating are extruded and trussed up. A great quantity of second-hand wooden doors and iron gates are retrieved for derivative work, which are confined to the form of blocking and installed with the sophisticated linear expressions originating from her graphic work.

Yi-Fu Tuan declares that an artifact is an object made with skill, through knowledge and practice. As specialized tools, artifacts are often characterized as a certain kind of control in architectural scenarios, which can either push forward considerably desirable social ends, or stimulate thinking and promote self-consciousness. [1] Saying that concrete articulates a standard image for the institutionalization of formalism in brutalist architecture, the material in the artist's hands is rather free from such a status of fixation and contributes to a new narrative line, for the production of the homogeneous and self-exposing architectural entity - "social sculpture", whose mere purpose is to eliminate the awareness of segregation and specialization existing in the material world. When shaping architecture with the scale of sculpture, the artist has her sculpture landscaped with an architectural skin. In his short essay "Semiology and Urbanism" published in 1970, Roland Barthes reveals the problem of the discourse of the city whose language is nothing but a chain of metaphors functioning as its very erotic dimension. [2] The artist applies an iron wire to truss up a set of identical architectural volumes finished with a concrete pour to develop the vis-à-vis configurational and confrontational relations in-between, rendering "social sculpture" as an erotic object, which indicates the disqualification of building as architecture in the process of being disciplined as a given target for beholding with the discursive construction of Modernism. However, it is more important to realize that the behavioral intervention of "trussing" lay bare the conditions of subjectivity, substantiality and performativity in the settings of a Postmodern city.

Besides, as frequently recurring in this exhibition, cactus is a basic motif throughout the artist's various works. It is metaphorical to her own state of being. The root end of a cactus is fairly pliable, but its thorns are extremely strong. In her graphic work, the artist distorts and deforms the morphology of cacti on the well-arranged lines and grids, having them combined with different geometric forms to further develop the spatial scenes of mountains and other various lands. While for sculpture and installation, cacti no longer offer clues for the processing of a painterly language, yet conducting a dialogue between the natural kinds as ready made and the artifacts. The artist programs certain living existence for a cactus within the cracks of a set of artifacts, or directly transforms it into an artifact by means of casting, with pouring concrete. The intense passion for the motif and the material embodied in the artist's practice sometimes comes and sometimes goes, which is indeed her own way of communicating with the external world. By offering a truce with the objective reality through transformation, she gently introduces the repression and panic one is taking in the industrial age.

Yuan Jiawei

Ran Dian|Narrator's Room

Five years have passed by since the Don Gallery moved to the Blackstone Apartments at 1331 Middle Fuxing Road. The stone building façade has darkened over the years, as have the floor tiles, with the patterns fading away. Across the street, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall has been built from scratch, increasingly becoming a popular destination. The gallery is located on the second floor, in an apartment. Except for the bathroom, the entire place is filled with natural light, with windows open in every room. The gallery interior is painted all-white, with a hardwood floor and the original moldings, antique and elegant. As a space adapted for gallery presentation, it seems to be an archetypical white-box. However, in some way, the spatial arrangement of each exhibition is constrained by the original floor plan of the apartment.


Surprisingly, the latest exhibition at Don Gallery breaks away from the limitations imposed by the space. In the original floor plan, upon arriving, one immediately enters an open, bright living room. With this exhibition, one is instead confronted by a wall, floor to ceiling, facing the entrance. It is covered with white tiles cut into small square shapes. This kind of tile is commonly used on exterior walls of concrete buildings from the 80s and 90s in China. At the top, a tiny gap is left between the wall and the ceiling. Because of that, when I open the door and enter the space, it feels like entering an outdoor space as opposed to an indoor one. The reversed sense of interior and exterior, as well as the white colour and chilled-feel concrete, continues throughout the exhibition. Supposedly one walks into a room, but indeed it is more like entering an alienated space; for instance, the recurring image of a cactus, which is a typical tropical plant, seems to be the sign of disorder in this space.


Zhang Ruyi has a profound preoccupation with the drawing of cacti on graph paper. It might require an obsessive personality for an artist to paint on densely-gridded paper in order to compose a multilayered two-dimensional work that resembles the quality of still life. In university, Zhang first studied printmaking, later on switching to mixed-media. She told me, “Printmaking is a highly logical, repetitive process.” This is not only reflected in her paintings, but also in the arrangement of the site for this exhibition (making the space clean and neat by stacking the bricks tight and straight, so that the grids on the concrete walls or concrete components are perfectly aligned, must be a time and patience consuming process, which probably involves some insult by the plasterers.) Ding Yi, a well-respected artist from Shanghai who has been making abstract paintings using crosses and grids since the late 1980s, observes that Zhang’s practice follows the principle of a rational balance. He comments, “The proposition of rigor and rationality is not a common trait shared among the practices of Chinese contemporary art. Consequently, it is rare to see such works. Perhaps this is the very meaning and value of [Zhang’s] persistence.”


Then again, it depends on how one defines rationality. Can simply using geometric elements and adopting the rules of order and repetition be seen as rational? (Or do these aspects become so literal that they no longer need to be identified in terms of form or ways of working, such as how the notion of grid is associated with Agnes Martin or Mondrian?) If rationality is an attitude toward life that is built upon rigorous, logical judgment, standing inside the exhibition at Don Gallery, I sense a trace of narration under the appearance of rationality, extensive and continuous, floating in the grids emerging in the white and excessive open spaces. It is akin to the narrator’s indifferent voice parallel to the shots of mundane and repetitive daily life in the movie The Seventh Continent (1989) by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, one of Zhang’s favourite directors. If narration is to provide the scenes in film or drama with a voice, the emptiness inside the exhibition space is the narration of silence, also a way of generating spatial musicality.


Zhang Ruyi is a Shanghai girl, part of the Post-80s generation. Her reference to concrete buildings and white tiles reminds me of some early works by Su Chang (another Don Gallery artist who is also a Shanghai local and belongs to the same generation) especially, his lifelike models of miniature buildings. This specific aesthetic sensitivity, derived from the experience of the 80s and 90s or one should say, the loss of aesthetic sensitivity in exchange for building designs that privilege practical functions and standardization is represented in Su’s ultra-realistic sculptures. It constitutes a scale of imbalance, reminding us to re-visit the obsolete urban spaces that are at once familiar, but soon to be demolished. At Zhang’s exhibition site, the image of the building is both figurative and highly abstract, like the lines and the void in her paintings, dividing the tensions in the space.


Turning around from the entrance and moving to the right, leading into the second room, one encounters a concrete door, standing in the center of the door frame, perpendicular to the original one. Unless someone is exceptionally skinny, in order to enter this darker room, one has to walk sideways on either side of the door. In Zhang Ruyi’s eyes, concrete is a kind of material, many of its components coming from nature and nowadays widely used in “construction”, to fabricate social “sculptures”. It acts as a giant still life, connecting different senses of time and embracing the “softness” of the individual parts.


More radical than the reconfiguration of the living room, this door within the door further explores motifs found in her earlier works, “Things that I don't understand” (2011) and “CUT | OFF” (2014). With the former, by using concrete, Zhang blocked most of the doors and windows in an apartment in the Hongkou District; with the latter, she used concrete blocks to fill the volume occupied by the windows and doors. What the two pieces shared in common are the acts of blocking, occupying, and resisting pathways, windows, or doors as a way to re-configure a space, and the bodily conditions and perception of a space. In the second room, the confusion of interior and exterior continues: a public sink made of concrete, like the type we used to find in the lanes of Shikumen housing, is hung on the wall at a familiar height. It is not connected to a water pipe, instead, is filled to around half full with a lighter-coloured concrete that is already solidified. In front of the bay window (a form reminds one of the triptych of Medieval religious painting), there stands a waist-high plinth covered with small square tiles, on which there is a medium size fish tank. The fish tank another element to add to the assemble of concrete, white tile, and cactus is filled with water, at the bottom of which two concrete building models are facing one another, along with three dark coloured scavenger fish living in the condition of Slow Still. The spectator is given a living spectacle, a common view derived from mundane life. But when looking at the buildings in the water, one is hit by an inexplicable sense of suffocation. In Andrea Arnold’s film Fish Tank (2009), the latter becomes the metaphor of the young female protagonist trying to break out of a stifling reality. The metaphor’s universal imagery shifts the pace of the exhibition. Silence is now suspended, leaving the white lighting fixture in the tank to reverberate with the fluorescent tubes on the ceiling. 


In the last room, there is one square column standing alone, covered with small square white tiles, although the top part is left untouched. Natural light floods in through the window on the left, in juxtaposition with the fluorescent tubes circling on the ceiling, persistently lit. Once again, the notions of interior and exterior are reversed, impeccably extending the sense of tension that penetrates the exhibition. At this point, I am confident to say that this is not the kind of exhibition that can be easily captured in reproduction. Rather it can only be experienced in situ. By reconfiguring the space, the site and the work are integrated and transformed into one entity, a mirrored reality of Zhang’s spatial paintings, or a three-dimensional mirror that confuses one with things seemingly ordinary but heterogeneous in substance. Her way of spatial intervention is to address the spatial dimension of the in-situ “sculptures” as objects, a contrast between object and space.


The gestures of measured comfort, bright darkness, and monochromatic chilliness control the emotions that in turn become enthusiastic and expressive. Similar to the question of whether to term the material cement or concrete, what unfolds in the construct of this spatial experience is a confrontation between substantial homogeneity and perceptive heterogeneity. The works are all fabricated into one common site constructed by the array of gestures mentioned above. The opposite building is in fact the opposite side, is the side, is you, is a variety of details of reality illustrated by material and space, is the excessive or insufficient light, is the line or grid, is a site of silence that no long exists in the Don Gallery, but in a place provoking you to be curious and to question. Then, visually, the grid composed by the white tiles are starting to detach from their physical body (the concrete wall or components), extending and superimposing onto the surfaces surrounding it. It seems that everything can be measured by this, or even designed by it. In this moment, the window in Don Gallery becomes another element not to be missed. I couldn’t help but lean against it and look out comparing the chilly grid with Shanghai’s chilly fall weather, and connecting the lightweight sense of time constructed by the heaviness of concrete and the inflection of the space with the memories witnessed by the Blackstone Apartment and the hundreds of high rises in the area (mostly, these are made of concrete as well). As Zhang Ruyi titled this body of work Slow Still, perhaps it is for us to experience the speed and manipulation of time attributed to the stillness.

Gu Ling

Flash Art|Zhang RuYi: Building Opposite Building

Zhang Ruyi’s “Building Opposite Building” is the artist’s second solo exhibition at the Dong Gallery in Shanghai after the “Cut | Off” in 2014. The apartment exhibition space seems more intimate than ever, so much so that a visitor would recognize the space as the artist’s everyday dwelling: seemingly, the gallery is not an apartment-cum-gallery, but is indeed a site that is private and to the artist herself, hence the works almost naturally take up functions and roles in the space. The soap made of concrete (Soap, 2016) placed low in the first room signifies a possible “initiation ritual” - hand washing; the cactus clutched by two concrete slabs (Potted Plants, 2016) seems natural and intrinsic to the space; the fish tank in which lives a common place and some large concrete boards (Cleaning, 2016) is where the everyday life is “lively touch” required by an apartment life; the hose-less sink that is filled with ceramic tiles (Reflection, 2016) is to be used by the dwellers now and then; the extension cords made of concrete (Connection, 2016, and Electric Boat, 2016) and the structural Pillar (2016) that seemingly strengthens the space - one simply cannot do without these in his or her home. The site that used to belong to the realm of the every day and the private goes back to it.

However, if we were to forcefully relate this body of recent artworks by the artist to - instead of a certain artistic tradition - a modern life, we are to see that these are available for and only for a life that is non-modern, non-everyday. Useless soap, waterless sink, displeasing fish tank, powerless extension cords - together, these mean that there is a life to be maintained, a everyday setup that is at once accommodating and is to be appreciated. A definition of ready-made art: everyday objects that are to be included into the realm of art, to be rendered useless; but this is further strengthened by the intimacy between Zhang’s works and the site. As a whole, “Building Opposite Building” arranges a life that goes beyond the dichotomy between art and life. The political significance of the exhibition: it is either that the life has completely finished dealing with the problems of Capitalism of all forms, or that this life knows nothing about it. It is a life that is comparable with the worship of the concrete and the cement - both in a false manner promise “longevity”. But how modern is the religion of the concrete! It used to mean cheap yet firm hope towards future life, but the life the artist is demonstrating here - the form of which demonstration reminds one of the great Kitchen Debate, an attempt to directly define biopolitics via the personal, private space - needs no hope. This life is grey and inorganic. Confronting us is either the figure of the Goddess as described by Zhuang Zi, or a grey barbie doll that does not have organs.

Overall use of ceramic tiles on the apartment walls further amplifies the privateness of the space, and, like a web, manifestly frames the individual works. By largely and repeatedly covering the walls and surfaces with ceramic tiles, the works themselves are, literally, “domesticated”. Although the tiles do not distract the visitor, one can easily imagine that without the tiles that are forming the background of the works (although in Reflection or Pillar the ceramic tiles are part of the “object,” and are not part of the “background,” one still can argue that the tiles themselves are indeed the element that is framing, instead of an element that is framed. In other words, we are still speaking of internal frames here: internal frames as creating an illusion of exactly the lack of frames, the lack of the exteriority-interiority dichotomy. One might even have to imagine that it is the apartment that is in the works, but not the other way around) the works would be become brutal, even would become (perhaps unconsciously) directly brutalist. In this sense, the ceramic tiles change the gender of the works, cover, distort or subvert the movements of insertion, erection and breakthroughs. Eventually, the Peep that speaks of visibility, tangibility, privacy and climax becomes something else. The relation between the space and the still-life as other critics of the exhibition noted is of urgency and pertinence, but to me the “Building Opposite Building” resembles a portrait of a strange female figure.


Li Bowen

ArtReview Asia|The Alienation of Everyday Life

The concrete uncanny in the sculpture and installations of a young Chinese artist tap into contemporary sensations of isolation, alienation and urban dysfunction.

“You’ve really enjoyed playing with the space in Don Gallery,” I sug- gest. I’m waiting for the water to boil to make co ee in the only two cups in Zhang Ruyi’s new studio. Don Gallery is on the second floor of Blackstone Apartments, an eclectic 1924 residential building located in the heart of Shanghai’s former French Concession. The space retains its domestic configuration and the exhibitions are housed in what was formerly the living room, two smaller rooms and the corridor that connects them all. Last November, these spaces were home to Zhang’s solo exhibition Building Opposite Building.

Zhang did not take these spaces as a given. Indeed, she blocked both entrances to one room: one in its entirety, using a cement door featuring a peephole through which people could observe the spines of a cactus, a persistent presence in her two- and three-dimensional works indicating strength, perseverance and a feeling of pain; the other divided into two narrow interspaces by a pair of cement doors, bound face to face with a cactus between them and jammed side- ways into the centre of the doorway. Visitors could still enter the room through the spaces left either side, but it was a commitment – removing any bags should they be too big, taking o any heavy over- coats and, if necessary, holding one’s breath and exercising one’s stomach muscles to resize one’s belly...

Two years previously, Zhang had conducted a similar assault on the space. For her solo exhibition Cut|O , the artist blocked one of the doors with a massive cuboid form (which went, wall-like, from one space through to the next) and all the windows with cement. The arrival of these huge, cold, wet- and industrial-smelling blocks within the apartment gave the impression of an alien presence and trans- formed the art space into the psychological space of a mysterious and closed-o individual; it was subtle and quiet, and every connection to the outer world, or society at large, appeared severed. Visitors were invited to observe and investigate the reality of this world on the prem- ise of a closure of communications.

A child of the 1980s, Zhang Ruyi was born and bred, and is based, in Shanghai. Her training at the Fine Art School of Shanghai University includes printmaking and plastic art using synthetic materials, which explains her persistent passion for organised, process-based repro- duction in her art. This, together with her interest in representing the psychology of space, drew her to sculpture. Yet for all that this seems like a logical progression, it was Zhang’s drawings that first brought her to the attention of a wider art audience.

Her signature works in this genre are drawn in pencil and water- colour on squared graph-paper and often take a cactus (represented in a three-dimensional space) as their subject. The works on paper are calm, minutely detailed and vivid; between the small, cold, math- ematical squares of the grid and the pencil lines you can almost feel the tingling sensation brought about by contact with the cactus spines. Although these works are warmly received by the art market, Zhang’s focus remains primarily on three-dimensional, space-based works or interventions.

Back to her most recent exhibition: there was one work that was particularly interesting, for the way in which it linked the artist’s two- and three-dimensional practice. Titled Potted Plants (2016), the work consists of a two-dimensional plane constructed of ceramic tiles fixed to a wall (as if to materialise the squared paper that serves as the base for her drawings), onto which, on the lefthand side, is bolted a plastic pot containing a tall, straight cactus. The plant is then sandwiched between two miniature concrete models of a residential towerblock, bound to it by string. Many works in this show, for example Slow Still and Pillar (both 2016), use the same pattern to place or bind two or multiple miniature cement models of a building or of an architec- tural or interior detail together, face to face. In this way Zhang builds up a conversation between the equal component parts of each work, but any real possibility for communication is questioned – because in each example, the front side (or the outward face) of all the compo- nents is covered.

Another standout work from the show is Cleaning (2016). Here, Zhang puts the cement miniature building parts in a fishtank (lit by a fluorescent tube and the natural light within the space), together with some common pleco, a tropical fish that likes to eat the algae that grows on the sculpture. Thus, the work has produced, on the one hand, a self-contained ecosystem and, on the other, a stage for a long- lasting, nonstop performance. The sculpture, if the term can be used to refer to this work as a whole, is not only the stage for the perfor- mance but also a performer within it.

In understanding Zhang’s art, the two Chinese characters that make up the word zhuāng xiū can be seen as a key. It means to install, construct, decorate and/or repair. Zhang belongs to what is called the post-80s generation (generally born during the first half of the 1980s), who have witnessed China’s rapid economic development since their childhood, and for whom the experience and imaginary of construc- tion, relocation, demolition, renovation and decoration have become a daily experience of their lives and formed an important part of their visual and mental memories. It is these collective memories and social meanings, particularly of interior construction using materials such as electronic plugs and sockets, ceramic tiles and prefabricated doors, that have become an important vocabulary in Zhang’s art. Cement, sometimes used by Zhang as a construction material (particularly in Cut|O ), is also a material for sculpture, reproducing ordinary build- ings in miniature, or lifesize parts of buildings and everyday objects: doors, sockets, a bath soap (introducing the existence of the human body and adding a sense of intimacy). In the woods surrounding the Cass Sculpture Foundation, in West Sussex, England, Zhang’s Pause (2016) introduces the artist’s reflection on the circumstances of mod- ern life and its environment by installing cement plug-sockets in the trees and on the ground at Goodwood’s New Barn Hill.

Zhang Ruyi is one of those artists who refuses simply to quote feminist discourse in their work.However, the repeated presence of certain items in her works, such as the cactus and its prickly spines, the closed (instead of open) or dysfunctional doors, the blocked entries or windows, the sometimes half-used Safeguard bath soap, is revealing, metaphorically, of the artist’s individual feelings or sensations in the context of society: pain, strength, repression, frustration at a lack of communication, expensiveness, a sense of hyperconsumerism. These feelings of course are part of human nature as a whole, but the sensi- tive and enduring character of her works suggests that the way that Zhang perceives and expresses them is distinctly feminine.

And while these types of features could already be found in Zhang’s early works, in her recent practice, the expression of a unique individual has turned towards a description of a universal status. When I try to understand Zhang’s persistent interest in human feelings and their expression in physical space, I find, via the list of artists from which she takes inspiration – among them Doris Salcedo, Rachel Whiteread, Rebecca Horn and Ann Hamilton – a context that consists of female artists who have been exploring the similar fields through material and space-based works. When compared to these older artists, Zhang’s methodology includes reproduction, repetition and an interest in the fabrication process, in which human participa- tion is naturally hidden or di use. For that reason, a sense of the un- canny caused by the compression of the individual and the built world is finally revealed. 

Aimee Lin

Art World|Zhang Ruyi: Room Is Witness

Distant rooms, frozen shapes, evenly distributed grids, standardized visual style. It’s very easy to label Zhang Ruyi’s work as prudent and calm. She calls it her visual value, behind which there lies rational search in pure formality as well as sensitive response to the meaning of space and structure on the spiritual level. Repetition, extrusion, order and social attribute, the relationship of people and life, like ever flowing water and floating dust, is paused in the space, frozen into hard shapes. Physical response is molded into a habit by the shell of the room. Zhang Ruyi loves working with rooms, where sceneries, views, actions, touches, labors and choices, all the ideas and memories of the artist, owner, audience and visitors become silent and traceless. The room is the only witness. 

Art World: 

Where is your studio at the moment? When did you start to use it? Do you spend most of your time there?

Zhang Ruyi:

I moved into my current studio in 2016. Technically, it’s my first. It’s located in a residential neighborhood in Shanghai, not close to any art district. My previous work place was combined with my apartment, only 10 sq and change. The studio provides a place for me to create, observe and think, to develop my works in progress or start some creative possibilities. But I don’t stay in the studio everyday when I’m in Shanghai. 

Art World: 

You studied print-making in college and majored in mixed media in grad school. What makes you shift your interest to space and media?

Zhang Ruyi:

I think the interest in space and media has always been there. There’s no sudden shift. The process of print making involves repetition, order, tracing and multiple media, which influenced my way of observing and working. It was further enhanced in grad school. My instructor gave me plenty of freedom to create, which was important and precious. 

Art World: 

You seem to use a lot of doors, windows, walls, bricks, sockets and everyday items in your work. Sometimes they are recreated with concrete. Sometimes the actual item. Does the inspiration come from your long time life experience or temporary observation of the space where you create your work? Do you have any special observation methods or focus point?

Zhang Ruyi:

I think it’s both. Maybe experience takes a bit more. There are many sources of experience. How I grew up, what I became interested in, as well as inspirations from movies and music. For example, I’m a fan of Austrian director Michael Haneke, especially The Seventh Continent, which he wrote and directed himself. The story is about a well-off middle class family, who, facing unchanging daily life and reality, can only numbly react. In the end, life itself becomes the killer of this family, but life will never be trialed, will it? The whole movie doesn’t have a lot of dialogues. The change of people’s emotion and their encounters are told through the lens and items framed. I’m very conscious about the self-awareness and emotional change of individuals in their reality and material life. I tend to use the inner pull among people, people and things, people and spaces (especially living spaces), people and nature when they guide and entangle each other, to hide emotions behind objects and let the objects motivate everything. 

Art World: 

Both your projects, “The Things That I Don’t Understand” in 2011 and “Building Opposite Building” in November 2016 at Don Gallery, involve massive transformation of the spaces. I think the sense of physical reaction in your work is more powerful than, or at least as important as, visual sense. In a seemingly standard room, by changing the position of corridors and objects, featuring minor items such as wires and sockets, you bring forward the tension among our physical reaction, daily habits and standardized environment. How do you think of the ratio or relationship between physical sense and visual sense in your work?

Zhang Ruyi:

The pure physical elements are not a priority when I work. I don’t pay much attention to the physical body itself. But the change of material and interference of the space do result in, more or less, some sort of viewing experience. The visual sense is important during the presentation of the artwork. You have to see it first. Then read it. These two exhibitions share the same spirit. The first one was more direct, out of oneself and the uneasiness and hesitation to reality, taking the doors and windows as a start point, using building and industrial material, concrete to cut off, representing resistance and helplessness. Between “The Things That I Don’t Understand” and “Building Opposite Building”, I also had two other exhibitions “Cut | Off” and “Gap”, exploring the sense of volume in greater scale and the limitation of human emotions. “Buildings Opposite Buildings” presents not only the transformation to doors and windows, but a sadness flowing under the good wills, by tying up different buildings face to face. All from this exhibition were elements collected in real life, which are then consolidated and transformed. They seem to have a connection to us physically, but not really. 

Art World: 

“The Things That I Don’t Understand” was established in the home of a Shanghai family, where you sealed the windows and doors with wood planks and concrete. You even did the construction yourself. On top of that, you had concrete balls all over the floor, making it hard to walk around. What prompted you to create and exhibit in a residential space? What does the title mean?

Zhang Ruyi:

The title “The Things That I Don’t Understand” came from a song by Lo Ta-yu. The lyrics is about the mixed feeling of irony and helplessness when an individual is faced with the relationship between man and reality, which happened to resonate with my confusion. A friend rented that place for some event. I was invited to the set and decided to use the house itself as my raw material, which was an idea I had had for quite a while, only I didn’t get a chance to realized it till then. It took me about a week from prep to construction, including two days and a full night to construct and seal the windows and doors. All done by just my friend and myself. The works on the floor were completed at the art studio at Shanghai University. Visitors can walk through the front yard to the room. The moving of people and rolling of the concrete balls interact and interfere each other. Visitors were able to walk barefooted in the house because it was in summer, causing the occasional contact of rough heavy concrete and human skin. On the other wall, there were two sketches of plants made of concrete that I was unable to carry out back then. Seeking conversion in contradiction has been my interest all along. I had used concrete before “The Things That I Don’t Understand”. In my earlier work “Cardiac Needles”, I turned soft gauze into hard cold medical syringe. A conversion, where the syringes ended up injected into a concrete wall, stripping away vital sign representations and leaving behind absurd recollection of the “treatment”.

To me, concrete is a hybrid, not only because of its color or texture, but its ingredients as well. It is a mixture of powdered minerals, widely used as an important industrial building material. The entities they turn into has slowly become the still lives of modern civilizations, housing the softest and toughest parts of us. I value the energy of concrete as a material, as well as its connection to reality and its environment. 

Art World: 

Do you enjoy this kind of hands on working experience? And why? Is there any similarity between these labor work like construction workers and those creative work with clear artistic intentions, such as painting? Did you make the concrete plants later?

Zhang Ruyi:

I believe as an artist, you are in full creating and working mode all the time. It doesn’t make much difference to me which media I use because my 2-dimentional works are not about painting language. The repetitive lines, spaces, sense of order and plants (cactus) that are stiff as still life are all part of my expressive framework. The only difference with different media may lie in the execution. I’m only dealing with myself when working on 2D pieces, however I need to work with many different people for installation. The concrete plant series has been going on for a while. The mass of individual items isn’t too big. I’m focusing mainly on cactus. There’s a big contrast between their thorns on the outside and the softness on the inside. The slow transition between the two is also what attracts me, corresponding to the contrast and intersection of my life.

Art World: 

How long did you spend to set up “Buildings Opposite Buildings”, your individual exhibition at Don Gallery? Did you make any changes to your scheme?

Zhang Ruyi:

It took me 10 days to set up the exhibition, a big portion of which needed to be made on set and required quite some time. The scheme didn’t change much after the rendering was confirmed. It was the concept that took more thought and effort for this exhibition. A lot of people started to know me from my 2-dimentional works and didn’t know much about my earlier installation and spatial projects. A lot of conditions need to be met when working on an installation. If not, an idea remains an idea. The experience of exhibiting “Cut | Off” in 2014, “Gap”, a project set up in a veggie market on Anshun Road in Shanghai, 3 pieces at Sifang Art Museum’s “Mountain Sites: Views of Laoshan” in 2016 and the outdoor sculptures for CASS Sculpture Foundation, and creating in different locations and spaces has really inspired me. I hope “Buildings Opposite Buildings” will be able to represent a summary of my past and present my ideas to the fullest extent. 

Art World: 

Some of the sculptures of this exhibition were ordered and made from sculpting studios. Comparing it to working with your own hands, which do you prefer? Does delegation, letting some worker to build it, and approval by the artist seem to remove the emotional temperature in the product, making the object more ordinary, day-to-day and standardized. 

Zhang Ruyi:

I think it’s hard to tell which ones are made at the studio and which by myself. They are both methods to bring the concept to life. Let alone my preference between the two. Some part of the project is hard for me to make and has to be done at a studio. I won’t say the studio-made parts lacks the temperature brought along by workmanship. It all depends on what the piece is trying to say and the final result, not the efficiency or preference in the manufacturing. 

Art World: 

How do you think of personal studios, creative sets and exhibition spaces? Are the boundaries unclear? Do they overlap? If they are different, what are the criteria to distinguish them? 

Zhang Ruyi:

A common understanding is they are three steps from internal to external during artistic creation. Sometimes the line is fuzzy. Sometimes they overlap. It really depends. Usually, the studio and working set are more private. From the creator’s point of view, they overlap, in terms of thoughts and concepts, but not in reality and space. If you want to understand an artist’s state at work, you need to communicate with the artist and visit his or her studio. There’s no absolute standard as to at which stage, from studio to the exhibition, the product is complete. As long as the artist thinks it’s done, it’s done. 

Art World: 

Have you ever considered making a documentary to record the process when you work on these space transformation projects and including the documentary as part of the exhibition? If there is a documentary, will it drive the audience’s attention to the artist’s performance rather than the final state of the space?

Zhang Ruyi:

I haven’t done any documentaries and I don’t think I will. I’d feel uncomfortable to have someone follow me around with a camera. I have taken a few photos when I worked to record some interesting process, but they won’t be exhibited. I’m not a performing artist.

Art World: 

Is it not easy to find a proper space, say your future works still tend to focus on working with integrate spaces? Will you consider travelling to look for spaces or residence in strange places? What was your latest residence project like?

Zhang Ruyi:

Yes, indeed. It’s not like you can find whatever space you wish for. In my experience, it’s usually the spaces found me rather than I found them. Artistic creation takes a little bit luck and destiny. An exotic place will have its own culture which brings surprises to residence projects that you never expected. But I’d still observe and dig into people’s state in everyday life, as I did in my latest residence project in Glenfiddich distillery, Scotland. It’s a peaceful place, surrounded in mountains. However, the natural tranquility was not the theme of my work. The rocks, trees and wind there only belongs to that place. They only show in that environment and cannot be brought away by anyone. I was more interested in the people there. I went to the supermarket a lot, trying to seek possibilities in people’s day-to-day life. 

Art World: 

What’s the relationship between your 2-dimentional work and your spatial and installation projects? Do you see painting as virtual spatial studies? Is it more of a spiritual activity to think about spaces and shapes and record with paintings, or is it more of a repetitive labor to fill a period of time of your life?

Zhang Ruyi:

I wasn’t paying attention to painting language. There are overlaps between painting and installations. Both are collected, refined and summarized from real life, a conversation with ourselves with repetition. My way of work is pretty intuitive, paying attention to practice. Social reality elements also started to show in my works in the recent years. Compared to my earlier methods, which were more direct in reflecting personal feelings and material transformation, now I try to reconcile with conflicts in my works.  

Art World: 

In your 3-dimentional works, you keep your color palette of the spaces to an industrial and collective architectural tone with florescent white and concrete grey. However, your 2-dimentional works have a much colorful and richer palette. What’s your intention behind that?

Zhang Ruyi:

The materials carry their own texture. I didn’t deliberately plan it. Other than daylight for outdoor pieces, almost all my exhibitions are presented in the same lighting. In my paintings, I use repetitive lines to create spaces and calm-looking plants. The color palette wasn’t a priority. Blocks of colors formed from unplanned repetitive lines was not what I worked for. Shapes and spaces were always my concentration. 

Wu Yun

“Profile” Basel HongKong Art Fair | Discovery

“Profile” is a way of accepting the limited conditions of a room or any interior space, and overcoming them to make a drama of artifacts that re-engages with the lived environment and reconnects art with architecture. Zhang Ruyi had already grappled with the genre in her solo exhibition “Building Opposite Building” (2016) and extended it to various institutional contexts as significant in “The New Normal” (2017) at Ullens Center of Contemporary Art, Beijing, and “Walking On The Fade Out Lines” (2018) at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai. Coined with the idea of “decoration” in the vein, the decorative elements in “Profile” allude to the rational perfection of an industrial landscape and the precise formulation of a man-made nature, possessing the social property of cultivation that constitutes sufficient common ground between them to allow the recognition of a style by the artist as a constant gardener in the city.

“What and Where,” A door, typical for a Shanghai apartment, stands on end, sectioned into two parts with a zigzag crack in-between embodying the interpenetration of the interior and the exterior.

“No Light Here—6,” The painting shows the sophisticated texture formed by the superimposition of regular hand-drawn lines and other geometric motifs, the individual dots controlled by the gridding system.

“Only Now,” A piece of crushed demolition debris is tiled again with cactus thorns implanted onto its surface. The concrete lump coming from the transformation of the city and the cactus thorns resemble the nature as the mountains and the plants. The sculpture is in juxtaposition with the floor drain found in one’s shower cubicle. It means to be a dialogue between the public and the private. It includes the floorscape by the ceramic tiles and drain.

“Individual Plant- 1,” A dysmorphic cacti made out of concrete is situated on a tiled pedestal, petrified as a plant specimen. The sculpture is carrying forward the artist’s thinking upon natural objects being disciplined by the environment in her early paper works.

Don Gallery


coming soon


The Poetics of Remnants

In 2017, artist Zhang Ruyi began deconstructing and reconstructing "renovations" as a human behavior through a series of exhibitions based on a set of key words. The so-called "renovation" refers to a set of construction and design schemes carried out in a certain area and within a certain scope, including plumbing, electric construction, walls, floors, ceilings, and scenery. They aim to reshape a space according to certain design concepts and aesthetic rules. However, Zhang Ruyi's "Decoration" series is not so much a counterproposal to the standard definition of "renovation," but rather a discussion of its concealed and excluded side. Through the creation and adjustment of specific situations, the often ignored and invisible "dark matter" is allowed to resurface, prompting the viewer to face the dislocated objects and thus critically reflect on "renovation." 

"Decoration: Building Debris" is the fifth independent chapter in Zhang Ruyi's Decoration series. Building debris refers to the waste, such as spoil, silt, and other leftover materials, produced in the process of construction and renovation. The word “construction waste” already expresses human value judgment, considering it to be a meaningless leftover that needs to be discarded and destroyed. However, these "remnants" do not disappear from the world just because humans want them to. On the contrary, they exist in the real world as the mirror image of architecture, and thus form a powerful force that — together with architecture — shape the reality of time and space. Confronted with the reality we live in, we must examine this phenomenon from a non-anthropocentric standpoint. The neutral expression of "Building Debris" highlights the non-anthropocentric position of the artist in this series. 

Located in a residential building in the center of Shanghai, the artwork retains its remnant state and shows various traces of demolition. The broken wooden floor, stained walls, and coarse columns all form a rough and complex spatial language upheld by the "remnants." Zhang Ruyi does not simply transform the space at her will, but invites the "remnants" to form a dialogue and to collide with other entities in the space, adding layers to the force field of relations. 

In this work, Zhang Ruyi placed four speakers next to the four existing columns in the center of the room, which play audio she had recorded from various interior and exterior renovation sites, such as hammering, drilling, and cutting. These sounds rise and fall, forming a sound matrix by blending with each other, and thus constituting a powerful entity. Under the windowsill in one corner of the space stands the external unit of an air conditioner. The slow rotation of its fan contrasts with the "accent" of the soundscape. In addition, nearly all the windows in the room are covered with cheap plywood panels commonly used in the demolition of buildings. Each window unit only retains a tiny slit that compresses the view of the external space. 

Rather than simply arranging and manipulating these physical entities, Zhang Ruyi presents herself as being one of them — feeling, experiencing, and grasping their unique language and force. She then engages in a dialogue with these entities in her own way to form some kind of fundamental interdependence. The existence of each entity not only changes the nature of this space, but also the nature of each entity itself, thus creating a benign order that reasonably coexists in space and time. Returning to these entities, we find that these exiled "remnants" always haunt us, like our cyclic and uneventful lives. They remind us, in their own way, that they are a presence that cannot be ignored. It is only by leaving behind the anthropocentric mindset and experiencing the force of these entities from their standpoint for us to understand that although they live an ordinary and lonely existence in our surroundings, they are also worth our attention. Once we treat them appropriately, they can play their role without reservation. 

Living in balance with these "remnants" is an unseen poetry. This kind of benign order has no pretensions, no unilateral power that suppresses or excludes, but has become a reasonable part of everyday life. Zhang Ruyi takes the standpoint of these "remnants" as a starting point for her exploration, and to a certain extent, she shows the benign order that is usually hidden under the bizarre appearance of life and our ever-expanding social desires. It can be said that this exhibition is her perception and summoning of the hidden "poetics of remnants". 

Lin Ye

Flowing Water Rinsing Gravel

Since the 1990s, China has been undergoing a dramatic change in its urban landscape - old urban constructions have been blasted into ashes while the modern skylines rising up. As an artist born in the mid-1980s, Zhang Ruyi has been an individual growing up under the "China speed" of modernisation. Her art practice attempts to reproduce and discuss the process of urban construction and demolition in the complex relationship between individuals and environment, as well as the society. By mediating different relationships between structures and three-dimensional creations, ready-made objects and construction waste, the artist creates sculptural installations with vocabularies full of contradictions, to present the circumstances of an individual living in the context of modern urban city.

In “Modern Fossils”, Zhang deliberately adjusts the entrance and divides the entire space into two viewing parts. Entering the space, a withered cactus is placed in the small niche on the wall which is set slightly above average eye level. This cactus sits neatly and solemnly in a cupcake holder moulded out of cement. The work Dessert (2021) could be seen as the featuring work of the exhibition - a reminder that the whole exhibition will revolve around the growth of individuals and the construction of artificial space.

Upon entering the exhibition space, the orange grid of computational paper printed on the wall stands out among the monochromatic sculptures. These grids were extracted from Zhang's printmaking practice at university and have been used extensively in her numerous graphic works. Later, the grids has evolved into a part of her sculpture and the way she deals with space. For example, in the collage series Desolation of Memories (2021-2022) which are placed on the floor, the artist folds the tin foil into tiny squares and unfolds them. Its cheap metallic reflections and handmade mesh marks set the tone of two pieces, which became a space for still life residency. 

The printed cactus pattern and the various collage materials are flattened randomly under the glass, revealing an artificial, cheap and fettered sense of urgency. In terms of physical experience, the situation of living beings inhabiting in a homogeneous framework is a direct alluding to a generation of Chinese urban citizens - In the early days of New China's construction, buildings were built in batches to improve the living conditions of the vast number of industrial workers in the cities, using cheap construction materials and simple structures that could be replicated. Its design language is deeply influenced by the Bauhaus philosophy, which emphasises functionality and replicability, while undermining aesthetics and the living experience. It can be said that the grid, as a visual and living experience, was literally present in the perceptions of those who lived through modern socialism and thus became an ideological signifier. For instance, Günther Förg, who grew up in East Germany, expressed the strong social order with his photography and grid paintings about architecture. Today in China, this homogeneous order no longer appears as the same lifestyle for all, but reappears in the strict grid management under the emergency state. The grid, as the omnipresent background of Zhang's work, suggests the presence of this oppressive order.

In the field of contradictions created by Zhang Ruyi, what is equally powerful with the force of extrusion is the vitality that confronts it. In Modern Fossil (Pipe) - 1 (2021), cement cactus embedded in the gap of the cement-moulded PVC pipe, as the endorsement of life, spurts out in the extrusion of the pipe, showing strong vitality and unrestricted beauty. Furthermore, the artist extends the growth and fluidity of the organic body to almost everything. The pipes, which carry the flow of daily excreta, appear as a gurgling undercurrent in the quiet exhibition site, becoming a manifestation of the invisible. Daily Accessory (2021) continues this extruded and bundled relationship - the cement-moulded cupcake holders are stacked up like Roman columns standing on top of the rubble founded from the construction site. A steel bar is inserted in the middle of the column, its twisted posture assuming a wild force compared to the ready-made wooden slats on the side. It is worth noting that there is a clear dependency between the works and the space: for example, the works Desolation of Memories (2021-2022) is placed on the platforms of the building, making the surface of the work into a new skin growing out of the ground; Daily Accessory (2021) is a step-formed installation work placed on the original steps of the building, breaking down the solid structure of the building. These site-specific installations reconstruct the original order and function of the space through their own powerful vitality.

Such a practice can be traced back to her work Potted Plant (2016), in which she tied the facade of two concrete apartment buildings together with wire. A fresh cactus is in the middle, growing upward under the pressure of the hard concrete. Its relationship between objects is a discussion against Arte Povera - it does not rely on the tension of fresh vegetables to maintain the form of the sculpture, as Giovanni Anselmo did in Untitled (Sculpture That Eats), 1968, but rather provides the cactus with a plot of soil to keep life growing. The form of the sculpture is not established as a reminder of the vanish of vitality, but rather as a demonstration of the symbiosis between individual life and artificial objects.

In the vein of sculpture history, female artists have often been confined to their individual experience (either physical or spiritual), but has long been excluded (or deliberately ignored) from the discussion of public issues. In fact, they have sought to enter the public sphere and broaden the scope and depth of their discussion: for example, sculptures created by Isa Genzken around architecture shows new perspectives on city, nature and materials; Phyllida Barlow's giant sculptures made from discarded materials entered the discussions and introspection on the mechanisms of social production-destruction-reconstruction. Zhang choses the signifiers (such as grids, cactus and concrete) that have the potential to shift between hard and soft. In terms of production method, she uses handcraft skills such as twisting and binding, presenting an interactive relationship of beauty and tension, revealing a uniquely feminine sensuality. But at the same time, she intervenes in the development of the modern city around her, with a direct perspective that is associated with the society, continuously following and recording the emotions and perceptions of living. It can be said that Zhang's work attempts to transcend the limits of female participation in the discussion of social issues, and to provide a more equal perspective on the imagination of public space in a time of constant urban renewal. This non-anthropocentric imagine of social forms provides an entry point to the discussion of the city and architecture from a general feminism perspective. The city, as a spatial representation of social order, can be seen as a companion to the construction of a social order. Government, urban planners and architects build our existing urban environment from the top down, while nail householders and vendor stalls become objects to be removed like weeds in a carefully planned landscape garden. Within the patriarchal framework of the city, the plants that rising out of the wall in Zhang's work represent the power of individuals to reshape the space from the bottom up. The artist proposes an openness of infinite possibilities in her works - plants struggling to grow in the ubiquitous grid, are calling out to each viewer with a strong sense of emotion in life experience in order to explore and create a more organic form of social organization together.


“All Overgrown by Cunning Moss”

It is hard not to noticethe growing vitality of plants within Zhang Ruyi's exhibitions over the past five years. Inher various works, cactus of all types try to infiltrate through creviceslike peephole, drain covers, pipes and niches. Their energyresonatewith the “susuwatari” (wandering soots)thatinhabit human homes in Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Emily Dickinson's 'cunning moss’, as well asthe roaring junipers in Cyprien Gaillard's Nightlife (2015). In Zhang Ruyi's recent exhibition “Modern Fossil” (2022), upon entering the door, an air-dried cactus is displayed on a niche, shaped like sea urchins and held by a cake cup that moulded out of cement (Dessert, 2021). And there is a sculptural chimera at calf height called Modern Fossil (Pipe)-1 (2021). The texture of concrete unifies the three elements: the snake-like water pipe has a Euphorbia venenificaon one side and a Echinopsis tubiflora on the other, entwined together. Carrying the function of loading water, this peculiar sculpture suggests that 80% of the water in the succulent can be exchanged through a sewage pipe linking the two ends of the cactus.  

One body has two sides, so does Zhang Ruyi's work itself. One of the aspects which has been repeatedly mentioned is architectural, yet on the other hand, the aspect of interspecies entanglement is relatively rarely explored in depth. Let's start with the first aspect. Since her first solo exhibition, “Things I Cannot Understand” (2011), she has made the attempt to use exhibition as a medium, and experimented her artistic practice by transforming the displaying space. Sleepwalking about the Space (2021) in this exhibition is one of the examples, in which she usesconcrete to fillsthe hollow of a second-hand wooden door, including the round hole of the lock cylinder, and seals the board with mosaictiles. 

Zhang really enjoys the process of “playing with space”. A friend who has visited her solo exhibition named “Cut | Off” (2014) described to me that the interior transformation reminded him of the experience of looking for a beam in the aisle in his apartment to install a fitness equipment- it has to fit the wall perfectly and flip over the whole space at the same time. When it comes to the architectural aspect, people often focus on how she evokes the subtle emotions of the living space. Some critics have called this nostalgia for a particular everyday space and time. But on closer examination, the originsof nostalgia is ambiguous: was it the eviction campaign in the city of Beijing and Shanghai in the 1990s, or the cityscape renovations triggered by the Shanghai World Expo and the Beijing Olympics in the 2000s, or perhaps the 2017 “beautification project” in Beijing, and the illegal blockade of private accommodation in Shanghai? For me, these Schrödinger’s spacetimes are no more than superficial associations on the level of reproduction, inadvertently reflecting the treacherous sense of time in Chinese cities. To get to the heart of the work, it should be more than the traces of decoration itself.    

My first personal memory of Zhang Ruyi's work was from “Building Opposite Building” (2016) at Blackstone Apartments at the time, particularly the cabinet of curiosity made from an aquarium.The aquarium comes with its own LED lights, responding to the blocked glass windows and artificial light in the exhibition hall like a matryoshka doll. The artist added water into it, raised fish and immersed theconcrete-casted sculpture in the form of a building in this artificial environment. From an ecological point of view, the "environment" is within us, nothing is external to us.The aquarium is both a pedestal for the sculpture and an implication of the environment in which the sculpture lives.In fact, we only have to briefly trace the history of the glass aquarium to illustrate its nature as an environmental building. The prototype of the aquarium was derived from theWardian case. In the 1830s, Londoners, who were suffered from air pollution, experimented with glass enclosures to provide confined space for plants in their backyard gardens, in order to separate them from smog and accidentally kept the plants alive. The artist continued to use the same material to create a series of works based on the artificial environment, including Submerged Landscape (2019) and Dim Light Box (2020),etc., which reveal the importance of the topic of “architecture produces nature”. While the historical trail of biological breeding equipment, which represents the achievements of domesticated plants and animals, reflects the artist's understanding of this. 

Let's enter the other side of Janus. Zhang Ruyi's early works included a series of paintings of cactus. In those days, the thorny cactus was more of a symbolic presence. The artist sees it as a projection of herself, in an autobiographical and hermeneutic sense. In the recent years, her works has begun to focus more on other aspects of plants than aesthetics, and on the interaction between plants and other industrial materials. 

In Zhang Ruyi's solo exhibition “Modern Fossil” (2022), two collage works Desolation of Memories 1 and 2 (2021-2022) are placed flat on the floor, exploring the vertical dimension of depth from the horizontal downwards. In these two works, the cactus images printedonto the tinfoil are somewhat like rock paintingattached with silver foil. Other materials including different kinds of copper wire mesh, net bag like the one that you use for holding gingers, and sandpaper- are pressed in layers under sheets of a glass panel, forming irregular grids of varied forms. In the artist’s description, these two works are more or less similar to a childhood writing desk, where even crumpled sugar paper patterns were pressed under the glass panel in order to preserve cherished images. When unfolded, extremely complicated texture of fractal topology were inadvertently created. 

In the case of Desolation of Memories(2021), the focus of presenting the girlish moment of the glass-pressed document is not on the emotional texture itself. Rather, it is a retrospective realisation: this is the earliest archival production technique one can use, and different geological layers emerge depending on the degree of patience of this archivist. And it is in these documentary geological layers that different things overlap with each other, suggesting the intertwined forms of life. 

When I arrived at Zhang's studio, which is located in a reformed factory building, I saw a variety of succulent life flourishing in the room, with moulds of columnar cacti scattered aside. Compared to the various forms in which the greenery lives and dies in her studio, the "Modern Fossil" gives a very different impression. Cactus spines are sewn onto a translucent film, like some kind of dry embossing techniques. And DailyAccessories(2021) in the centre of the exhibition space seems like the ground of a dry swimming pool, while the only real plant in the space is nearly dead. Such a contrast reminds me of director Tsai Ming-liang, who likes to stir up life with water. When encountering massive water restrictions in Taipei, his filming strategy suddenly changed: when Chen Shiang-chyi dines in the restaurant, the restaurant does not offer the dailysoupand coffee;  Lee Kang-Sheng goes to the toilet no water to flush, while the camera looks up to capture the blazing sun.  Looking back at the "Modern Fossil”, the concrete-moulded succulents and sewage pipes are the only juicy object in the exhibition. Just like Tsai Ming-liang's cinematography, the water cycle is documented in its absence. 

In the course of more than a decade of artistic practice, significant changes have taken place in her works’ characteristics during this long and imperceptible period, just like the plant. The cactus in the studio is no longer a simple object depicted by the artist, but a companion species that occurs in the artist's life. The plants are placed in the exhibition "Modern Fossil” as well as the artist's studio, one withers and the other thrives. I feel that it is the artistic vocabulary lurking beneath the surface of the water that is far more complex and interesting than the architectural / botanical duality. To paraphrase a statement from The Art of Living on a Damaged Planet (2017), Zhang deals with “form, texture, colour, a process of constant speculation as pattern” ; “Centuries of grafting, cultivation, trade, taxation, and disease are inscribed onto their structure and shape.” These succulents, petrified by Zhang Ruyi, are still growing in their forms and appear to be taking the artist further afield.

Chen Xian

Like Shards

Mo Wanli (below represented by M): Let's start with the title of the exhibition, "Modern Fossil". Why doyou use the term "modern" instead of "contemporary", which is a more emphatic attribute for this present moment? 

Zhang Ruyi (below represented by Z): I chose "modern”intuitively. Perhaps this is because I am not concerned with a certain historical period, but the change of the individual existence and emotion within the framework of modern life. There is always a subtle ambivalence between individuals and reality, a competitive relationship between the reconcilable and the irreconcilable. I try to express this hidden relationship through the object, material, and visual language, condensing the indescribable abstract emotions into a landscape/still life work.

Fossils are matters precipitated over time, and this is the perspective from which I understand the relationship between "modern" and "fossil". All the matters in an era have an interplay of contradiction - reconciliation - resistance - absorption with human beings. In this process, the immaterial emotional experience generated by individuals is evidenced by its residue.

M: In terms of the exhibition, "modern" is indeed a more appropriate phrase. The expression of "contemporary" asa historical period is closely related to the massive city renovation movement since the 1990s, and your works seemparticularly restrained than those of that era, while sharing the common theme of the "ruins". How do you understand "ruins"?

Z: I grew up in a different environment from the artists of that era, so as the massage that I absorbed, digested, filtered, and presented. Artists at that timemaintained a rather direct attitudein the stimulation of external factors and social reforms. For us who live in an era of greater density in material and information, we have to face the suppression caused by this density. The individual is a condensed reflection of his/her times. My practice as a reflection and feedback changes with it as well. I am more concerned with the alienation in the proximity, a cyclical repetition of wanting to escape but constantly being restricted. Therefore, my practice mainly explores the connections and layers between people, materials, and space, while dispatching the infusion of individual emotions into the material space in a restrained way.  

For me, "ruins" is not only empty remains but an inclusion (construction) and disintegration (demolition), a place where the more enduring "invisible space” exists. It is not the end, but the beginning that "lures" me to go deeper. I have tried to "describe" the "shards" of urban life in conjunction with industrial systems, which are as small and sharp as if they were permeated in the skin of the city. In fact, the power cycle hidden in the architecture (the form of the era), as well as the garbage (the leftovers), are planted in the city all around.

M: The process of ruination exposes the "interior" of the domestic environment to the "exterior" of the city, while your practice places them back to the "domestic" again. How do you understand this relationship between "interior" and "exterior"?

Z: The transformation of "interior" and "exterior" has always been hidden in my works, sometimes even unknowingly. The occasion of the exhibition "Walking on theFade Out Lines" (Rockbund ArtMuseum, 2018) was the first time I realised this characteristic of "dislocation of inside and outside" when discussing with the curator, as if the city could be folded and compressed into the space through the transformation of intermediate media such as gravel, tiles, and peepholes.In retrospect, the two exhibitions before 2016, "Things that I Don’t Understand" (Muskmelon Man Commune,2011) and "Cut | Off" (Don Gallery, 2014), focused on the "domestic" and self-expression.The installation work Superposition(2014) exhibited in “Mountain Sites: Views of Laoshan” (Sifang Art Museum, 2016) might be the first time that the desire leaked out of the “domestic" environment.In this work, I have collected iron gates with different patterns and arranged them in a stack. By highlighting the linearity of its patterns and the sides of its frame, Idissolved their original defensive function and turn them into moving and shiftinglines.If the “door" is a metaphor for the desire to get out of the “domestic”, then in my subsequent solo exhibition “Building Opposite Building” (Don Gallery, 2016), I forced two concrete models of buildings facing each other, tied them with wire and hung them on a tiled surface. When the building of the “outside” is squeezed and shrunk, the tiles, decorations, and daily matters of the “inside” arethen confronted, enlarged, and extended. The "dislocation of inside and outside" thus naturally emerges, and awakens the connection between the individual and reality by alternating and transforming creative approaches. The "decoration" series, which began in 2017, goes further toward the “outer" part of the city. I am inspired by the fragility and violence implied by these material forms, such as building debrisor twisted steel. They have thus “rightfully” became my language and acquired their role as “modernfossils”.

M: In this way, “modernfossil” can be understood as an “internalising” process of urban ruins. Can you elaborate on how this concept is presented in this exhibition?

Z: You have mentioned Wu Hung's A Story of Ruins, and I was impressed by the book's commentary on the film Spring in a Small Town. The subtle relationship of the characters within the ruins, and the emotional changes that life brings to the individual, are repeatedly wandering on the boundaries of the wall. The “building debris" also reveals subtle emotions and becomes a reflection of the past, through the remaining traces of steel or brick. As Jacques Derrida once said, "presence" is always corrupted by the past and the future, but its core is precise “absence”. The works in this exhibition, Dessert (2021), Desolation of Memories 1-2 (2021-2022), and Sleepwalking about the Space (2021), also form this connection and extension to the modernity of everyday life. 

Dessert (2021) was inspired by my residency project in Scotland in 2017. The cake cups are daily objects widely used in local life and carry the social attributes of a cheerful atmosphere. Converted to concrete, the cups become fragile, while the original cake is replaced by a spherical cactus that has dried and shrivelled into a specimen. The spacing of "communication" is thus adjusted, and the everyday relationship between people is questioned.

As mentioned earlier, we are in an age where the self is constantly congested with dense material and information. The Desolation of Memories 1-2 (2021-2022) demonstrate the reinforcement and metaphor of this congestion, precisely through the squeezed flat form of Decoration - Layers (2022) and two concrete platforms that were originally in the space.

Perhaps ModernFossil (Pipe) -1(2021), is the one that associated tightly with “ruins". It was inspired by the "Decoration: Building Debris” project in Tongren Road in 2020. In the house to be “renovated”, I happened to realise that the pipes hidden inside the building were acting as an invisible connection as well as a prying tube, bringing in sounds and smells from elsewhere. In this work, the pipes are juxtaposed with plants, solidifying them into a discarded irregular “fossil”displayed on a mosaic-covered platform, bringing the daily flow of the city to a halt indoors.

M: When it comes to The Desolation of Memories 1-2 (2021-2022), I feel that the exhibition captures the structure and character of the space very acutely.

Z: The space is quite challenging. I have tried to mobilise and even change the viewing experience of space through the arrangement of the works. DailyAccessory(2021) creates a staircase on an existing staircase, echoing the “door” of Sleepwalking about the Space(2021), which is located around the corner, to stimulate the desire to get out of the “domestic" and the awkwardness of being rejected at the same time. I have also shifted the entrance from the front to the side, so as to create a more roundabout and subtle viewing experience.

M: Your mobilisation of the relationship between the work and the space almost completely reconstruct the space. This is also an aspect that you continue to focus on in your different exhibition projects. In addition to this, the "grid" is also a recurring element in your work. Rosalind Krauss once pointed out in Gridthat the "grid" is the epitome of modernity, which excludes all narrative and literature yet in the meantime realises an extreme pure vision through restrict order.

Z: Krauss's description of the "grid" is very accurate. I studied printmaking during my undergraduate degree. The production process of this medium is complicated and rational, but also full of chances. This experience have influenced my understanding and application of the concepts of repetition, restraint, and trace.

In my early work, I experimented with tracing, tampering, and distorting different kinds of plants (cactus) I cultivated on industrial calculation paper. The grid was used to shape the object into an irregular abstraction. Later on, after a series of site-specific projects, the cactus begins to be separated from the "grid" and becomes a real object. At the same time, the "grid" appears as an absolute flattened form in three-dimensional space, transferred through the most common construction materials. The silk-printed "grids" on the walls of this exhibition are an extension of the earlier paper-based (calculating paper) paintings in real space. The grid regulates the space, while the tiles and mosaics are also "wrapped" and defined by it.

M: Another recurring element is the "cactus". In the cityruins, it is the plant that finally takes over the collapsed space and gives it vibrant energy. But in your works, the "cactus" is shaped in an almost restrained way, even when compared to the "building debris".

Z: What attracts me most about the "cactus" is its slowness and distances. As mentioned earlier, the cactus has undergone a transformation from the image to material object in my work. The transformation between industrial materials and living organismsintensifies the contrast between its slowness and the density and speed of the time.

Ihave transformed the cactus or the inserted steel bar as a whole by the concrete. It is through the contradictory properties of the concrete itself, which are both hard and fragile, that increasedits silence and restraint.

M: Ultimately, the concrete"cactus" constitutes a complete existence, wrapping any possible narratives within itself, while the "building debris", with its residual traces, tells the story of the missing part in an incomplete state.

Mo Wanli / Zhang Ruyi

Lyon Biennale:

This time, my project <Renovation: Vacant Lot> will be presented as the sixth independent chapter of the prior series "Decoration", also as a further exploration and extension, drawing on the specific historical context of the Guimet Museum, allowing my works to be met as visitors, and building a sense of dialogue within the works themselves. The previous years of the "Decoration" series focus on inspiration from materials found in everyday life and using reality as its basis. Its major narrative strategy is to reconcile the layers and interactions between individuals, materials and places. In the transformation and fusion of organic objects and industrial products, I have been trying to find a channel of connection between the inside and the outside, thus establishing a "negotiation" between the individual and reality. Here, the "Vacant Lot" serves the dual role of empty space and stacked ruins, providing me with a reference to reality and drawing me in to explore the allegory behind its role. "Vacant" refers to both a noun in physical space and an adjective on a spiritual level. In the repeating “renovation” of the city, there are constantly vacant lots that have been abandoned, that are waiting to be transformed, that are missing from the heart, revealing their own fragile power.

Zhang Ruyi

Chimera Space


There is no real aspect to space; each of its illusions creates a new otherworldly realm. A space is the synthesis of its extended outer surfaces and the ordered co-existence of the objects residing in it. Zhang Ruyi is adept at creating cool, subtle spaces in disguise, calmly using dislocation and repetition to turn a single site into a “chimera space” where different materials and structures are mutually exclusive and dialectically interlocked. The human form has disappeared, yet traces of people are pervasive, like an ecotone in which the human and non-human co-exist. Manmade objects that day in, day out exist as part of our lives, are animated as “monsters” searching for a dwelling place. They display their deformations to hint at (rather than directly relate) the symbiotic causality between environment and object, and between object and object, which have squashed them into this state.



The Chimera is a monster from Greek mythology, made up of parts from different animals. Zhang Ruyi’s sculptures embed various everyday objects, replace their materials, and remove their functionality in order to create an analogous monster. This monster is pregnant with the atmosphere of daily life, yet also breaks away from this context. 

The cactus is a central image in Zhang Ruyi’s sculptural forms, serving as a stand-in for the artist in what become metaphorical self-portraits. Cacti have the ability to store large amounts of water, and are able to grow in arid environments where other flowers and trees cannot survive. The plant is thick, tall, and straight, its soft flesh hidden underneath a spiny exterior. Even if placed in a pot at home, it retains a certain toughness and flexibility. Zhang uses concrete, the most common of construction materials in modern human habitations, to reproduce the cactus in many different forms: in Corner-2 (2018), a steel bar recovered from the ruins of a demolished building passes through the pleated flesh of a concrete cactus, forming its backbone. Standing tall atop a column covered with ceramic tiles, it evokes the life and death struggles of individuals existing in urban environments, where buildings seem to rise and fall in blink of an eye. In Individual Plant-2 (2018), a concrete cactus fallen on its side is covered with open wires, like a piece of meat quietly and hopelessly waiting to be charged with electrical energy. Two identical clusters of concrete cacti constitute the main body of Submerged Landscape (2019), sunk at the bottom of an aquarium. The two rounded masses sit side by side like two hair buns, each pierced by two intersecting steel bars that prop them up at the same angle. The LED lights on the top of the box emit a faint glow and smart heating rods control the water temperature as suckermouth catfish swim between the two cacti, forming a self-sufficient ecosystem of “monsters,” in which organic life and steel-reinforced concrete coexist. 

Zhang Ruyi also utilizes select daily necessities from our living environment in her sculptures. She once again uses the inert material of concrete to remake these objects, eliminating their functionality and thereby subtly and partially blocking their real world circulation. This is Zhang’s unique creative method, and also her tactful, understated way of intervening in an accelerated reality. The electrical sockets that appear frequently in her work are indeed interfaces for circulation, widely used in contemporary life. For the group exhibition “A Beautiful Disorder” (2016), she “installed” Chinese electrical outlets made out of concrete in tree trunks around the forested area of the CASS Sculpture Foundation in Sussex, the United Kingdom. She also hid another concrete outlet on the lawn set aside as a rest area next to the foundation’s offices (Pause, 2016). The Chinese sockets with their “paused” functionality are embedded within the artificially planted British greenery, drawing out “monsters” to haunt daily life. In another work, Electric Boat (2015-2016), three dismantled second-hand plugs are inserted into a concrete power strip. The screws within the plug heads are exposed, and scorch marks from past electric currents are faintly visible. Two brand-new yellow wires connect the three plugs in series while at the same time bending out in two overlapping arcs, forming a morphological relationship with the power strip which resembles that between a boat’s canopy and hull. This chimeric electric boat is also a miniature “monster”: its daily charge of electricity suspended, it is headed for the unknown, a vast, self-contained realm within a useless stillness.   


The Grid 

Zhang Ruyi often uses the form of a grid to create a kind of “chimera space”; that is to say a nested, endogenous space. The grid encloses boundaries and also creates dimensions: it is not only the reconstruction of the relationship between different objects in space, but also the redeployment of spatial structures and situations.  

Entering these grids is like stepping inside a highly specific yet mundanely everyday living environment. But it is also as if you have withdrawn from this space and entered an arcane spatial array of hidden fabrics. Zhang Ruyi’s “chimera space” requires permeation into both the experience and conceptual thinking of viewers. The artist first attempted to utilize grids over a large area in the exhibition “Building Opposite Building” (2016), which provides a representative example of her arrangements of “chimera space.” The exhibition was housed in an old-fashioned apartment in Shanghai. Entering the space, visitors were met with a wall grid Zhang made out of checkered tiles. This type of tile was commonly used on the façades of residential buildings in Shanghai in the 1980s and 1990s. By using the would-be inlay of an external façade, Zhang disengaged from the inward extension of the line of sight. From the outset there was an inversion of the external and internal, and the grid established an awe-inspiring, silent order.

Objects are in space, and also in grids. The grid is a web in which things are bundled, but also a field where things are recreated. For “Building Opposite Building,” Zhang Ruyi enclosed a grid of tiles in the middle of a square white wall. On the left she hung a thin and long living cactus, which was sandwiched between two miniature concrete models of buildings, bound together by a wire (Potted Plants, 2016). Elsewhere in the exhibition, Zhang placed two cast concrete doors vertically in the middle of the doorway to what was originally a bedroom. The doors were tied together by two iron wires, one at the top and one at the bottom, just like two pieces of plywood. An uprooted live cactus hung upside down in the gap in-between (Spacing, 2016). A tile-gridded column was erected in the bedroom, with a structure composed of eight identical miniature concrete buildings forming its top, which reached very close to the ceiling. The windows of these “buildings” were all facing inwards (Pillar, 2016). These internal and external objects are tied together and interlaced, making them extremely intimate and extremely bound together. The everyday relationship between sizes has been disturbed, and the grids have miniaturized the traces of human life on the objects into abstract forms. Zhang Ruyi’s grids encompass the physical sensations of a tidy, depressing, bizarre, and horrifying object, and also point towards the real life pressures that symbiotically arise between people and their environments, as well as between people.

In another room, a grid is embedded in a concrete sink, solidifying what would normally flow (Reflection, 2016). However, it is at the same time connected with the grids in the other rooms that recline, stand vertically, support, or cover, forming a fluid and evolving overall rhythm, while also seeming to reflect the grid constituted by the space as a whole. The sink is what holds up the grid, the old tiles acting like a veil or the remains of past objects. It collects time that has passed outside of the old apartment building, sealing its lingering charm inside.



Zhang Ruyi’s “chimera space” is a kind of repetition that retains difference, a repetition that opens up difference, and which differentiates between objects so that they do not drown in the abyss of generality. The sculptor often selects items to work with that overlap in style yet are somehow different, arranging them in a linear sequence and presenting the singularity of an object, making the entire production a kind of transformation in which order and disorder intersect.  

In Flow Away (2016), Zhang Ruyi lays out an equally spaced sequence of identical cement electrical outlets on a wall. A handful of plugs are randomly distributed across the sockets, joined in pairs by colored electrical wires. Using just three elements—outlets, plugs, and wires—Zhang creates a complex array embedded with four variables: plug color, wire color and shape, the connection between plug and socket, and the connection between plugs. Each is distinct yet interconnected. The piece as a whole produces a coupling paradox: each of the seemingly repeated sockets is rendered unique due to its differing interaction with the plugs. The inverse is also true: each seemingly unique plug gains a measure of commonality by being inserted into one of the repeating outlets. 

Overlapping (2016) employs a similar technique, but with fewer elements and in an even simpler configuration: old iron gates sourced from a recycling facility are welded to two identical steel beams, each of the gates equally spaced apart and tilted at the same angle. The size, color, style, and pattern of every gate is unique; their only common attribute is that they have all been discarded. No longer used to keep anything locked away, they just lean quietly, like shimmering ripples in water, or a cascading time tunnel. Time seems to flow past; the exit to “chimera space” has just been opened.

Asea Zhanglun Dai

Almost Nothing

Over the past ten years, Zhang Ruyi has explored two intertwining creative threads with a precise material language and a delicate sense of perception: cacti and urban architecture. But when we examine the materials used in this exhibition, we soon discover another, less explored thread in her practice. Whether through the glass surrounding the sculpture of Submerged Landscape – 2, or the plastic film affixed to the metal skeleton in The Desert is Not Sad, Nor is it Deserted, the artist’s works seem to indicate her interest in transparent materials of standardized production. Transparency and imagery related to this quality often connote cleanliness, order, isolation, control, and power. Bearing in mind the artist’s continuing exploration of architecture, a discussion of her use of transparency must draw upon how she treats the language of architecture and materiality.

Looking back over the history of material production, the transparency of glass and its manufacturing process has embodied the conflicts of modernist ideologies. In the nineteenth century, glass became an architectural material that could be produced at an industrial scale. Its size could be controlled to a high degree while still pursuing total smoothness and regularity. In 1851, the Crystal Palace was built in London’s South Kensington neighborhood for the World’s Fair. It was an amazing venue made out of glass, and the building’s size and grandeur were an architectural breakthrough for the material. 

When Fyodor Dostoevsky, who had previously spent half a decade exiled in the cold of Siberia, visited London in 1862 he was shocked by this cultural “greenhouse” of glass and steel. In the chapter on London in his book Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, he wrote, “It [the Crystal Palace] is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you begin to gasp for breath.”[1] The title of this chapter is “Baal” a false god in the Hebrew Bible, which makes it clear what the Russian literary giant’s attitude was towards the city. He was intuitively aware of the prophetic imagery and doctrinal metaphor represented by the glass building. 

Peter Sloterdijk’s book In the Interior World of Capital: Towards a Philosophical Theory of Globalization continues Dostoevsky’s dissection of the Crystal Palace, seeing the glass architectural style it represented as a symbol of modernity’s ultimate ambition, a “building that would be spacious enough in order, perhaps, never to have to leave it again.”[2] Today, quality glass is much smoother and purer, with transparency so high it is almost invisible. Internal and external space are increasingly indistinguishable, even as the glass is physically stronger. Glass can be seen through, but not pierced. Transparent structures seem to be invisible and capacious, even as they maintain obstructions and separations that are seemingly “courteous” but also absolute. Glass transparency is free and open, but it also desires control, even autocratic control, making it an excellent illustration of modern societal power relations. Just like Jeremy Bentham’s panopticons, everything is open and visible, apart from power itself. 

Accompanying endemic industrialization and urbanization, modern, Western forms of desire have also arrived in China. Zhang Ruyi is part of the generation who grew up alongside the urban housing regulation reforms that China enacted in 1998. In her work Cleaning, Zhang casts a model of a modern commercial house as two sculptures, placing them opposite one another and submerging them in a tank of water, with a black scavenger fish swimming between them. The sense of order evinced by the harsh white light of the incandescent lamp and the multiple straight lines inevitably reminds viewers of the Jacques Tati film Playtime (1967). The film is replete with the director’s keen observations of glass as an architectural element—everything related to spatial materials, such as the ubiquitous glass walls and many layers of nested glass offices, has been moralized, which suggests the repetition and alienation of modern urban space, as well as how it imposes discipline. Zhang’s work differs from the sardonic portrayal of oppression and severity in Tati’s film in that it contains the possibility of a sort of gentle rebelliousness. The water in the tanks fills the gaps in the concrete sculpture, an omnipresent threat of dissolution and erosion for these small buildings. However, water has only the faintest sense of presence in the artwork, such that the artist does not even list water as one of the materials. At the same time, the prismatic structure formed by the water and the tank’s edges also shows how transparency can also be a visual misdirection. What we see is not necessarily true. 

In Zhang Ruyi’s 2019 artwork Submerged Landscape, the artist continues her exploration of the power dynamics of transparency, but she shifts the main focus of her work towards the arena of life. Two sculptures, which are made from twisted cacti and rebar, are immersed in water in a glass tank. The organic cactus and the inorganic rebar are cast in concrete to make a single, combined form that resembles a strange, ancient creature. When placed in the transparent glass water tank and immersed in liquid, it seems to have the quality of a biological specimen. Yet the water does not act like formaldehyde. Instead, it creates a revolutionary hotbed: with the passage of time, erosion will cause moss to grow on the concrete sculpture. It is hospital-like in its transparency and cleanliness, a spectacle of complete control. Yet this quality is disrupted by the slow infiltration of the moss while it is exhibited. 

This intersection of transparency and biology is not a coincidence. Louis Pasteur discovered micro-organisms by using glass laboratory instruments. During the same period, X-ray technology was invented, which could make skin and flesh transparent. Around the same time, the Wardian case, a terrarium used to cultivate plants, was also invented. All of these discoveries implicitly connect the discourse of transparency to biopolitics. 

Moving on to the late twentieth century, in 1987 the engineer John P. Allen led a team to realize an ambitious scientific project—Biosphere 2. In this massive architectural undertaking, a giant pyramid made of more than ten thousand glass panels, the designer tried to recreate the complex natural support system of seven Earth (Biosphere 1) biomes: rainforests, savannah grasslands, deserts, wetlands, oceans, cultivated agricultural land, and human habitats. Biosphere 2 used a large amount of glass to solve the seemingly irreconcilable architectural challenge of being “materially closed and energetically open.” The structure had to be as hermetically sealed as possible to reduce air exchange, yet it also had to have a maximum level of transparency to increase light exposure and support the growth of flora and fauna inside. And yet, just like the unexpected moss in Zhang Ruyi’s work, during the final stages of the Biosphere 2 experiment, vines traversed the steel structure, blocking the light and indirectly killing some plants in the rainforest biome. 

The transparent structure of Biosphere 2 is like a reality show version of a natural history museum display. As Samuel J. M. M. Alberti, Director of Collections at the National Museums Scotland, once noted, “Just as living animals and plants are cultivated, so abiotic/cultural ones, on their way to the museum, as they enter the collection, and during their subsequent (after)lives, are subject to a range of conceptual, classificatory, and re-contextual practices. It transpires that city life, like art, is purified in its construction behind glass.”[3] From the scientist’s laboratory table to the showcase cabinet in a museum, from petri dishes to animal specimens to Biosphere 2—the ultimate manifestation of human cultivation—glass is simultaneously a medium and a container—bearing the object of observation and nourishment, enabling external scrutiny through internal isolation and transparency, and defining the relationship of power between the viewer and the viewed. 

Zhang Ruyi’s interest in transparency as a mean of differentiation reaches its greatest expression in her 2020 piece Speaking Softly – 2. A large, translucent, plastic film is suspended in mid-air, quietly and slowly changing form along with the changing light outside and the flow of air in the gallery. As the viewer approaches the work, they discover that the smooth plastic is full of cactus spikes that pierce the sheet, held up by friction. The sharpness of the spikes counteracts the smooth surface of the plastic and the sense of compliance that it seems to symbolize, while also counteracting the desire and potential for touch. 

In the biological world, animals use bright colors, sharp spikes, and aggressive sounds to protect and defend themselves, a form of isolation against the dangers of the outside world. These methods are all instinctive and innate. But in the world of inorganic materials, isolation is presented as clean and harmless, smooth and supple, open and observable. Only when one tries to touch it does one sense its cold rejection of true interaction. Different from cactus spikes or poison on animal skin, glass and membranes are easily broken, physically almost nothing, because they are materially unstable. Whether it is a paper seal placed on a door, a white strip blocking off a lawn, or the plastic films now used to prevent infections during international flights—their presence is not so much a physical separation, but a reminder of the inviolability of authority. You have to judge for yourself the cost of crossing this easily broken boundary, which is the most essential threat of transparency. 

This short essay has attempted to use the material language of Zhang Ruyi’s work to create a discursive space that is interdisciplinary and spans different times and locations. Zhang Ruyi’s practice conveys to us the parallel relationship between contemporary visual artists and many different theories and fields. As Frederic Jameson has commented, “You start from aesthetics, purely aesthetic problems, and then, at the term of these analyses, you end up in the political.”[4] The political discourse in the above text should not be understood as politics in the narrow sense, but rather as the state of evolution and entanglement between people, between objects, and between people and objects.


[1] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, David Patterson trans. “Chapter V: Baal.” Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), pp. 42–52.

[2] Sloterdijk, Peter, Wieland Hoban trans. “Chapter 33: The Crystal Palace.” In the World Interior of Capital for a Philosophical Theory of Globalization (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).

[3] Alberti, Samuel J. M. M. “Constructing Nature Behind Glass.” Museum & Society 6, no. 2 2008, pp. 73–97. 

[4] Jameson, Fredric, and Ian Buchanan. “Interview with Xudong Zhang” in Jameson on Jameson: Conversations on Cultural Marxism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 175.

Neil Zhang