Animated by nostalgia

A church from Zhang Xiaotao's childhood appears in his animation films

Animation artist Zhang Xiaotao tries to show in his films what the intense pressure to achieve wealth and success in China does to the soul. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

CHONGQING • Zhang Xiaotao, one of China's leading animation artists, grew up in a village in western China where the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution left indelible marks on everyone.

His father, a leader of the local Red Guards, emerged with his spirit broken by what he saw and did.

But that is not what Zhang remembers from his childhood. Instead of the violence, he recalls the imposing Catholic church near his home, 48km north of here, built by French missionaries at the turn of the 20th century. Its broad verandas and colonnades, encrusted with moss in the clammy summer months, remained after the violence and tall stands of bamboo provided swaths of shade.

Zhang, 45, remembers the church so vividly because he would play on the grounds there. And by the time he was 10, when his parents had abandoned him to find work far away, it had become a place of dreams where he would take his sketchbook and paint.

Nostalgia for the big whitewashed building infuses a number of his award-winning digital animation films, which explore China's rush to modernisation. In sometimes surreal ways, the films try to show what the intense pressure to achieve wealth and success does to the soul.

It is not so much the church's physical structure that appears in his work, although it does occasionally. Rather, it is the building's sense of calm that, he says, contrasts with the almost intolerable intensity of contemporary urban China.

"I have deep memories from the church as a child," he said in his studio at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, where he studied as a young man and now heads the new media department. Around him, dozens of young digital artists laboured over computer screens to help complete one of his new works.

"When I was playing there as a child, I could see people praying and I felt a profound sense of religion."

Those who prayed were not organised by priests or nuns. The official church had long been expelled from China. They were men and women who were too old to be dragged into the madness of the Cultural Revolution and who turned to the church in his village as a place of solace, much as Zhang does today.

His latest work, Spring In Huangjueping, is a two-hour digital animation movie that he has entered into the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival. He was elated that the film had made the jury's first cut.

The idea of the film, he said, is to draw parallels between the Cultural Revolution and the dismal period nearly 20 years later when he sought entry to the institute. He failed the entrance exam three times, an experience that still haunts him.

The movie is cast with figures drawn in the style of a graphic novel: skinny young men and women from Zhang's student days are dressed in basic T-shirts and pants, while Red Guards from the earlier era appear in drab olive uniforms with rifles.

The landscape resembles the gritty parts of the industrial city of Chongqing and its outskirts in Huangjueping, where the art institute and his studio are.

"The brutal college entrance exam and the frenetic beliefs of my father's generation: How similar are they?" Very, he concludes.

When he finally conquered the exam and got into art school, he found himself in the tumult of the 1990s art scene, when Chinese artists were the newest fad in the West.

At the time, the Sichuan institute's oil painting department, whose graduates include Zhang Xiaogang, now one of China's most sought-after contemporary painters, was a crucible of experimentation.

In the late 1990s, Ms Meg Maggio, an American lawyer who ran a contemporary gallery in Beijing, met Zhang when he was showing his work in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

"He was painting surreal fantasy paintings of candy-coloured condoms," said Ms Maggio, who still represents Zhang through her gallery Pekin Fine Arts in Beijing.

"Later, he became well known for painting a long series of overripe, slightly rotten, occasionally mouldy strawberries."

In 2006, she sold a number of his paintings to the British collector, Charles Saatchi, including a 1.8m painting of a drowning rat.

But Zhang was moving on from oil painting. He studied photography for a while in Europe and then in 2000 in San Francisco, he fell into animation. "It changed my life," he said.

His film, Sakya, which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013, is named after a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. It uses 3D modelling software to create a celestial mood of pilgrims and Tibetan mandalas, and won praise for its exploration on the limitations on freedom of religion.

For his next venture, Zhang plans to leave the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute and take the helm of a Beijing gallery, the Kylin Center of Contemporary Art. There, he said, he will show art from around the world and send Chinese art abroad.

But most of all, he says, he looks forward to having more time to spend with his son, Liangliang.

"My parents did not spend much time with me," he said. "I feel guilty that I have not seen enough of my son and I miss him. I have promised to take him to New York to see the great art."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline Animated by nostalgia. Subscribe