While she might have had an itinerant childhood, she’s a digital native, one who grew up using Photoshop extensively since the age of 11, as she told Art Thou: ‘So in my work’ she continued ‘some of the layers emulate how I have come to understand space through the “conditioning” from such software.’ Her paintings speak what is increasingly becoming a universal language: Scrollspheres, Cascading Style Sheets, UI, UX.
Vivien Zhang and the Paradoxes of the Digital Age
Beijing-born Vivien Zhang moved to Nairobi aged ten, then to Bangkok, before arriving in London to study at the Slade. It’s no wonder her work contains such a vast range of references and objects, from Central Asian kilims to African jugs made from old pirate ships and Thai Khon dance drama masks.
"a magpie hoarding references"
In fact, it’s technospeak that lends Zhang’s first solo exhibition at Pilar Corrias its title undo undo undo. As for the works within it, Zhang finds inspiration in polyhedral world maps (as seen in Geogrid 2 and Geoindex 2), the ‘manicules’ of ancient manuscripts and computer cursors, and the 8-bit graphics and hanging platforms of old school Nintendo. As she writes in the third iteration of Manifesto Manifested, the playful ever-evolving text that accompanies Zhang's exhibitions, this is the artist as ‘a magpie hoarding’ references: ‘a Braque, a Charline von Heyl, a Susan Kare, a Reuleaux, a tree from Donkey Kong…’
These motifs can at first seem esoteric: a 2016 interview with The Serpentine’s Hans Ulrich Obrist, in particular, could be a scene from Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game; the novel’s mysterious, titular game requires twenty-third century scholars to make ‘moves’ based on deep connections between seemingly unrelated knowledge bases. See: Hans asking about ‘The dirt of the fragment’ and Vivien responding with a gloss on a mathematical shape called a Gömböc (‘a shape that only has one point of stable equilibrium, like a Russian doll that always goes back to one point’). This (naturally) leads on to ‘Bach’s fugues and La Vega by the Spanish composer Albéniz’, then to a form of music notation called ‘Klavarskribo, which was invented in the 1930s’.
However, alongside these encyclopaedic, totalising gestures, Zhang’s work delights in quite the opposite – clashing, prodding, breaking – and besides seventeenth-century fugues or post-Romantic composers, the artist’s work is perhaps more readily evocative of glitch, a musical genre that emerged in the 1990s. Using the imperfections and malfunctioning sounds of audio media to provide compositional structure, glitch music has been described as having an ‘aesthetic of failure’; it embraces accidents and unwanted material, presenting them instead as sonic artefacts. In Zhang’s case, it’s clear at least that she is interested in repetition and malfunction. For all their clarity and bright, saturated colour, her canvases are unstable, unsettled, undecided. She renders abstract patterns that resemble the nanosecond of a computer crash, but at the measured pace demanded by paint; and although her images appear digital, up close they contain all the natural imperfections and distortions of painting by hand. System error meets human error – undo undo undo.
"System error meets human error"
Zhang has said she thinks of her work as ‘a place of assemblage of different references, sources, influences’, of ‘things I’ve seen, coming together, colliding together in space’, and if you trace the series of shocks or collisions, patterns emerge: world map projections, such as the Cahill Butterfly projection in Geogrid 2 (2022) provide alternative representations of land mass and confront the geopolitical hierarchies they imply. Meanwhile, Peril (2020), which alludes to the ‘Yellow Peril Supports Black Power’ artwork that appeared at protests and on social media following the death of George Floyd, was made during the pandemic, a time of heightened anti-Asian discrimination: a fragmented work for a fractionalised, anxious society. Zhang’s landscapes aren’t virtual but boots-on-the-ground and personal.
"Against a backdrop of mastery and failure, certainty and instability, Zhang’s biggest coup is to shock us out of our screens for a moment"
Against a backdrop of mastery and failure, certainty and instability, Zhang’s biggest coup is to shock us out of our screens for a moment and allow us to see technology as if anew, as both poison and panacea. For while Elon gobbles up Twitter and works on his spaceship out of here, the rest of us will have to innovate ourselves out of a deeply uncertain future. If only it were so simple as tapping undo.
By Sammi Gale
Coverage image: Portrait by Eva Herzog, 2022. Courtesy of Vivien Zhang and Pilar Corrias, London