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In the Studio with Mengxi Zhang

In the studio with Mengxi Zhang, whose process involves varied approaches informed by the images in their head, photographs fairy tales, mythologies, and popular culture. We met with Mengxi to tell us more about growing up in China, their decision to go to art school, and moments that mobilised change in their practice.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I began to see myself as an artist when I realised art is such an important part of my life and it’s what I’m devoted to. 

 Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I was born and grew up in China and now I’ve spent most of my life in the UK. My upbringing in China was strict and conservative that I didn’t know being an artist was possible. But since a very young age literature and art have been a refuge and I had always managed to find time to write stories and draw. There are some elements in my work that’s a reaction against my upbringing and unlearning my preconceived ideas. But turning against everything in the past isn’t always a helpful stance so I’m learning to embrace different perspectives, and this also manifests in the work. 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you were on the right track? 

After I came to the UK I saw the possibility of making art without the doctrine of having to learn to paint academic realist paintings. And being away from my family I realised I could make my own decisions so I decided to go to art school. I mostly used photography when I first started but found it unsatisfying and unintuitive. It’s when I discovered painting, the endless process of exploring and experimenting ignited my passion for continuing to make art. Then I got into Turps studio programme, where I learnt to be always open and experimental, and found the right track for myself. 

What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

I think about metamorphosis and transformation, leakage and disappearance, opacity and transparency, burial and excavation. They come from both my own experiences and how I try to understand the world. I don’t intend to have a fixed aesthetic, but I gravitate towards a painting surface that keeps the eyes moving without having anywhere to rest, like finding your way around a house with flashing lights and confusing structure. 

Who/what are your greatest influences? 

Manga. Studio Ghibli. Werner Herzog. Claire Denis. Elena Ferrante. Marina Abramović. Cocteau Twins. Odilon Redon. 

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Traditional Chinese ink paintings. I never learnt how to do them when I was a child in China and didn’t have an interest in them until recently I have realised they look really nice and I can actually find my own ways of appreciating them. 

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

I want my work to have an immersive feeling with a sense of different types of physical touch. I also want it to be ambiguous and a bit uncomfortable to look at. But when I am physically painting, I don’t think about anything else apart from actually trying to solve problems and make the paintings work. I let the materials lead the way when I’m creating. The thinking of the audience probably happens while I’m sitting on the bus or doing other things. 

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? 

Doing the Turps studio programme definitely mobilised change in my practice. I used to have specific ideas of how I’d like to paint or how I want the paintings to look like. I learnt while at Turps to trust myself and to find my own ways of painting. Now I am more open and I have very varied approaches. Moving into my own studio after Turps was also an important event. I feel freer and lighter and more comfortable with making weird and ugly things in my own studio without being self-conscious. Having the space and time to paint are the most important things. The paintings evolve in the process and can lead me to very unexpected places. Every painting is an experiment. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a good piece of work?

I paint or draw no matter how I feel or where I am so there are always surprises. Having no fear and just going for it are what some of the “good” pieces have in common, but sometimes that could result in a mess too. Sometimes it’s being relaxed and not thinking about anything. Sometimes it’s when I’m trying almost too hard to make it work. 

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

When I was making Underwater Statics, I was thinking about the muffled ambient sound you can hear underwater and an unknowable dreamlike world. The feeling of being in water is similar to being in a dream for me. It’s something hard to grasp. And the underwater world is so fascinating and largely unknown to us. I’m interested in the liminal space that we mentally occupy, where anything can happen, like a dream that leaves a slight trace in our memory and we don’t know if it’s a good dream or a nightmare. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I love the freedom of not having set projects. My work is in a constant conversation with my ideas and thoughts and I always have new ideas. And I would also like to learn how to make animation and make them from paintings. 

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