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Zhang Yuan



80cms (W) x 100 cms (H)

Oil on Canvas

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This painting was completed for sale at a charity sale for the Heart for Heart charity. The subject matter is based on a residential area just near where I lived at the time. Pre-pandemic, the network of beautiful old red, blue and grey brick lane houses was cleared out (residents moved elsewhere) and most of the business closed down awaiting reurbishment. It's a conflicting process to observe; the   area that was once 'alive' with residents and small business loses that organic sense of place, to be replaced by commercial enterprises and a different form of being 'alive'; with customers and tourists providing a different kind of soul to the streets. The activities you see once a place has been commercialised are a lot more generic than the daily life activities of a place full of individual dwellers, their families and the community. You lose the site of old Shanghainese peeling vegetables in the streets or men (it's usually men) on old trikes collecting unwanted consumer goods for parts and recycling, as it's replaced by people drinking japanese coffee or browsing upmarket candle shops. 

I love japanese coffee and nice candles by the way, it's just that gradually those kind of experiences are becoming far more commonplace as the moments of real life that you only see in the old streets are moved into indistinct appartment blocks. The main benefit of this kind of gentrification (as I see it) is the preservation of the architecture and a more long term way of holding onto some element of the old shanghainese culture. You can't hold back the tide of the economy, and   assuming that it's inevitable that an area needs to have it's value maximised, it's far better to have it preserved in this way than demolished for another mall (which are much more efficient uses of space). When i first arrived i saw a lot more interesting old buildings levelled for office space than i do now, and it's impossible to deny that some of the refurbishments result in some beautiful spaces; it's just a bit soulless. 

The pandemic put a 3 year hold on the work to refurbish the area, so it left quite a ghostly area which allowed me to capture the mood of this period of change as the area became very unkempt and dilapidated.

This painting is about capturing that transition. On the left is the picturesque Shanghai style architecture. On the right is dilapidation. In the background there is a faint view of a large tower block (generic office building) that towers over the scene. I made it rain, since this gives the mood some solemnity but also represents washing, cleansing and change. I added a single figure with the umbrella whose face is hidden. I've used umbrellas a lot in my work so in one sense this is a recurring motif. In this picture though it was a good way to add some color to the image, and with his face hidden under the umbrella he is unable to see the change taking place around him, as the umbrella obstructs his ability to 'look up'.  (as an aside, I have a particular preoccupation with 'looking up', which stems from my time living in Newcastle and Nottingham, both areas that suffered from the loss of beautiful architecture. Often it is so easy to be fully captured by what is at eye-level (shop displays, menus, people, our phones) that we miss some amazing scenes above us that can give us something unique about where we are. Sometimes taking a look above can completely change the meaning of a place as you can see residential lives (especially in China), buildings from different eras that tell a story, wildlife (monkeys in Cambodia for example) etc. out of the reach of the daily hustle. Try it). This figure is essentially disconnected from the environment around him, partially reflected in the changing rain.

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