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  • Feb 14, 2022

Zhong Wei’s “Stress Response”

ZHONG WEI, Safety Seat, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 100 × 100 cm. All images courtesy the artist and Jack Bell Gallery, London. 

That we are all stressed is a characteristic of the pandemic era. What distinguishes us as individuals, then, are our coping strategies. Some spiral. Others philosophize. Zhong Wei, according to his quarantine-made series Stress Response (all works 2021), paints—and shares memes on the internet. For his England debut at London’s Jack Bell Gallery, the Beijing-born contemporary artist invited audiences to laugh into the abyss, leaning on the nihilistic humor of Chinese meme culture to navigate the sheer absurdity we find ourselves living through.

It was almost impossible not to notice Safety Seat upon entering the gallery. It is equally difficult not to see the painting’s subject, an oval with protruding spikes and facial features, as a personified coronavirus cell. Sitting otherwise unobtrusively on the back wall, the figure nearly bursts out of the stroller it is strapped to, a true enfant terrible with color high on its cheeks and a tantrum scrunched up on its face. Yet like any good work, that’s far from the only interpretation you could make. If you focus on the face, you might be able to make out drops of sweat and a vein throbbing in its head—features taken from the Y U No meme. If you read the spikes instead as a cartoonish take on anger, that face suddenly recalls a satirical meme-ification of any shouty political figure, kicking its legs against the proverbial bars of the safety seat. Though 10 Downing Street, the heart of the “partygate” scandal, was incidentally mere blocks away, Zhong doesn’t seem to be laughing at anyone so much as he’s creating a visual language to laugh through the situation. Even the other canvases seemed in on the joke. The woman perched on the roof of Waiting for Sunrise appeared to have caught the eye of the neighboring Dumbbell Lifter over her shoulder, and the two wear identical expressions of awkwardness amid the same urban sprawl. Humor is well-documented as a trauma response —if we’re laughing too, hasn’t the collective stress dissipated, just for the moment?

Installation view of ZHONG WEI’s Dumbbell Lifter (left) and Waiting for the Sunrise (right), both 2021, acrylic on canvas, 200 × 200 cm, at "Stress Response," Jack Bell Gallery, London, 2021.

Part of what makes these works so funny is disintegration. Most of Zhong’s works pass as complete only to fall apart under close inspection, a tenuousness of depth achieved by his process of first creating digital renderings and then trying to recapture them in paint, a medium famous for its flatness. Looking at the show’s eponymous work feels like a Rorschach test, and what seems from afar like an old woman and a blue dragon bursting through a glitching, white screen like the start of a PVP game turns, upon closer look, into four solitary eyeballs bouncing flatly against some fragments.

ZHONG WEI, Stress Response, 2021, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 190 × 287 cm.

ZHONG WEI, Burn the Midnight Oil, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 160 × 240 cm. 

In many ways, each canvas functions a little like a meme, placing familiar imagery in new contexts for humor. In Burn the Midnight Oil, naked, pixelated women dance before the gasp rage meme, which emerges from a pile of abstracted architectural forms as if it were its body. The scene is absurd, so full of chaos it becomes devoid of meaning. There is no reason for anything to be placed where it is, or painted in that style. Yet in this absurdity lies a pathos-laden analogy for our current condition. As if speaking to the psychological stress that comes with living in the information age, the figure at the center of the painting wears a mask with bloodshot eyes, trying to move forward even as their limbs slough off their frame. The world Zhong creates is much like our own, overloaded with content that can’t help but unravel.

In this oeuvre, there are no answers. But that doesn’t matter because they’re nods to memes on screens, signifiers for jokes that are so layered in humor because we’ve shared and deepened their meanings as a collective. The future may be a gyre of meaningless horror, but the absurdity of the images in “Stress Response” give us the humor to make it through. Ultimately, Zhong manages to skate past the pit of cosmic nihilism to pin his hopes on absurdity and people. Fact: the world is a dread heap. All we can do is hit send on a joke, and hope that it makes someone laugh. 

Zhong Wei's "Stress Response" was on view at Jack Bell Gallery, London, from November 24 to December 17, 2021.

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