Buddhist Artist Hu Junjun Opens Up About Art and the Ego

The artist's newest exhibition opens March 18 in Beijing's 798 Art District.

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Hu Junjun, Eastern Jin Dynasty (2014).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Xia Dynasty (2013).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Southern Song Dynasty (2014).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Ming Dynasty (2014).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Northern Song Dynasty (2014).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Emperor Yao (2013).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Spring and Autumn Period (2014).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Tang Dynasty (2014).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Western Han Dynasty (2014).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Emperor Shun (2013).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.
Hu Junjun, Emperor Yu (2013).
Courtesy Junjun Hu Studio.

The word for “contradiction” in Chinese literally translates as “spear shield,” and derives from the story of a village weapon smith caught bragging both that his spears can pierce anything and that his shields are impenetrable. Contemporary artist Hu Junjun finds herself in a position almost as fraught: that of a Buddhist contemporary artist, someone devoted to both self expression and the negation of the self.

Hu paints in oil, using a grid to map images on linen. In her series “Beyond the Mountain” (2012–13), she took sections from ancient shanshui, or landscape paintings, and painstakingly recreated them, box by box, in pale grays and browns, leaving the white grids visible–like grout between tiles —in her finished works.

Born in Shanghai in 1971, Hu Junjun moved to Beijing to write poems and paint in 1993, going on to win the prestigious Liu Li’an prize for poetry. In ancient China, artists were often also poets and musicians. Hu, however, says she didn’t see herself as following the tradition.

“When I was young I was opposed to tradition, and my poems are in a contemporary style. Even in my series “Beyond the Mountain,” the emphasis of my paintings isn’t really on shanshui, but on conceptual art.”

Hu has since abandoned shanshui as a subject, applying her grid technique to images of tree branches photographed against the sky for an upcoming show at Tokyo Gallery, Beijing. It’s reminiscent of a series by another Shanghai painter, Zhang Enli (who also paints his own grids—those of grubby bathroom tiles).

“I really like Zhang Enli’s tree series,” Hu says, “but it absolutely didn’t influence my work. An artist’s creations should come from her own heart’s needs.”

Hu moved to New York in 1998, and it was only there that she began to explore Buddhism, by now already in her early 30s. “There was a temple within a minute’s walk of where I lived,” she says. “Once when I was passing by, I entered the temple out of curiosity and took home some books to read, becoming profoundly interested. Since I was little I’ve been very sensitive, feeling a need to confront my mortality, but I never had a system of knowledge like Buddhism to help me lift the veil between life and death.”

“Buddhism has given me an entirely new outlook, shaking me head to toe, unquestionably influencing my life and creative output,” she says.

Does Hu see any conflict between being a contemporary artist and being a Buddhist? “In my earlier life, I couldn’t solve this contradiction,” she says. “Today, it seems that it can slowly be resolved, digested, and unified. The sharp becomes soft.”

The artist’s use of grids makes her paintings in some ways automatic, atomizing conceptual wholes such as “mountains,” “clouds,” and “branches” into unidentifiable squares of matter. This technique, which was used under Mao to prevent mistakes in the reproduction of official portraits, also limits the individual expression often expected of contemporary art.

Is the grid, then, a tool for diminishing the importance of the individual in her practice?

“Your question is very interesting because ‘diminishing the importance of the individual’ resembles Buddhist language—to set aside the ego,” Hu says. “My Buddhist practice, my creative work, my life, are all connected. Although the ego is omnipresent, the path is clear.”

Hu Junjun will be on view at Tokyo Gallery + Beijing Tokyo Art Projects, 798 Art zone E02, 4 Jiuxianqiao Rd., Chaoyang Dist., Beijing, beginning March 18.

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