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  • Nikita Agrawal

Viewing with the Artist: Zhi the Outlaw

A virtual tour of Gianluca Crudele's solo exhibition in Hong Kong.

woman holding a book, next to a coffee mug

Recently I had the chance to reconnect with the vibrant art scene in Hong Kong and observe some really cool artwork up-close. I found that I enjoyed exploring the smaller (and somewhat hidden) galleries a lot more, because they usually only feature 1 or 2 artists giving you more time to look at everything in depth. The most insightful viewing experience I had was at a gallery in Sheung Wan that organized small group viewings with the artist himself. This gallery at the time was featuring a series called Zhi the Outlaw by Gianluca Crudele.

My friend signed us up for the event and I just went with it not really knowing what to expect. When I got there I found out that the series was painted by a seasoned Italian artist who surprisingly has had a multitude of Asian influences in his life while growing up. It was quite surreal to get information about the art in front of us directly from the source. Making guesses about the meaning behind a piece of art can also be fun, but it's easy to end up feeling a little lost in the process. In this particular situation, the artist was right there explaining the inspiration behind the series and his entire journey start to finish, which made the viewing really personal and meaningful.

The Inspiration: Zhuangzi

The series is inspired by an ancient philosophical text called Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi is also the name of the philosopher that wrote it. It was written hundreds of years ago dating back to almost 300 B.C. There is a chapter in the book called The Robber Zhi, and this fictional character Zhi is what the entire series is built around. Zhi led a clan of 9,000 criminals that created a lot of chaos and turmoil in society by acting outside of the law. Zhi is perceived to be the perfect anti-hero and rebel to all the rules and establishment that construct a society.

Confucius (another Chinese philosopher) represents the other side of this spectrum and comes in offering Zhi a life of wealth, comfort and security for abandoning his criminal behaviors. Zhi rejects his trade-off and accuses the social system of robbing people of their freedom. The conflict between these two opposing characters and their beliefs drive the key messages behind the artwork. Confucius represents the monarchy and Zhi an anarchy.

I know we're not Zhi, but aren't there times we have all wanted to be free like him? Aren't there times we have questioned what we are giving up in our pursuit of wealth and power? Zhuangzi critiques the concept of social values (through Zhi) and emphasizes the value of living according to one's true nature. But after being so indoctrinated by what society expects us to do, we might not even know what that means. What is one's true nature? How can we live that way? Is it even possible? Often we forfeit who we are for who we think we are supposed to be, and we continue to tread this line as we navigate our life's journey.

What struck me the most is how something written centuries ago can still provoke thought and remain highly relatable to our lives today. Standing in that gallery I felt like Zhi was also an extended metaphor of Hong Kong as an outlaw of China (Confucius). Because in another place (or time) I wouldn't have had the freedom to see this art, interpret it in the way that I am and express it.

Below are all the paintings and their titles (in the order we saw them):

Every time Zhi the outlaw passes by.

Whenever there is an outlaw or rebel in society, there is an immediate tendency to gossip about it (like we are right now). One of the things we are scared of most as human beings is not being accepted by others. This need for acceptance is what drives a lot of our actions. So, anyone who is in deviance of that immediately draws a lot of attention having already overcome this fear.

The Governor's daughter smiles back at Zhi the outlaw.

In contrast to the first painting, this one depicts a slightly different reaction to Zhi. Here the governor's daughter can't help but look back at Zhi in admiration. This fondness for the bad boy in society is not a novel concept to us. We always seem to want what we can't have and the governor's daughter is attracted to Zhi in spite of (or as a result of) being on the opposing side.

The Emperor dreamt of being a butterfly, so Zhi dreamt of being a flyswatter.

The artist incorporates a lot of wordplay and humor in the titles of the pieces to reflect Zhuangzi's writing style. This statement perfectly encapsulates Zhi's character as someone who wants to be or do the opposite simply for the sake of it. This kind of behavior is also reminiscent of counter culture. We go against mainstream society usually when our values differ, but a lot of times it's also in an effort to make ourselves noticed and feel more significant amongst the crowd.

Zhi the outlaw is a good listener.

The paintings come alive as soon as you read the title associated with it. There are so many layers to this but the main one being that Zhi is ironic. There is also a lot of dark humor hidden in this one. It could be that he didn't listen until it was too late, but knowing Zhi he never cared to anyways. Placing something morbid like death next to Zhi's "sincere" listening face makes the painting pretty absurd and accurately illustrates Zhi's questionable character.

Zhi doesn't care to fill in his tax return form.

Tax return forms are a clear stepping stone for anyone who enters the workforce and a symbol of subjugation to a hierarchy, i.e. the government. We don't have a choice when it comes to this and this lack of freedom is what Zhi has been criticizing this whole time.

Zhi the outlaw would rather eat mandarins than listen to them.

All of the art we've looked at so far has been leading up to this finale piece. The word mandarin is used as a pun here because it's also the word used to refer to elite civil servants and bureaucrats in a monarchy. Zhi chooses to be carefree, eat some fruit and enjoy this most simple pleasure in life without worrying about anything else. I think as we grow older one of our priorities becomes self care and peace, and this painting is a pretty iconic exemplary of that.

The view from the palace.

The last piece of the puzzle is quite a somber one. It's a representation of the majority population giving into the social system. The hand reaching out shows the repressive side of this system and how it compels us to become caged and restricted in many ways. The window itself is really beautiful which signifies all the temptations and incentives used to draw us in. But Zhi knows that all in all it's really just a beautiful prison.

How can we be free like Zhi? But not be Zhi himself? Who do you think is the real robber?

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