You'll never guess why this man is collecting dust

  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 09 Nov 2016

Chinese artist Zhang Chenyu, with brush at the ready, on his rounds in Beijing collecting dust for his art work. Photos: Zhang Zhenyu

In the thick of the smog, chaos and grime of a busy city, Chinese artist Zhang Zhenyu finds beauty and contemplation in the most unlikely of places.

He fashions his art pieces from dust – yes, dust he collects from dusty ledges and roadsides, from his balcony and home, and wherever else catches his fancy.

Beijing, where he is currently based, is hardly a city bereft of pollutants. Rapid development and urbanisation, with factories and busy construction sites aplenty, means that on bad days, the city is covered with a blanket of smog and dust particles settling comfortably into every nook and cranny. Dust is cheaper than paint, certainly, but it is rich in the sense that it comes with many tales to tell.

To Zhang, dust carries substance and stories, and perhaps even a certain sense of adventure of what has been and what could be.

“There was dust and chaos before the formation of the world. And when it ends, that is also all that will be left,” he shares in an email interview ahead of his Dust exhibition at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur.

Zhang’s works from his Dust series are composed of dozens of layers of dust and glue, with each layer polished before another is added. The end result is a polished mirrored surface that bears little resemblance to its original form, the proverbial ugly duckling that blossoms into a graceful swan.

Zhang Zhenyu creates art from dust collected from around the city.
Zhang Zhenyu creates art from dust collected from around the city.

“Transforming dust into a mirror takes a lot of time and effort, and solitude is an essential part of what I do,” says the 42-year-old.

“I am the kind of artist who likes to delve deep into my subject of interest, I will spend a long time investigating the same problem, I will give it an in-depth treatment.”

Zhang is well-acquainted with creating art that requires sustained repetition. Before creating his Dust series, he spent six hours a day, every day for an entire year, scratching out the text of a daily Chinese newspaper with a needle. This was his Reading series.

In another series, he converts newspaper into pulp before reconstituting them into sheets, upon which headlines and other information from the original newspaper’s front page are etched.

His solo show, Dust, comprising eight pieces in the varying shades dust come in, is his first exhibition in Malaysia.

Dust160830 (dust on canvas, 2016). 160x160cm.
Dust151221 (dust on canvas, 2015). 100x100cm. Photos: Richard Koh Fine Art

Is the working process meditative and contemplative?

“I like meditation and contemplation even when I am not making art,” he offers in way of a reply.

Zhang’s recent exhibitions include Dust II at Yallay Gallery in Hong Kong, Artificial Garden at Today Art Museum in Beijing, and Post-Calligraphy in Chinese Contemporary Art in Kunstraum Villa Friede in Germany.

Born in Hunan, China, he received his training in oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Art. For the next decade or so after graduation, he busied himself with painting, until there came a day where painting felt different from all the years before.

“I immersed myself in making paintings for eight years, very personal paintings that brought enrichment and happiness in my life. But one day the realisation hit that ‘happiness’ is sinful. Now, it is art like the Reading and Dust series that excites and challenges me,” he says.

Dust160824 (dust on canvas, 2016).
Dust160903 (dust on canvas, 2016).
Dust140715 (dust on canvas, 2014) 60x45cm. Photos: Richard Koh Fine Art

Zhang sorts the dust he collects according to colour before embarking on securing layer upon layer of dust on canvas.

“Dust can be differentiated based on the ‘warmness’ or ‘coolness’ of its colour, as well as its intensity. As for how exactly I create a dust work, there is no absolute formula I follow. Even though my later works look more ‘perfect’ than when I first started out, I still make mistakes – even as recently as yesterday,” he points out.

Zhang is rather reluctant to openly interpret the meaning of his work, choosing to keep it open-ended and a reflection of the individual viewers.

“My message is not a straightforward one. When dust is repeatedly grinded and polished until it becomes a mirror and reflects everything that is objective, what do you see through it?” he questions.

Indeed, it is an answer that each person can only answer for himself.

Dust is on at Richard Koh Fine Art (2F-3, Level 2, Bangsar Village 2) in Kuala Lumpur till Nov 18. Call 03-2283 3677 or visit for more information.

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