The inner circumference of Firstsite’s impressive golden crescent building, designed by Rafael Viñoly, has been transformed. Launching the gallery’s year-long focus on the exploration of identity, ‘Gesture and Form’ comprises ten works in oil hung in conversation with an expansive space painting, creating an immersive corridor. The site-specific painting, made over a ten-day period by Chinese artist Zhang Enli, wraps the entirety of the gallery’s 140-meter curved and slanted wall. All year, the work will ensconce visitors in a teeming landscape comprised of Chinese and British trees. Branches, sections of bark, and bursts of foliage are entwined, coiled into each other, tangled and loose. They progressively multiply, and draw the audience further and further into Enli’s stylised environment.
Space Painting (2016), a work similar to those which previously transformed the ICA (2013) and Museo d’Arte contemporanea di Villa Croce (2013), devours the gallery. From the first series of stand-alone fir-esque trees, whose branches seemingly reach into each other, through blank panels to heavy tree trunks, and knots of dense shrubbery, the force of the work is consistent. This is partly contingent upon the intensely physical process of realising a piece on this scale. As the work unravels, changes in the loose watercolour become apparent: we see broad washes, parts scrubbed, others painted. Stand close up and the paint drips, blurs and expands across the slanted wall, exposing the physicality of the artist’s practice. It is not hard to imagine Enli’s precarious position atop a cherry picker.
This on-site practice and enquiry into spatial relationships has been pursued by the artist since 2007. Drawing on Buddhist philosophy and its emphasis on ‘sentience’ (having senses, feeling and perception) and the ‘material’ (relationship to environment), Enli understands the nuance of his surroundings. His initial studio sketches had to change when he arrived at Firstsite, to accommodate the seasonal variation of the city’s trees, and this ability to adapt to his location ensures that his paintings consistently become inherent in the space, or indeed the space becomes the work. The reflection of the living trees which surround the gallery through its large viewing windows and skylights is, of course, no coincidence; Enli intended it to be ‘a continuous experience from inside out’.
In addition to this visual play, ten broadly abstract paintings are placed in parallel to Space Painting. A number - Trees in the Wind (2014), The Tree Stump (2) (2015) - echo the vast wall painting, featuring branches which smoothly twist around each other and create loops across the canvas. Others - Brown, Green and Red (2016) and Green, Yellow, Blue (2016) - feature abstracted pools of colour bleeding into each other, yet are suggestive of and willing a figure to emerge. This expectation is intensified by the faint pencil grid lines left on the paintings, intended by Enli to create a ‘visual journey for the viewer’– bringing them closer to the painter and his subjective experience. Brought into the vicinity of Space Painting and, as a whole, Gesture and Form, the viewer would struggle to be anywhere but here, experiencing their arboreal surroundings. With his spatial and perspectival sensitivity, Enli’s has generously morphed Firstsite into another of his entirely accessible worlds.