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Artists of the Year

Taipei calling: The fairy-tale landscapes of Zhang Xu Zhan

One of the Deutsche Bank’s Artists of the Year, Zhang Xu Zhan's delicate papier-mâché creations can be seen at the Palais Populaire

Born in 1988, the Taiwanese artist Zhang Xu Zhan has become well known for his delicate papier-mâché figures that populate his immersive stop-motion films. This fairy-tale landscape is filled with spirits from nature and singing animals and plants. His work has been shown at Biennales in Taichung, Shanghai, Yokohama and Jakarta. He was part of the 2016 Art Basel Hong Kong and his work is in the collection of the Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts.

One of the Deutsche Bank’s Artists of the Year, his work is now on view at Berlin’s Palais Populaire. We spoke to him about his method and his low expectations for Berlin‘s culinary traditions.

Your work is now showing at the Palais Populaire, featuring these wonderful papier-mâché crocodiles. How long does it take you to make each one?

One approximately 50 cm tall crocodile takes between 7 and 10 days. All my work is handmade as I make sure I can move every detail of the body. I have to design it and  I have to create the so-called ‘bones’, which is the metal wiring inside.

In the future are you interested in doing motion control with life-size crocodiles?

I am interested in making life-size creatures for the stage-for a theatre production, just not for movies.

Would you like to make a full-length feature film?

Of course! If I could only find the money!

You had a short film at Berlin Interfilm Festival in 2011. How did you find out about the Berlin Festival?

The festival is well-known at Taiwan’s Film and Television University so I sent in the film myself.

And how did you find Berlin?

I stayed all of 10 days. I had a sightseeing schedule, and I went to see the famous Berlin wall. In Taiwan we think that Germans are always eating sausages and drinking beer but I found out that Germans actually have many different kinds of food. Berlin is a very interesting city because of all these cultures mixed together. It was the first time I left Taiwan and it was a bit of a culture shock. I had never experienced another culture before, and I met directors from all around the world which was deeply inspiring and really influenced my artwork.

What was the highlight of your visit?

Near the Berlin wall we met two people who thought we were from Korea and rather bizarrely they began singing Korean rave to us.

I heard that after Berlin you became less interested in film?

Yes, for a couple of years, I didn’t just make short films but other artwork such as a video installation for a museum.

What made you want to move into installations?

Film is limited because it is only 2D. What interests me is 3D so I can explore space.

Did you design your own software for your stop-motion films or do you use existing programs?

I use Dragonframe. It’s the same program Wes Anderson used in “Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson had hundreds of people working for him. Is that your goal?

Wes Anderson has a Dream team. I don’t have Wes Anderson’s financial resources! I am trying to find people to support me.

Do you have an assistant?

Stopmotion is complicated and after the “Si So Mi” video, I realized I needed an assistant. Up until then most of the time my girlfriend Juju Chan is my assistant. So, as you can imagine I am extremely grateful to my family and my girlfriend.

Do you work regular hours during the daytime or do you work during the night!

Often I find myself working right through the night and into the morning.

How is Covid in Taipei? Are you vaccinated?

When Omicron came, the situation in Taipei also became very serious so I got vaccinated twice.

What are your future plans?

I am preparing a solo exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in August, but I am also excited to go come to Berlin in March. Deutsche Bank made a book about the current exhibition, so I am coming for the book launch and doing a talk there on March 3. I also want to turn my art into NFTs.

How does it feel to be internationally recognized? According to Artfacts you are ranked among the Top 100 artists in Taiwan!

It feels great, but I am only 34 year old. I hope to achieve a lot more and I am ready for that opportunity.

What are your main priorities?

I am exploring the possibilities of animation in movies and trying to find people to finance my next project. Everything costs huge amounts of money.