Touring Spaceship Earth with the Ink Painter Zhang Jingyu

A painting by Zhang Jingyu begins with a passage in which a skull peers out dimly from behind an astronaut’s helmet. Its teeth slide away from an open jaw. Below, vertebrae drop in a string of circles. A skeletal arm reaches up, bone transforming into scaley pipe, and hand into flame or flower. The astronaut-skeleton looks towards unfolding chaos, a swirling constellation of duck heads, bendy airplanes, a syringe (or is it a missile?), monsters that appear to be half-amphibian and half-human, smokestacks, bones, and more skeletons. 

The colours of ink rendering this picture––a long unmounted handscroll––do not go far in clarifying the galaxy of things in it. Wet blobs of black ink rest on top of silvery dry brushstrokes. Thin ink washes give some dimension to the ground, but the bare paper also shines through. “Flying white” lines (where the raw paper can be glimpsed beneath the inky mark of the brush) sit next to clusters of darkly scribbled forms. 

If this is Spaceship Earth, something has gone terribly wrong.

Zhang Jingyu, Big Thousand World (Daqian shijie 大千世界). 2021. Handscroll; ink on xuan paper. Images courtesy of the artist.

About fifty years ago the designer R. Buckminster Fuller published the Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. In it he muses about the perfect design of our planetary spaceship, and the ominous direction in which it is headed. “Up to now,” he writes, “we have been mis-suing, abusing, and polluting this extraordinary chemical energy-interchanging system for successfully regenerating all life aboard our planetary spaceship” (Fuller 1970, 46-7). How to address our lack of synergy with each other and with the planet? Fuller outlines a systems approach (echoed in the title of the painting, Big Thousand World [Daqian shijie 大千世界]), a phrase from a Buddhist sutra which less literally translated means “major world system”). Fuller advocates that we think about Spaceship Earth as if we were city planners “allowed to look at all of Philadelphia, and not just peek through a hole at one house or through one door at one room in that house.” He adds, “I think it’s appropriate that we assume the role of planners and begin to do the largest scale comprehensive thinking of which we are capable” (Fuller 1970, 52-3). 

But we didn’t listen to Fuller. So now, in the twenty-first century, and from the point of view of an ink artist who is part of the urban generation that inherited the problems from not thinking comprehensively, Zhang Jingyu’s painting pushes us to confront the consequences: a Spaceship Earth that has become unintelligible to us because of consumption, addiction, industrial pollution, and more. Flying from the beginning of the handscroll to the end changes nothing. There is no place to go in the picture where things make sense. The identity of the skeletons – who they are, what their relation is to each other and to the frog-eyed monsters – is opaque. History, too, is lost to this scrolling non-place of transit and the morass of unidentifiable things and figures pictured in it.

Still, there is a (grim) playfulness to the picture. A sense of humour limning a merry-go-round of skeletal horses, for instance, goes some way in relieving the darkness that the artist shows us, the predicament of the urban generation.

Fuller, Buckminster. 1970. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. New York: Pocket Books.

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