Snapshots from the Archive

Bad Behaviour: Toilets and Classrooms in the paintings of Zhao Yanbin

The White Rabbit Collection holds two of Zhao Yanbin’s paintings: Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014) and A Huge Toilet (2016). Both paintings are based on Zhao’s childhood memories of studying in small-town, rural areas, and both are influenced by the intricate style of gongbi court painting. Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014) developed from Zhao’s dissertation, ‘Mischief in Student Days,’ and is set up as an installation mimicking the crammed space of the classroom, with school desks and chairs in front of the painting. The painting, a birds-eye view of a repressive-looking classroom, is filled with intricate, humorous details of mischievous student interactions within a strict, rigid environment. In contrast, the large school toilets are a space of liberty, where people are free to be themselves. In A Huge Toilet (2016), Zhao observes the space of these public toilets like a miniature version of society, where the relationships between people are rich but subtle. Through an additional fieldwork research process where he collected stories of people’s experiences in these public toilets, Zhao depicts this dynamic space with a wicked sense of humour and a degree of nostalgia.

In 2018, Zhao Yanbin donated 10 preparatory sketches and notes to the White Rabbit Collection Archive. Produced in pencil, pen, acrylic and watercolour, the materials range from preliminary sketches to plans and detail studies in preparation for his two paintings in the White Rabbit Collection. The materials offer rich insights into Zhao’s thinking, research and processes of composing his large scale works.

For Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014), Zhao provided the archive with annotated materials that include lists of gestures and postures for his student subjects as well as notes on their physical appearance in different classroom scenarios.

Annotated sketch for 'Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual' (2014) with notes on student appearance and a list of postures and gestures.

Annotated sketch for Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014) with notes on student appearance and a list of postures and gestures.

A plan for 'Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual' (2014) with lists of more postures and gestures.

Another plan for 'Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual' (2014) with lists of more postures and gestures.

Two plans for Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014) with lists of more postures and gestures.

These meticulous notes were then translated into a small acrylic study detailing some of the student interactions that would then inform the final painting where these engaging details are multiplied by a factor of ten.

Detail study in acrylic for 'Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual' (2014)

Detail study in acrylic for Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014)

'Tomorrow We Have Class As Usual' (2014)

 Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014) 

The archive material for Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014) also showcase Zhao’s earlier concerns with constructing an appropriate perspective of the classroom space. His annotated sketches test out several dimensions and versions of a bird’s eye view with calculations, notes on composition and a reference to the perspective found in Qing Dynasty court paintings. In these sketches, Zhao also makes several personal reflections on an early experience of surveillance from the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging in front of the classroom. He further questions the authority and authenticity of the other figures with their quotes hanging along a typical classroom wall. These remarks reveal Zhao’s deeply personal thinking behind the very deliberate decisions of the selected portraits and Mao quotes included in his final painting.

Annotated sketch for 'Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual' (2014), with detailed calculations, notes on composition and a reference to Qing Dynasty court paintings.

Annotated sketch for Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014), with detailed calculations, notes on composition and a reference to Qing Dynasty court paintings.

An annotated sketch for 'Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual' (2014), with notes on perspective and reflections on early experiences of surveillance.

An annotated sketch for Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014), with notes on perspective and reflections on early experiences of surveillance.

 

For A Huge Toilet (2016), Zhao generously donated another detailed annotated sketch to the White Rabbit Collection Archive. This sketch in pencil and pen also includes notes on the figure’s postures as well as a Zhao’s personal reflections and observations of the big school toilets as a social gathering place not dissimilar to that of a church, factory, a hall and a public square.

An annotated sketch for 'A Big Toilet' (2016), with notes posture and reflections on the toilet space as a gathering place.

An annotated sketch for A Big Toilet (2016), with notes posture and reflections on the toilet space as a gathering place.

In his interview with Luise Guest, the White Rabbit Collection Research Manager, he discusses this idea of the bathroom as a space that offers a freedom beyond the classroom:

“In a school, the public toilet is the most free place, anything that is not allowed in a classroom, you can do it in a toilet. In the toilet, people are most likely to be themselves, naughty as a child; as an adult we are so disciplined, and we do not dare to think and do so many things. The public toilet in the school is also like the miniature version of society, the relationships between people are very rich and subtle. This work is based on my memories of public toilets in schools, I’ve also done field research and collected stories of things that took place in toilets. I hope to transfer all these stories to this artwork and bring a kind of conclusion of collective memories of our time.” 

Zhao tested these ideas in large preliminary sketches, bringing his research and observations together. One of the last sketches in pencil, proportionally correct to the final painting with its 24 rows of toilet stalls, includes speech bubbles on the figures that narrate their mischievous interactions. While these bubbles are not included in the final painting, the characters and their play can still be identified as they are multiplied to occupy the entire space. Sharing the same aerial view to that of Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014), it is clear from these archival materials that the making of Tomorrow We Have Class as Usual (2014) influenced the process of creating A Huge Toilet (2016), both coming from the artist’s own personal experiences, observations and further research.

A preliminary sketch for 'A Big Toilet' (2016)

A preliminary sketch for A Big Toilet (2016)

The Zhao Yanbin Artist File was compiled by the White Rabbit Collection Research Team in 2018. The file includes materials donated by Zhao Yanbin and material produced and collected by the White Rabbit Collection.

By Annette An-Jen Liu, intern for the White Rabbit Collection Archive and Research team. 

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