“No one can keep his distance from beauty.”

Born 1958, Nanjing, Jiangsu

As a child, Zhou Yunxia was terrified of toads. They looked ugly, and grown-ups said they were poisonous. When he was 44, he moved to Shanghai. There in the markets of Qingpu, “I saw people eating toads because they thought it was good for the skin. I was shocked, and my childhood fear came back to me.” The toads’ skins were dumped behind the marketplace in stinking heaps. The sight and smell made Zhou Yunxia feel a new sympathy for the toads. He was already using real objects in his art; now he decided to collect the discarded skins and turn them into art that would reveal the beauty of nature’s designs. At first he made clothes from toadskins. Then he began painting the patterns on silk and paper scrolls. He sees the web of dots and lines as a multilayered metaphor. In Mystery—Asking Heaven (2003-2006) they form “a record of time” and “a kind of puzzle. It moves, floats and changes colour like a chameleon and like life itself, which is always unpredictable.” The intricate web also resembles the many networks of our lives: “the Internet, relationships of the present with the past, or of China with the people of other countries.” Yellow is “the colour of temple walls and emperors’ robes,” says the artist, who is a keen student of history. “A lot of people think Chinese people really like red, but I think yellow is more important culturally and historically.”

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