A Quest for Healing: Contemporary Art by Zhang Yanzi

In April, Surgeons’ Hall Museums opened its newest temporary exhibition ‘A Quest for Healing.’ Created by award-winning Chinese artist Zhang Yanzi, this contemporary art exhibition is the first of its kind to be shown at the museums.


A Quest For Healing

Zhang Yanzi completed a residency in Edinburgh during 2017, where she became inspired by Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Library and Archives. Drawing from the inspiration she received while in Edinburgh, she returned to her studio in Beijing where she began creating new artwork. At the launch of the exhibition she commented:

As an artist the scariest thing is to lose inspiration. Last year as I did my residency, I got so much inspiration and at the same time the inspiration that I got will not end here but will continue to inspire me in the future.’

The artist said how she felt overwhelmed by emotion during her residency, in particular during her time in the Wohl Pathology Museum.  She noted the feelings evoked during her time in the museum were stronger than those she has felt from contemporary art.

Zhang also spent a lot of time in the library and archives and was intrigued by one book in particular-a notebook by David Middleton Greig entitled “Notes in anatomy taken from lectures by Professor Turner, Session 1881-82.” This book inspired her to create ‘Secret Path’ and ‘Capillaries’.

David Middleton
‘Notes in anatomy taken from lectures by Professor Turner, Session 1881-82.‘  Image courtesy of RCSED Library and Archives


Secret Path’ is made up of four artworks, each made of two layers created using traditional Chinese techniques. The first layer is done using ink on paper and depicts a mountainous landscape with red trees, similar to the drawings of the arteries drawn by David Middleton Greig. The second layer is done with ink on silk and features faces inspired by illustrations from the Song Dynasty text describing Chinese face reading. There are acupuncture needles coming from these four artworks mapping out the faces destinies and medical diagnoses. By linking the notebook to the Song Dynasty face reading text the artist is linking eastern and western medical practices and is also connecting art and medical science. Zhang Yanzi feels that there is a strong link between art and medicine commenting: “Sometimes I feel an artist is like a doctor. If I create some art that will make people happy then they will forget about their pain.”

‘Secret Path’

Art critic Huang Zhuan once wrote that Zhang Yanzi “depicts both modern anxiety as well as its antidote and cure.” The main focal point in the exhibition space is ‘Wishing Capsules’ which looks at how in our increasingly global world, our concerns and worries may not just be personal but also universal. Zhang Yanzi asked primary school children in China to send her pill packets filled with their hopes, wishes and ambitions for not only themselves but the people of Scotland. Word spread like wildfire through social media and in the end she received an unprecedented 15,000 blister packs. The artist and museum staff worked together to stick these to the wall with the plan being to dismantle it at the end of the exhibition and reassemble it in Hong Kong. In 10 years-time the artist would like to open up the packs and read the wishes to see if they have come true.


A small section of ‘Wishing Capsules

Capillaries’ makes further reference to the drawings in the aforementioned notebook. It is comprised of branches which were gathered in Edinburgh wrapped in red bandages as the drawings done by David Middleton Greig reminded the artist of trees. Below it sits ‘All Volcanoes are Nothing but Acne.’ This piece is made of gauze bandages and 10,000 acupuncture needles to make it look as though it is a living, breathing thing and the size of it can be altered by perspective. Contemporary art may seem futile in the light of a serious illness, however the artist feels that art has a massive role to play in coming to terms with ourselves and the world around us.


‘All Volcanoes Are Nothing But Acne’


There are other artworks showcased alongside these bespoke pieces such as ‘Sanctuary,’ ‘Limitless’ and ‘Qi’ which is a 65m long silk banner displayed in the Wohl Pathology Museum.

A Quest for Healing’ is open until the 4th of November. 

We will be running a Chinese Ink Workshop which is inspired by ‘A Quest for Healing.’ ‘Pain and Healing‘ takes place on the 9th of June.

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