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On Zhou Tiehai

Author: Karen Smith 1999

Zhou Tiehai is one of the younger members of the Chinese avant-garde. The themes in his work are frequently timely in terms of illustrating his finely tuned criticism of the art world. Zhou pins his points on the back of current events known to his audience, and recognisable to those who don't as the fallacies of the art world. He occupies a niche, rich in fodder for his art. It is a field upon which few others dare to graze. In many ways, Zhou Tiehai plays the fool to those who should be wise; the child who dares to suggest that the emperor is indeed naked.

Zhou Tiehai was born in Shanghai in 1966, a city in which he continues to live and work. He graduated from the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University in 1989. More fortunate than most artists based in Shanghai, Zhou has a large studio where, amongst other things, he creates his monumental paper paintings, which he first began in co-operation with fellow graduate Yang Xu in 1989. Decided upon making a kind of anti-painting, the pair began by painting upon sheets of newspaper and throwaway packing paper that they bonded together, adding to and subtracting from as the painted image took form. This remains an approach to which Zhou frequently returns, the images increasingly sophisticated but the unconcern for the durability of the ground as strong as in the first initiative.

Zhou Tiehai's natural sense of humour, his deadpan approach to life, and his powers of observation, make him at home with foreigners, and in foreign countries on his regular travels abroad for exhibition. The knowledge he gleans of other cultures provides the comparative that vindicates the judgements on contemporary culture in China and beyond, which he expresses in his art. Of the younger generation, Zhou carries a different set of personal experiences and owns a different mindset to artists of preceding generations. Zhou Tiehai is the true cynicist of the avant-garde, the sharp tongue of the artist-as-commentator on both his own society and the interaction and symptoms of the Chinese art circles. His work is conceptual but, in line with the evolution of a society with a preference for instant and disposable culture, his work has the fleeting quality of impermanence; today's that becomes tomorrow's garbage. The power of mass media to shape opinion and present the facts of the (art) world has been a force he manipulates for his own poignant ends. This takes the form of a series of magazine covers that imitate the well-known faces of publications like Art in America, ArtNews, frieze, Stern and the New York Times. These he recreates as format perfect copies, but with headlines and images that make direct and succinct reference to the situation of, and the influences governing art in China as he perceives them. The 'headlines' appear in his huge drawings, where the compositions approach graffiti with the slogans they contain. No matter how careless the works might first appear, they demonstrate a refinement that distinguishes Zhou Tiehai from many of his peers, and made him a deserving recipient of the first Contemporary Chinese Art Award, presented by the CCAA Association in 1998.

Zhou Tiehai remains defiantly longhaired at a time when all other artists are cropping their locks. He creates waves without fear of being judged, just as he himself is not averse to passing judgement on others. In Shanghai, exhibitions occur with ever-greater frequency. Artists travel, abroad, visitors explore the Chinese art world. Zhou Tiehai observes and absorbs all. Who's visiting, who is doing what with whom, who is in what show, all is fed into his mental archive for future reference, just as it spawned the sound installation Airport in 1996, magazine cover headlines and paper works.

Zhou Tiehai has participated in numerous showings of contemporary art from China abroad, and in many more international exhibitions. He is one of the most sought-after artists in China at the present time

Related Artists:
ZHOU TIEHAI 周铁海

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