Educated by Russian trained professors at Shanghai's Fine Arts College, Zhou Tiehai's initial artistic education was confined to ornate European classicism and obtuse Soviet social realism. As China relaxed its cultural controls under Deng Xiao Ping, decades of western consumerism, art and influence trickled into the Chinese consciousness from the brazen audacity of Pop Art to the damn right anarchism of Dada.
In the process smashing aside prevailing notions of what consitutes art, "with Dadaism there was nothing you could not do, it ripped your mind open" Zhou explains. One day you were listening to your teacher extol the technical merits of Da Vinci - the next you could paint moustaches on the Mona Lisa.
Recognition and acclaim in his own country though meant little 'real' success. Fame and exposure would only come with Western acknolegement and acceptance. "Before I thought that to be an artist all you needed was your work to be good. I discovered this was not the case. You have to be on a list." Zhou says it was a bitter realization art wasn't simply the pure creation of paintings - getting seen involved negotiating a treacherous path through gallery owners, museum curators and art critics. But most important of all, you had to be featured in the World's most powerful media. It soon became apparent that "As a Chinese artist you had to be on the covers of the right Western press for people to know you."
In true Dadaist tradition Zhou just constructed his own ersatz press images, his mock covers depict the artist's desperate struggle for visibility upon the horizons of a hostile foreign media and offer an honest expression of his own ambition. Their sheer audacity ironically garnering him the media attention he sa craved and in the process perpetuating his march to international notoriety.
With Western interest came a label - 'Chinese artist'. The political connotations of which Zhou has an uneasy relationship with. "The West needs and wants to see that in China there is an artist with democratic thinking, or people who have democratic ideas, as an example of opposition to the Chinese communist party." But Zhou claims the only thing preoccupying him is work, not opposition to the government. The irony is that while Zhou can't wait for the 'Chinese' to be dropped from 'artist', it is this political label that helps China's modern artists get the attention they need to survive.
The internecine relations within the art world itself Zhou compares to the perspicious wrangling of international diplomacy. The distribution of profit, who gets to know about you and where works are shown all depend on your rapport and negotiations with various curators "It's like the Mafia and it depends which Godfather you're with."
Zhou's reputation continues to grow. It is prepetuated through his manipulation of a game he treats with so much derision. His most potent contemporary statement to date has been flaoting himself on the Shanghai stock exchange. Upon listing 'the Zhou' rose gradually but accelerated into an all out buying spree following a large European purchase. This caused one senior trader to announce "If the Zhou climbs much higher it will find itself very vulnerable to market fluctuations and exposed to the whims of profit takers."
It reaffirms Zhou's statement - this is the true value of art as we hurtlye towards the twenty first century.