VALE ARTE - Goodbye Art - the motto spreads across the black flag in bold white letters. Until January, the flag hung on a flag-pole on top of Vienna Secession. Those critical of themselves or the exhibition taking place inside the building might have read the flag's message as a pessimistic comment or downright dismissal of 'Cities on the Move'. This group show, curated by Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist, presented works by more than eighty artists, photographers and architects from all over Asia, all of them dealing the complexities of today's Asian cities in a variety of media and styles. Their concepts and artworks confront the anonymity, the chaotic traffic, urban neglect and overpopulation that seem to be synonymous with these huge urban conglomerates, challenging the problems both by aesthetic and socio-political means.
Looking at the exhibition catalogue, one artist does not fit into the mould: Zhou Tiehai, born in Shanghai in 1966 and educated by Russian-trained professors at the city's Fine Arts College. In his catalogue entry, Zhou monitors the increase of his value as a class B share on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, or dressed as a business executive in dark suit and tie, he explains the analogies between the seemingly mutually exclusive systems of the art world and that of political relations between states in the post-cold war era. In the exhibition itself, Zhou shows a work ironically commenting on the current consumerism in China: 'Buy Happiness'.
Back in Shanghai, the small artisitc community is very much aware of projects such as "Cities on the Move'. The tendency towards an artistic form of urban planning is not only discussed but also put into work by young artists still completely unknown in the West. A couple of weeks ago, 'Linear City' asked the visitors of a group show of Chinese and South Korean contemporary art to indicate the part of town where they came from by putting their entrance ticket into a ballot box, thereby casting a 'vote'. Inside the Changning District Cultural Centre, a town map divided into sectors and a board of statistics informed the viewer of the distribution of people interested in the arts. 'Linear City' plans further explorations of Shanghai; while Zhou Tiehai had the city already mapped out in 1996, in his cartographie of the 'Avantgarde Business Association of Shanghai'. This over-sized work, on glued-together newspapers and magazine pages was also used as a backdrop of his silent movie 'will', finished the same year and shown at Shiseido Gallery's 'Promenade in Asia' show in Tokyo in spring 1997. In the film, Zhou's farewell to art is visualized as a tableau vivant, with the members of his fictitious 'Avantgarde Business Association' at sea, as helpless and without direction as the men in Theodore Gericault's ' Raft of the Medusa'. In the early nineties, Zhou's discontent with the artistic community and art itself lead to a two-year complete stop of all artistic activites. Turning the disillusionment into productivity, he now integrates his ambivalence into his work. The 'avantgarde business' still clearly is his business but what is more important both for him and other young artists like Shi Yong (who also had a work in vienna) is the awareness of their specific situation and its incorporation into their art.
Zhou regards himself as an international, not so much a Chinese artist, rejecting the still prevalent notion of the 'exotism' of Chinese contemporary art. In his work, the possibilities of art in a city and a society quite clearly 'on the move' become the central issue, as both are characterized first and formeost by their materialistic needs. As with every national avantgarde which had so far not been inscribed on the global map of the art world, the relation between Chinese contemporary art and its perception in the West is precarious.
Since 1991, Zhou Tiehai deals with the ambiguities surrounding him in his large-format works on newspaper. The first paintings palyed with the formal tradition of the 'dazibao', the wall newspapers of the Cultural Revolution, and combined them with quotations from the European history of art. East meets West, and the meeting is conducted in a pictorial language of calculated crudeness which only calms down in the second series of works (from 1994). Graffiti meets 'bad painting', or sometimes a consciously nice and pretty way of painting, all techniques supporting and emphasizing the ironic content of the work. Pictures like these are produced in extremely restricted circumstances that make Zhou a conceptual artist not only by choice: When I visited him for the first time in his studio, I could take a look at one third of 'Buy happiness'- the low ceilings in Zhou's apartment which also served a his studio, did not allow more than partial finish of the over-sized paintings.
Shanghai's artistic topography has been mapped out; its youngest generation of artists moves from the city above the ocean, 'Shanghai, towards membership in the international artistic community. Thereby Zhou Tiehai and his colleagues are retracing the steps of the late Deng Xiaoping's revered theory of taking the initiative in the economic drive and moving towards the sea itself, into the world, 'xia hai'.
('Cities on the Move', curated by Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Vienna Secession until January 18, 1998, moves to capcMusee d'art contemporain de Bordeaux in spring).