Many years ago I said, "Even though there are many self acclaimed 'punk' musicians in China, but only He Yong is a true 'punk', because he's 'punk' at heart." Now I say, “There are many so-called 'conceptual artists', but only Zhou Tiehai is a true 'conceptual artist', because there is nothing else to his art except 'concept', he's pure.” Thus, when critiquing Zhou Tiehai's art, it is best to begin with "concept".
Zhou Tiehai is an artist who could be offered many well-earned accolades. His area of study and research is a radical and unique field within contemporary Chinese art. He transforms explanations of art into "artistic economics", "artistic politics", or "artistic anthropology". These can be categorized as a sort of "natural science", a basis from which to entirely dissolve and dispel any ideas about the 'original nature' and 'superior quality' of art. Zhou Tiehai claims that "it's not difficult to make art". This is a resounding slap in the face of 'elegant' social taste.
Zhou Tiehai uses the principle of "actual analysis". Once he has deconstructed Dewey and Freud he reconstructs them, and thus builds his own enormous yet compact system of logical thought. He places various phenomena of artistic production and artistic life under a microscope to be enlarged and denounced; yet, he holds a positive attitude toward the search for a path or breakthrough for artists and contemporary art in "post post-modernism".
Zhou Tiehai thinks that works of art occupy only a small portion of 'art', the larger portion of 'art' consists of 'making others believe you are an outstanding artist'. Therefore, since 1994, Zhou Tiehai has not done a single piece of painting by himself, rather, his everyday work became accompanying critics, curators, gallery owners and museum directors in conversations, traveling and dining, with only one purpose—making the key figures in the artistic food chain believe and consent that Zhou Tiehai is indeed an outstanding artist. Zhou Tiehai's method, his concept itself is an artistic performance, with a distinguished flavor, loud slogan and unique style.
Therefore, to a certain extent, Zhou Tiehai is not someone 'making art', but someone who 'talks about art', the initiator of a one-man standing comedy or comic troupe, the sole actor, promoter and inheritor. In reality, many have begun to imitate Zhou Tiehai's model of creativity, and have taken this as their primary career. But, they will never become Zhou Tiehai, because Zhou's 'concept' is indeed rather clear and simple, even though many might imitate it, there will always be an obvious difference. This is Zhou Tiehai's 'laugh of the deep sea'.
Zhou Tiehai's 'concept' allowed him to become an artist of many abilities, because within this 'concept', anything he performs can be related to 'his art'. His video, performances, prints, paintings, lithography and sculptures, even his shopping, sleeping, drinking and going to the bathroom—all can be cloaked with art. Thus he is truly achieving 'art in life, and life in art', an 'art that originates in life and extends to life', and an 'art coming from the masses and serving the people.' Of course, in the end, Zhou Tiehai's art belongs only to himself, and serves only his own purpose—his own unique concept. The founding of this great paradox has become for Zhou Tiehai a weapon that cuts through metal like it was mud.
Compared to Zhou Tiehai's artistic concept, his artistic content is not worth mentioning, because no matter how intelligent and alert in metaphor or symbolic meaning, it is still unable to surpass the wisdom of the former. But in an analytical essay, it seems inappropriate not to discuss the works. Thus, I have reluctantly produced a few phrases of somewhat lukewarm criticism.
Zhou Tiehai borrowed the camel motif from American Camel cigarettes. In my opinion, this is a type of strategic praise for political, economic and cultural colonialism. When we cannot change the current situation or reality, coldly ironic and burningly satirical self-contradiction becomes an attack designed to protect the homeland and safeguard the country. The extreme imbalance between East and West in terms of the power to speak is not something we can change in the near future; instead of struggling against it face-to-face, it is better to save our country by following a curved path, using another's fist to hit our iron stomach. Once we recover our breath, we can use our smile and willing acceptance as tools to struggle against tyranny, making the enemy's fist impotent, making the Western advance irrelevant. The extolling and praise of the West can also be considered a recognition and contribution to civilization. There are many aspects of Western civilization that are worth our study. Zhou Tiehai uses a camel, a 'boat in the desert', as a metaphor for 'Shanghai civilization', how indelible. In terms of the outside appearance, a camel is ferocious and tough, it has the disposition of a king, but it is inevitable that those things that appear strong are weak inside. Zhou Tiehai's anthropomorphic camel motifs play the roles of various key figures of the world. According to my own Goldbach's guess, Zhou Tiehai's choice of a camel as his main creative subject can be explained by the fact that Zhou himself looks like a camel. When we are in front of a mirror, it is easy to notice our strengths and others' weaknesses, this variation between strength and weakness perhaps will be the future competition between the East and West.
This is it for now, follow Zhou Tiehai and more will be said in the future.