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Zhou Tiehai

Author: Wu Penghui 2006

Zhou Tiehai was born in Shanghai in 1966. Forty-one years later, on the afternoon of March 25, his solo exhibition “An Other History” opened at the Shanghai Art Museum. That morning on one flight from Beijing to Shanghai, there were nearly twenty familiar names from the art world, including the critic and curator Li Xianting, the artists Liu Wei, Zhao Bandi, Yan Lei and others. Many of these had participated together with Zhou Tiehai in large-scale international exhibitions, but now they were all going to see an exhibition. To use the words of Zhou Tiehai himself that day, “Now that it’s done, I wanted everyone to come and have a look, so I invited everyone.”

The conceptual antithesis of Zhou Tiehai’s work is the unproblematic interpretation of the surface: words smeared onto newspapers, lonely camel heads, smiling faces of movie stars from the 1980s, famous Western paintings altered, portraits of friends, faithfully duplicated Chinese paintings, a movie full of over-sarcastic words…his understanding of media—in the twin senses of artistic material and mass communication—makes it easy for the reader to understand his work. But is it this simple? Is it really as people announced at the exhibition opening—that Zhou Tiehai is an one of the most important and widely known international artists working today? We can use some real evidence to enter into debate.

This exhibition, which included important works from each of Zhou Tiehai’s major periods beginning with his works on paper in 1989, spoke to the formation of his individual consciousness. At that time everyone was studying, and two artists—Zhou Tiehai and Yang Xu—were also studying, albeit from a different angle. The difference was that they were not studying surfaces, but perspectives. The obvious traditional painterly concepts and the more avant-garde consciousness that he wished to express seemed to run counter to each other; in his early scrawlings, full of passion, there are still always concrete forms (furniture). Compared with his present canvases, these pieces appear messier, yet this bit of formlessness was able to turn the attention of the viewer toward the traces of the written word etched onto each work. One bore the following inscription: “The girls stand watching by the tree each day, waiting for their men to return from the battlefield…” “Derlik’s eyes are set on in Faust, thinking of blackmail.” Many other sentences from this series have grown famous in their own regard; there is no need to repeat them here.

"I have a difficult time truly recalling some of my sentiments from that time, but this is not the important thing; my thinking was essentially similar to that of the ancient painters who added inscriptions to their works.”

These sentiments are private, these “inscriptions” from their inception were directed at concrete fabricated realities, the artist letting his imaginings freely flow onto the canvas. If we look at the moment surrounding 1989, what was the Chinese art world up to? At that time, the most worthwhile exhibition—the famed China/Avant-Garde exhibition—was shut down several times. Zhou Tiehai, living in Shanghai, did not participate in this chance meeting of artists from across the country, although he was doing the same kind of work as the artists who did: modern art.  Later, he experienced the reality of being censored. In 1991, Zhou Tiehai’s works had already taken on relatively concrete form: some appeared to contain Political Pop imagery; others took on the imagery of Cultural Revolution big-character posters and their accompanying images and slogans; others satirized aristocratic portraits.

"First of all, as opposed to other artists who created images of the Cultural Revolution, my work has always referred to art itself. Another factor is that I constantly criticize and self-criticize, so I used the form of the great criticism, which led to works like “Break.” In criticizing Westernization, I used the image of the long-haired aristocrat, but this was not a narrow criticism: hippies and rockers have long hair too.”

The break, it seemed, occurred all too quickly. To the work of the same name, he added the two characters meaning “thoroughly.” At this time, when Zhou Tiehai had only been making art for two or three years, he expressed his deep dissatisfaction with the art scene and even abandoned it altogether, directing his energy toward commercial photography. What he abandoned was not art itself, but the art scene. Through this time, he held onto his passion for and reflections about art. His return to art in 1994 was a matter of necessity, as he had never lost his interest. He rarely speaks of these three years as a commercial photographer, simply using the word “commercial” to encompass the entire period. As he returned to art, he moved in a startling direction, deciding to cease painting for himself. The current fashion of hiring assistants to paint only took shape around the year 2000. When Zhou Tiehai chose this method, he was reacting to his old belief that an artist “should be like Van Gogh, able to paint well.” He realized that this ideal was untenable, and wished to make art easier. From the beginning, he was playing entirely and intentionally on the model of mass reproduction (as only Yan Lei seems also to do), making those painters who are today still copying their own decade-old works incorporating Chinese symbols look ever more stupid and boring, and completely devoid of meaning.

Zhou Tiehai’s critique of reality was not extinguished by commercial action. Instead, he contextualized his own entry into the economic realm, satirizing both political power and the vapidity of contemporary culture (not unlike his current stance of complete incomprehension vis-à-vis the overheated art market). In the works that followed his return to art, particularly the 1994 work “Famous Prostitute of the Late Qing Dynasty,” he had already started to comment on concrete cultural phenomena in China. This work posed the question to directors like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Chen Yifei, all of whom were using images of old Shanghai in their films: “Is [old Shanghai] really that interesting?”

"Because at that time, everyone was yearning for the old, for the Shanghai of the 1930s.”

Beginning in 1993, individual Chinese artists began to appear on the international stage, attracting the attention of artists throughout China. Wang Guangyi, who participated in the Venice Biennale that year, titled his article “Glory and Dreams” and used it to describe the rare honor he had achieved, completely losing sight of Li Xianting’s opinion and foresight. This was also the moment of complete sycophancy on the part of Chinese artists toward foreign curators; as someone once said, “As long as you curate an exhibition, I am willing to participate.” It even got to the point in Beijing where on the eve of a foreign collector’s arrival, the art world would stay up all night putting exhibitions together. These things all happened, but did Zhou Tiehai know about them? One collector, the former Swiss ambassador to China Uli Sigg, called by the media “the biggest collector of Chinese contemporary art,” stands out. Zhou Tiehai has portrayed this friend in a work about his relationship with Switzerland; the exhibition was staged for Sigg. Perhaps due to his experience with photography, he decided in 1996 to make a movie.

For financial reasons, he chose to shoot “Will” in black and white, adding subtitles later. This was another complete explosion in terms of Zhou Tiehai’s personal experience, similar in content to the works described above. In the movie “Will,” Zhou Tiehai’s name appears nowhere; not as screenwriter, director, or set designer. So what was his role?

"From beginning to end, my name never appeared, but it is my work.”

Zhou Tiehai’s answer is definite, and I know it to be true. Should he not, in principle, be considered the director?

"Yeah, I also hired a director.”

Zhou Tiehai completed his “Fake Covers” series between 1995 and 1998. In it, he placed a fabricated image of himself on the covers of mainstream Western news and art magazines, adding provocative headlines: “You can’t grow healthy and strong without the godfather’s protection,” “Chinese Artist Kills Swiss Journalist,” and “Vale Arte!” There is no shortage of good writing about Zhou Tiehai’s work, but Pi Li’s analysis strikes me as particularly precise and appropriate. Pi Li has written: “In these works, he places himself and contemporary art on the covers of every kind of important magazine, pretending to use the most inflammatory language to express his own narcissism, creating a false image of Chinese contemporary art as causing a constant sensation on the international stage. For Zhou Tiehai, the goal of creating these works or making false statements was to explain that (Chinese) avant-garde art only existed in the West, or in the Western media. Left unspoken was the fact that Chinese contemporary art had neither entered into Chinese society, nor been debated seriously in the Western art world. Our artists were thus drunk on a joyous but false image.” (See Pi Li’s article, “Zhou Tiehai: Strategies for Contemporary Art.”)

In the recent period, Zhou Tiehai’s works have assumed the forms of many different contemporary media, including the sound work “Airport.” For this piece, he recorded sounds from the airports in Venice, Sao Paulo, Kassel and other cities that host major art exhibitions; he titled the work “Delay,” and tailored it to the 2004 Shanghai Biennale. The principle was that Chinese artists had already appeared in all of these venues, so he also added Beijing, Guangzhou, and other Chinese cities that now also have large-scale “biennales.” The 2004 edition of this work was an advance over its original instantiation in 1996, but only a few extremely familiar viewers could pick up on this difference. There were those who found Zhou Tiehai’s work too “private,” to which his response was stoic, saying there was no other way, that these problems exist in every work, and that the viewer’s understanding of art can never encompass the entirety of the artist’s intention.

Looking back at 1996, when the first crop of Joe Camel paintings appeared, Zhou Tiehai gives the following explanation:

"I chose these to express China’s conceptual understanding of the West. You look at Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, but you don’t consider them animals. You see them as humans, do you not?
"So my catalogue was quite difficult to edit, because it was not just one series of works, but the simultaneous continuation of many different lines, with separations among some of them. Why? Whenever I felt it necessary to make a “Fake Cover,” then I would. After a while, I might paint a painting, or do a sound work, or a movie. In 1998, I again felt the need to make a “Fake Cover,” and so I made the last one. I thought this was enough, so the series ended.”

He always speaks in the simplest manner, visibly bad at using words to describe his own actions. But this position is directed precisely at certain understandings of art itself: if words can explain everything, then what is the point of art?

In 1999, Zhou Tiehai participated in the Venice Biennale. Once he knew he had been selected, he began to paint works not intended for that exhibition, particularly “Once You Go to Venice, You’re not a Great Chinese.” Why? Was he talking about himself? Zhou Tiehai replies, “Yes, I was talking about myself.” He has continuously followed a path of resistance and satire vis-à-vis the West, even as broad attention from the art world abroad has solidified his current position. Xu Bing is perhaps the classic example. Reflecting on Zhou Tiehai’s creative intent, Pi Li has also said, “We are doubtful of his success: does this kind of success on the international stage mean that his art has succeeded or failed?” This is a difficult question. I don’t know the answer either. We have to let Zhou Tiehai answer.

In 1999, Zhou Tiehai began to work with airbrush technology. He applied this technique, which derives from commercial printing, to his easel works. This technique differentiated his paintings from our traditional understanding of painting, and remains a part of his working method today.

"By chance, I saw in a wedding photo shop that they used an airbrush on their images, and I thought, I too can achieve that effect.”

Zhou Tiehai’s works then entered an unprecedented and exquisite phase. When we talk about airbrush painting, we are almost definitely speaking of Zhou Tiehai; in the art world, he is the representative figure working in this vocabulary. In 2000, Zhou Tiehai began his series of canvases reproducing covers from the magazine “Mass Movies” (Dazhong Dianying), including stars such as Liu Xiaoqing, Zhang Yu, Pan Hong and others. He chose this most enchanting moment—full of an entire generation’s hopes and dreams for the future—expressions of an era that is today long gone. These portraits of movie stars of the 1980s make people think of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens. Indeed some people call Zhou Tiehai the Andy Warhol of China.

"Movie Stars of the 1980s” is about longing for the future, about what is being longed for, and whether there should be longing in the first place.
"People have said I resemble Andy Warhol, but I don’t understand that much about him. I understand the pictures of his works that I have seen, but I’m not clear on his working method. Are you?”

The fields touched on by Warhol and Zhou Tiehai are more or less similar: painting, photography, film, hiring assistants to paint, working on a large scale. As we talked, people were painting in Zhou Tiehai’s studio, airbrushing the image of a Jeff Koons work onto a canvas, the one where Michael Jackson holds a chimpanzee. Loud noises drained out Zhou Tiehai’s modest, light voice. The only things in Warhol’s repertoire that Zhou Tiehai has yet to do are to found a magazine, and represent movie stars and bands. In all other senses, he has worked in exactly the same professional manner as Warhol—a dream factory. We speak of scale, but Zhou Tiehai is modest: “His scale was far more massive than mine!”

When critics write articles arguing that Zhou Tiehai “reproduces and modifies images familiar to the masses, and fabricates fake covers” as a way of duping his viewers, he gets unhappy. He thinks it normal for a critic to have views on art, but he cannot understand this tone of personal attack, because he has no way of demonstrating the seriousness of his actions. Warhol encountered these same misunderstandings and humiliations in the 1960s, but is now regarded as one of the most serious artists of the last century. Looking at these doubts that today surround Zhou Tiehai, it becomes obvious that Chinese media’s understanding of and tolerance for art lags behind that of the West by at least 50 years, a reality that has also determined that his support comes almost entirely from the West.

In terms of lifestyle, Warhol liked celebrities, liked the spotlight. His images of Mick Jagger, who recently performed in Shanghai, and of many other celebrities, have appeared in exhibitions over and over again. But when the smoke dispersed from above this brightly colored vanity fair, Warhol would lie in bed and fall asleep watching Disney cartoons. This seems like a good way to dispel one’s inner feelings of inferiority and loneliness. I have witnessed this same contradiction in Zhou Tiehai. Perhaps he would not admit it, but I remember how strange it felt to attend the opening banquet for his solo exhibition, which was rumored to have cost one thousand RMB per person. There are too many celebrities in the art scene, as we all know. But they have no way to interact. For his next exhibition, I recommend that Zhou Tiehai invite the celebrities he has painted. Sitting in a dark corner, I thought of the lonely camel in his paintings. Since 2002, these paintings have re-interpreted famous Western portraits, each featuring a lone figure standing, sitting, or lying down. All of these sitters are accomplished people, and almost all of them are aristocrats, tied up in earthly affairs. A work created simultaneously, the “Placebo” series, involves reproductions of classical Chinese paintings, mostly by painters like Bada Shanren—painters who remained aloof from the world, unwilling to serve as officials, disdainful of reality, reclusive. Zhou Tiehai admits that he now leads two lifestyles, forming a nice contrast, and allowing him to create paintings about the contradiction between these two sentiments. Even if he stresses that his attitude toward Chinese painting is one of “study,” this claim might still be considered an honest lie. Those works are in fact a confirmation of his own self-recognition. He is the maker of these works only in the conceptual sense; perhaps they are subtle consolations growing from the thoughts that underlie his ordinary life, individual proofs of his hermeneutic style, proofs that there once were people who approached the world that they saw in this way.

From 2002 to the present, Zhou Tiehai has created a series of works modifying famous Western paintings. Viewers familiar with art history will recognize, in the exhibition hall, images from DaVinci, Rembrandt, Ingres, Manet and Dix, to name a few. Can all Western painting be subsumed into Zhou Tiehai’s emblematic symbol—the camel? Zhou Tiehai believes that “This is basically possible.” When he changes these classical visages into camel heads, the basic seriousness of these works is weakened, even creating some laughable moments. Of course these are diligently painted. Is the purpose to make the viewer forget the original appearance of these paintings? Zhou Tiehai asks: “Is it laughable?” Perhaps it is that he has seen too many, so he doesn’t think so. But why does he leave the images in his series of reproduced Chinese paintings untouched? He answers: “I am studying Chinese painting; this is already enough.” When I asked why the camels always appear worried, he replied, “One kind of expression is already enough.

Zhou Tiehai works on several series of paintings at the same time, so how does he arrange his work? It can’t be that he paints Zhang Yu one day, then a Chinese landscape the next, and another on the following day, can it? Perhaps this is what the viewers doubt, that in the process of going ever deeper, he does not forget to give us unexpected surprises. The pure techniques of painting by hand have yielded to a studio staffed by assistants, subverting our traditional understanding of the artist, and using his remaining time to continue thinking and imagining, just as he chose to use the image of the camel in his paintings, rich and full of substance. His influences come from Duchamp, not from the shallower imagistic level of Warhol. Just like his earliest attitude toward studying art, he believes that “the important thing is to absorb some influences on the level of thought, to stare the big questions in the face.

Looking at over ten portraits that Zhou Tiehai did of a foreign friend named Frederic Le Gourierec, in media ranging from graffiti to false magazine covers, from sculpture to airbrushed paintings, I am ever more willing to understand the artist’s friendship with this Westerner. Behind him sits a two-meter high close-up of Frederic Le Gourierec’s head, wearing a straightforward expression—calm, handsome, clean, a bit embarrassed. Zhou Tiehai’s depiction is moving and warm. Regarding this extremely satisfying painting, he voiced a concept that I find extremely valuable:

"I want to look at things completely.”

Many of the works at Zhou Tiehai’s recent solo exhibition had been borrowed back from collections abroad, but what are his feelings about his own works—does he want to sell them all, or keep a few of the ones he likes?

"When other people want to buy your works, it is a kind of affirmation. I still hope to hold onto a few, but before I didn’t have this luxury. Now I have it, but it is still difficult. You think and think, and it’s like you don’t have any works.”

Zhou Tiehai’s curriculum vitae reads clearly and impressively: high-quality works completed for one major international exhibition or solo show after another. In the week surrounding the opening of “An Other History,” he gave interviews to a large number of reporters including one from The New York Times, and answered all sorts of questions. As he led me out of his studio, in a state of disturbed emotional quietude, he spoke almost too honestly. I pinned the exhibition button that he gave me onto my shirt. On top was written a sentence I like: “Vale Arte” (Farewell, Art). Zhou Tiehai represents the highest standard of Chinese contemporary art at this moment. Even though many people still do not know him, even if he wanted to prove earlier that art can be easy, nevertheless today he believes art to be difficult. Our interpretation of him has just begun, and we cannot be sure that Zhou Tiehai will not just stop speaking here, saying that this too is “already enough.”

On my way back, I stopped in Nanjing and showed the catalogue from Zhou Tiehai’s solo exhibition to the artist Mao Yan. He replied, “In China now, Zhou Tiehai is the artist who works most thoroughly on the conceptual level.” On this, I agree.

April 22,2006  Morning
(Indented text implies direct quotation from the artist.)

Related Artists:
ZHOU TIEHAI 周铁海

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