ShanghART Gallery 香格纳画廊
Home | Exhibitions | Artists | Research | Shop | Space

An Other History

The Artistry of Zhou Tiehai Author: Zhang Qing 2006

平芜尽处是春山,
行人更在春山外。

Song, Ouyang Xiu, Prose-Poem No. 61


I. On "An Other History"

In the exhibition "Another Long March" (Another Long March: Chinese Conceptual Art, Chasse Kazerne, Fundament Foundation, Breda, The Netherlands, 1997), Zhou Tiehai exhibited a work entitled "Buggle Call" (sound installation, 1997).  In this work, we can feel the idealism and heroism of people born in the 1960s. This is a sense of history that enters deep into the marrow, a history that grows out of the collective memories of childhood, bound up with the deepest and most remote memories of childhood. It is the honor and dream of this generation.

But what is history?

History is not only our past, it is everything happening now, and it is the presently unknowable future. Artists, drawing on their sensitivity and foresight, often give us works that contain the sources and motives that will structure future histories.

So what is an "Other History?"

Another history is the history of an artist's individual development set against the broader swipes of public history. It is the psychological distance of the artist's unique sensibility set against the larger developments of history, as the artist's unique thoughts, experiences, insight, language, and critical lens all combine into a constantly maturing world of images. This is an "other history." In this process, the prerequisite for "creating history" is "fabricating history," but the prerequisite for "fabricating history" is subjective imagination. Who is able to distinguish between creating history and fabricating history? It is on precisely this level that Zhou Tiehai's artistic thought can be seen in relation to history and his artistic practice as a means of writing an alternative history: this is the core and essence of Zhou Tiehai's artistic world, and the origin and direction of his artistic thought.

Seen from another perspective, Tiehai's artistic thought and practice challenge the contemporary art history of China as written by western curators. He vigorously and humorously criticized the cultural prejudices of curators who "discovered history in China" in the early 1990s; in his mind that was a new kind of complacency. In both creating and fabricating history, Tiehai projects a "Chen Sheng - Wu Guang"[1][1] sense of wisdom and style, in pursuit of a larger strategy: to take a tooth for a tooth, and when the emperor donned his new clothes, to create a new emperor who could wear other clothes, and to parade him around the international art world.

Since 1994, Zhou Tiehai has been the strategist of an "other history," often finding material in the musings of friends, the anxiety and boredom and indecision of daily life, sometimes going so far as to put sentences from his conversations directly onto his canvases. From 1994 until 1999, he turned his "alternative emperor's new clothes" into an "international brand," through careful and unspoken planning, organization, implementation, publicity, marketing, and operation. Wasn't the Western art establishment at that moment seriously in need of Chinese-made emperor's new clothes? In order to "satisfy" the requirements of the western art world, Zhou Tiehai produced series after series of such "clothes." After ten years of investigation, research, mass production, and modification of his models and specifications, what began as invisible garments have seeped into the very core of the development of the Western contemporary art system. Through years of smart work, Zhou Tiehai gradually brought his name to the attention of Western curators, museums, exhibitions, art fairs, media, critics, and collectors, entering into every facet of Western art-world authority using his fabricated, crowd-pleasing forms. This is the way in which Zhou Tiehai creates an "other history." Perhaps his success appears accidental, a one-time practical joke. But considered from another perspective, accidental success has its historical rationale, and he has already penetrated deeply into the contemporary cultural conversation and the systems of power at play behind it. For this reason, Zhou Tiehai's art and the "other history" which he creates are like a dangerous gift from the non-West, a Trojan horse with designs on the city.

History and alternative history move together, and only once circumstances have changed and people turn back to look at the past will they be surprised to see alternative history glimmering like a rainbow in the sky. Without a doubt, the success that Zhou Tiehai has reaped from his efforts and struggles is a double-edged sword. Commercial and critical success has allowed him to enter into the developmental trajectory of contemporary Western art, and to become a beneficiary of the art system. But whether such a beneficiary can maintain a clear critical consciousness is the factor that will determine whether Zhou can ultimately lay claim to the "history" part of "other history."



II. Rebelling against Reality (1989-1994)

Zhou Tiehai's earliest works on paper were rebellions against reality. The critiques manifest in these works were actually directed at the state of Chinese contemporary art itself. This consciousness grew out of Tiehai's age at the time, and the works carry a youthful rebellious flair. Although their subject matter is serious, Tiehai always used a witty and deft approach to composition, and as soon as one enters into its inner workings, serious and indestructible concepts seem to appear. Tiehai's attitude and lifestyle were the same: he appeared pleasant and easygoing, but his soul was resolute even to the point of stubbornness. If one wants to understand Tiehai's art, one must first understand his personality. His personality is distinct, and might be summed up as "changing ten thousand times by not changing at all." At the same time, his artistic thought and praxis were also "moving forward with the times." We can say that his artistic progress moved forward in step with Chinese contemporary art generally because Chinese contemporary art has always been his theme and subject. Whatever problems arose in it, Tiehai would use an appropriate position to declare his own attitude, and preserve this in his paintings. For this reason, his creative process can be seen as a process of argument with the history of contemporary Chinese art as it was unfolding. We might say that his works are a record of arguments seventeen years long, and that this process of argument and composition is precisely the art history of our collective experience.

From the "'85 Art New Wave" on, Chinese artists replayed the entire development of Western modern art in an extremely short time. In their works, one sees everywhere traces of the West. But what was then called the Chinese avant-garde was in reality just an imitation and borrowing of modern art in the West over the preceding hundred years. Most artists were only interested in Modernism, and had not yet considered how to appropriate Western classical art. Tiehai studied design, and so from the field of design he was able to see a broader horizon, and thus to transcend a simple borrowing of Modernism and realize that art history before Modernism could similarly provide creative material. Tiehai became interested in Rococo furniture design, and particularly in seemingly powerful chairs. His series of works that included "The Large Sofa," (da shafa, gouache on paper, 1989) "The Stone Chair," (shitou deng, gouache on paper, 1989) and "Pharao Chair" (falao deng, gouache on paper, 1989) integrated design, painting, writing, and other artistic tactics, filled with the disturbing yet exquisite sensitivity and the youthful, vigorous conceptual power of his early period. These works were not merely rebellions against real life, but expressions of doubt about the simple and instrumental borrowings and imitations of Western modernism that characterized the "'85 New Wave."

Aside from rebellion couched in artistic form, Tiehai also rebelled in his lifestyle. The artists of that moment all carried themselves in an iconically "classical" manner; Tiehai with his Shanghai style lived in opposition to the rigid forms of avant-garde artists. He entered the art world wearing a Western suit and leather shoes, decked out in name brands, evoking the Shanghai of the 1930s. Why would he go to this trouble, having not yet achieved financial security? Because he believed that the face of contemporary art should be luxurious, just as Andy Warhol had hidden a vicious critical power behind the guise of luxury of style. The Tiehai of the early 1990s was all too willing to assume the lifestyle of the neo-bourgeoisie in order to directly confront the macho austerity of the '85 New Wave crowd. The long hair of "Duke Danno" (Danno gongjue, mixed media on paper, 1991) is the same; at that time, long-haired men were taken as hippies or rockers, when in fact such hairstyles actually dated to the ancient French aristocracy. Why didn't this style make people think of the ancien regime? This also includes the spilled Dior fragrance in "Broken Jar, Spilled Water," (hupo shuijin, mixed media on paper, 1991) which also revealed a sensitivity towards luxury goods. Looking at the lifestyles of successful Chinese contemporary artists today, might we not say that they have all heeded Tiehai's lead of fifteen years ago?

Through the works of this period, we can clearly see that Tiehai's creative power was actually anti-Modernist. At the time, Tiehai discovered that Chinese avant-garde artists had many problems, that they were a big group of people collectively creating a false image. This image, or rather, this political other, was actually measured according the expectations of a falsely imagined Western other. Not only did it not fit Chinese history, it also missed the reality of contemporary art. In this, Tiehai expressed his own will and action toward absolute separation with the popular forms of contemporary art. "Break" (juelie, mixed media on paper, 1991) and "The Knofe Becomes Rusty without Sharpening" (daofeng bumo renshen xiu, mixed media on paper, 1991) are the most powerful works of this period. All of these works give people the feeling of "Cultural Revolution art." Tiehai, like Duchamp, continuously built himself, continuously rebelled, not content to remain on a single level, but rather to unceasingly criticize reality and himself.



III. Critiquing Reality (1994-1999)

The third phase in Tiehai's artistic development spans the years 1994-1999, and its theme is "deconstructing and critiquing reality." In this period, Tiehai encountered a contradiction: He himself was a part of contemporary art, difficult to distinguish or separate from it. At the same time as he deconstructed contemporary art, he deconstructed and digested himself. At the same time as he critiqued contemporary art, he critiqued himself. Another way of putting it might be that Tiehai's work actively carried the absurdities of contemporary art to the extreme, and in doing so presented the very face of the Chinese contemporary art model.

In 1994, two coincidences happened: be they in America or in China, the list of contemporary Chinese artists favored by Western curators and media all lacked the name of Zhou Tiehai. This forced Tiehai to understand more deeply the reality that "to become an artist one must make the list." Having experienced this stimulus, he decided to stop painting. From this point on, Tiehai has worked like a director, giving directions to other painters, making them paint what he wished. He continues in this method today. Is it satirical art? Conceptual art? Simply put, Tiehai uses this to critique an artistic reality at once laughable and pitiable. The theory of Chinese traditional painting basically contains two sentences: "What is thought can't be painted," (yi dao bi bu dao) and "Thinking precedes the brush" (yi zai bi xian.) The latter, a tenet of traditional painting, means that the painter should make a draft before picking up the brush. But Tiehai's "think first, paint later" means something different; it refers to the fact that he first has an idea, then chooses appropriate materials and uses other people's hands to paint them. It is a broader, more contemporary version of this ancient dictum. In fact, it is a play on the forces then creating and constructing art history; Tiehai used these tactics to highlight the resonance of that history. Tiehai used other people's hands, and even other people's brains and thoughts, to write his "other history," and then used this to doubt and protest history itself.

Everything that Tiehai expresses in his art is actually everything in his life. Through the language of art, he sets forth the real state and attitude of his life, as if writing a journal of his personal experience. Since 1989 he has been moving along this route: anything that makes him unhappy, anything that he wants to say, Tiehai puts it all into his works. In them we find Tiehai's feelings on life, his thoughts on art, his boredom, his critiques of the international situation. Whether toward art or life, Tiehai always maintains the power of independent thought, and the bravery to deconstruct himself. At that time, the mainstream of Chinese contemporary art was entirely concerned with expressing and presenting Chinese social questions, while Tiehai turned social questions into his own personal sentiments. Usually, Tiehai is a man of few words. Only once we have penetrated into his deepest thoughts do we discover the perils of his heart. No matter how the skies shift, Tiehai always maintains the wisdom and independent, clear consciousness of an intellectual. And so he is lonely, "Having seen all of Wugou, and walked through everything, without anyone nearby."[2][2] The situation faced by Tiehai, walking the line between East and West, was also like this. In the East, people called him a running dog of the West, saying that he had sought advantage from the West, and that he felt the need to be clear about what he loved and hated. But in the West, people felt that since they had given him plane tickets and American dollars, for him to continue to criticize them in the spirit of the Leftists was not right. After all, he had eaten their food and used their money; how could he criticize? Faced with these two opposed realities, where was Tiehai to park himself?

Every work in Tiehai's oeuvre masks a moving story, but he does not like to explain these. He feels that for each work, perhaps only "two or three like-minded people who understand" [3][3] are necessary. This sort of aloofness is reminiscent of the "Ming Loyalists" in its inwardness and resoluteness. It has ensured that he stayed far from the "emblematic" forms and images of Chinese contemporary art. For this reason, this loneliness is not only Tiehai's real, lived loneliness, but a loneliness played out through his artistic explorations. It is loneliness on a higher level, directed toward the states and dispositions of art. Straddling the line between East and West, Tiehai seems to work sometimes like a sorcerer, sometimes like a Don Quixote. Under these circumstances, what is Tiehai to do? He can only continue to suffer in silence, embarking on yet another long march to an unknown place.

This period of critiquing reality was the richest in Tiehai's career in terms of output; perhaps it makes sense to approach the works in terms of the two different categories of "The Power of Necessity" and "The New Silk Road."



1. The Power of Necessity

This is the period in which Tiehai overturned the conventions of painting. His heart scattered in all directions, he racked his brains thinking about the position that art should occupy in contemporary society. This group of unique works on paper once more structured his unique artistic style, which were in the end named after the movie "Will" (bi xu, silent movie,9', b&w, 1997) which pointed to the strong sounds of this period, and insured that only necessity would continue to guide and influence him.

The contents of the painting "There Came a Mr. Solomon" (zhong guo lai le I ge Solomon, mixed media on paper, 1994) are art news items, as news had led Tiehai to start thinking. His creative method was similar to that of the Dianshizhai Pictorial,[4][4] in that it used pictures and words together to record the stories of that moment. In that sense, it was a classic example of Shanghai realism. This painting reflected the position of Chinese avant-garde art in Western culture, and riffed on the exercise of cultural power. For example, there is a sentence on the painting that reads in semi-classical Mandarin, "The Great Emperor Solomon has come from afar, blown by the winds and waves to China. Here he sued his penetrating insight, traveling from north to south, observing the hearts and lungs of the people on the periphery." In reality, Chinese avant-garde art in the mid-1990s could not exist without the West; it depended on the support of the foreign art establishment. Paintings were sold abroad, exhibitions were held abroad, all the opportunities for artistic exchange were also abroad. For this reason, he declared [the New York Times Magazine critic who wrote an influential cover story on the Chinese avant-garde in 1993 Andrew] Solomon an emperor. And for some Chinese avant-garde artists, Solomon's intervention was indeed similar to that of a savior. These statements clearly and explicitly expressed Tiehai's historical outlook and value judgments on the development of Chinese contemporary art.

The creative path embodied in "Je la transport dans un sac de Louis Vuitton" (I need a Louis Vuitton bag to protect my paintings, wo de hua, yao yong LV de bao lai zhuang, mixed media on paper, 1994) grew out of Tiehai's interview with a French photojournalist. The reporter asked, "How much do you sell your paintings for?" At that time Tiehai had no concept of painting prices, so he answered with a compromise, saying, "My paintings must be packaged in Louis Vuitton bags." There is a chunk of dialogue written on the canvas: "Where are you going?" "The Louvre." Art, of course, has both artistic value and commercial value, and in those years when there was not yet an art market, how were artists to determine the value of their own works? We could say that this answer was a stratagem for Tiehai, but we might also say that it reflected his powerlessness. At that time, artists were not simply after American dollars, but after a place in the Louvre. This painting highlights the artistic position and cultural imperatives of a generation, one decade ago.

"Map of Shanghai Avant-Garde Business Union" (shanghai qian wei gong shan lian he hui di tu, mixed media on paper, 1996) might be called an artistic battle map as seen through Tiehai's eyes. At that time the relations among the avant-garde artists of Shanghai resembled virtual war games. One might also call this work a tourist map of Shanghai artists; at the top it listed the locations of all the avant-garde artists in Shanghai, so that when the Western curators came, they could use the map to visit artists. This work is a narration of the state of the avant-garde art environment in the Shanghai of that moment.

The movie "Will" marked a high point in my own intellectual exchange with Tiehai. I assumed the role of editor, and although this appeared on the surface to fit with the overall situation of contemporary art in Shanghai since the 1990s, in essence it was both a critique of Western post-colonialism, and an expression of worry about the lack of thought behind the Chinese contemporary art scene of that moment. It integrated the problematic realities of the time, and thus provided a fatalistic view of artistic practice and lived reality. This fatalism grew out of the work "Are You Lonely?" (ni gu du?mixed media on paper, 1996) and reached to encompass a certain hesitation about reality. From the point of view of expressive technique, the work was limited by its production budget, and so it was only possible to use Chinese-made film cameras, which actually were able to achieve the effect of early movies. Furthermore, at that time the only documentaries being made about artists were concerned with artists' working and living dispositions, and did not touch on their internal thoughts or the essence of their art. The creation of "Will" started from the point of wanting to discuss the essence of the art and the essence of the artists, and to transcend dry, theoretical debates about their creation, using the techniques of realism to create a new reality. In the beginning we thought that the issues raised by the film were unique to the Shanghai art circle, but after nearly a decade of observation and research, we discovered that some of these issues are common to the art world in both East and West. The script of that movie still contains extraordinarily lively and realistic dialogue, like the line "Without your own airport, you don't have all of yourself," which plays on Mao Zedong's famous line "Without a People's Army, you can't have all of the people."[5][5] Another line went, "We keep on doing exhibitions, in order to make other people pay attention to us." Without a doubt, in an age so lacking in exhibitions, these words cut to the heart of the matter. At that time, artists would constantly discuss one single question with foreign reporters: We have no opportunities for exhibitions, we can't get any support, what should we do? Rarely did they discuss what would happen after they got the chance to exhibit. Even more rarely did they discuss the lack of an intellectual grounding for contemporary art in China. In this film, Tiehai also directly challenged the point of view of the curator of the 1995 Venice Biennale Jean Clair: "You have no art, all you have is Chinese medicine and witch doctors."[6][6] At that moment when Western-centrism was extremely prevalent, we dressed a foreigner up in the style of the Opium War era, and asked him to say: "You only have Chinese medicine and witch doctors." The goal was to move the context back in time one hundred years, and thus to make "language" lose its effect. This was our daringness and heroism in facing big-ticket curators. Ten years later, only now do we discover that many of the issues faced by art worlds East and West are common. Might we say that we have landed "between a rock and a hard place?" Is human art like the people aboard the Raft of the Medusa, who must scream "Farewell, Art?" This doubt has always surrounded our inner selves, leaving us with no way to shake it even today. "Will" presented an analysis and critique of the fate of contemporary art and Chinese experimental culture that might be called incisive and thorough. This film can be seen as one truly realist work in the hundred-year history of Chinese film, and also as an important document in Chinese contemporary art history.

The title of the work "VALE ARTE—The Vienna Secession" (Farewell, Art! - zai jian ba, yishu, mixed media on paper, 1998) comes from a line in the movie "Will." In it, Tiehai flew a flag at half-mast atop the Vienna Secession museum, inscribed with the words "VALE ARTE" (Farewell, Art). This was yet another expression of doubt and reflection on the Western space for contemporary art. What is the actual sensation that art gives to human life? This was the real question that Tiehai was posing in this work; otherwise his political and economic status would have been ridiculed. But reality itself is contradictory, and only those artists who win political and economic status in the art world can gain the power to stand atop the roof of the Vienna Secession and scream "Goodbye! Art," and in doing so remind themselves that they are the practitioners of art. This sort of strong psychological conflict and intellectual contradiction has led Tiehai's style to grow ever more obvious, even as it has led onlookers to misread and dislike his "other history." This is because, after Tiehai has donned the emperor's new clothes, he persists in telling everyone that what he is wearing are actually the emperor's new clothes.



2. The New Silk Road

Tiehai's best-known artistic trademark is Joe Camel. This camel is not merely a joke that he plays on the art world, but a beast of burden he can ride across the beautiful landscapes of the New Silk Road.

"We Went Looking for Love" (wo men xun zhao ai qin qu le, mixed media on paper, 1996) was Tiehai's first work to feature the likeness of Joe Camel. In it, he tried to use an image familiar to Westerners to satirize the Western art world, specifically targeting the vogue among Chinese artists at that time of using recognizably Chinese artistic forms. At that time, when I discussed art with Tiehai, we would also discuss love. Eventually, Tiehai incorporated a number of ideas he had recently encountered into his painting: "We slept a night in the Forbidden City, the sunlight was beautiful when I woke up, but the princess was still sleeping in at Versailles, so we left her a note saying that we had gone looking for love." I added to this "But we couldn't find it, so we can't love anymore, and if we could it would make you quite angry." In this period, we consistently used feelings about art and life as the basis for artworks and articles, and frequently wrote these feelings directly onto the canvas. This method is similar to that of ancient painters, in which painting and inscription combine to form a complete work. The cultural value of the inscription in literati paintings is quite high. It is key to researching the mindset behind any literati painter, and most famous theories of painting grow out of close-reading inscriptions. Historically, many people would inscribe the same painting, writing their thoughts and the realities of the moment in one or two lines. These inscriptions form a record of their collective artistic thought and cultural exchange; the inscriptions record culture and life. Tiehai's paintings are a kind of contemporary literati paintings, not unlike a single tree that is not huge, but has roots growing deeply into the soil. They possess an extraordinary life power. Without a doubt, this has also become part of Tiehai's unique artistic form.

"Are You Lonely?" is a representative work from Tiehai's Camel series. At that time, our exchange was pervasive and extended to all stages of the painting process: before, during, after. For this reason I wrote two critical articles also entitled "Are You Lonely?" which described the status and problems of Chinese contemporary art domestic and international.[7][7] The development of contemporary art was then besieged on all sides, in which real and false, right and wrong were hard to distinguish. Art criticism could mistake wrong for right, but could just as easily turn stone into gold. Faced with opposition from older critics, the temptation was to think that only by "turning stone into gold" could one get at the essence of artistic development. But moving along this path made for a lonely inner self, and lonely art. Through it all, we came at art from adverse circumstances. The positioning and meaning of "Are You Lonely?" were in fact the situation and psychological reaction of an "other history." We can feel and look at the two paragraphs written on "Are You Lonely?" one of which says "Glory Splendour Wealth Rank." As we can imagine, in 1997 Tiehai had already sensed the use of the international art market for Chinese contemporary art. He had observed that art had already become a way for artists to structure their own glorious and rich futures. The second said, "The New Historicists consciously want to separate the economic from the non-economic, and use this distinction to explain those who claim to be the least ardent seekers of fame and fortune, nobly practicing art far from the dirty smell of money. But they also seek material and symbolic profit in the same way."[8][8] In writing this paragraph, Tiehai seemed to stand on the summit of another history, "hovering around, unable to ease his aching heart."[9][9] Looking back on the traces of that period of lonely suffering, one must admit that Tiehai's spirit moved from one kind of loneliness to another. For this reason, this work was able to powerfully illuminate the new feelings felt by Chinese contemporary artists in the years after 1997.

"Press Conference" (xin wen fa bu hui, catalogue entry, 4 pages, 1997) was a part of  the "Cities on the Move" exhibition curated by Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Cities on the Move, Secession, Vienna, etc 1997-99). In this exhibition, over one hundred artists debated urban development from a variety of perspectives. Tiehai's work said that "If you want to know how the West sees Shanghai, read Time, Der Spiegel, The Asian Wall Street Journal etc". If, however, one wants to know a Chinese artist's perspective, they should then look at page 2: "The relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post Cold War era." Here, "political" referred to the fact that Tiehai began in 1997 to exhibit abroad, and "economic" referred to the fact that his collectors were all outside of China. The situation was just like that of the "A" and "B" shares on the Chinese stock exchanges, where "A" shares could be purchased only with Chinese Renminbi, and "B" shares only with foreign currency: in 1997, the vast majority of Chinese contemporary works of art were collected by Westerners. The metaphorical "economy" created by Tiehai actually referred to the economic environment for Chinese contemporary art. The economic and political environments for Tiehai's art were all abroad; and so foreign exhibitions and markets became his center. At the same time, Tiehai was also able to see clearly into the political and economic core of Chinese contemporary art, and thus, as in the painting, "he stood on a platform against the backdrop of the flags of many nations, wearing a suit and standing ramrod straight, looking sanctimonious, talking tirelessly in a pleasant manner."[10][10]

The painting "Buy Happiness" (cai gou xin fu, mixed media on paper, 1997) contains a subtitle that reads, "You can grow healthy and strong without the godfather's protection" (zuo zhuang cheng zhang li bu kai jiao fu jiao mu de he hu). Theoretically speaking, happiness cannot be bought, but in the framework of an "other history," happiness can be cultivated, fabricated, and even purchased en masse. Once Tiehai's works had begun to be acquired by foreign collectors, they became like godparents to him. Only under their night-and-day encouragement could Tiehai's work grow into its own. "Aiming at the Museum" (mu biao bo wu guan, mixed media on paper, 1998) is a portrait of the "practice by dart-throwing" that characterized Tiehai's maturation process. His goal was always to have his works enter into the museum. At that time, he never even considered the possibility of staging an exhibition in a Chinese museum; all he considered were foreign museums. As a record of his artistic maturation, this work records in the form of a journal on canvas Tiehai's ideals and beliefs as he was in the process of developing an "other history." In the words of the Song dynasty prose poem, it was like "surface and interior resounded with clarity."[11][11]

The painting "Kann die Rechte die Linke Gluecklich Machen?" (Can the Rightists Make the Leftists Happy?- you pai neng rang zuo pai xing fu ma?, mixed media on paper, 1998 ) was a work Tiehai did after his participation at the exhibition "Brushholder Value" which was sponsored by Siemens. The exhibition included five German artists and Zhou Tiehai. One of the German artists' works, which criticized Siemens, was removed from the exhibition. In the Western art world, many artists are leftists, but a lot of the support for art comes from large corporations; this leads to a contradiction and conflict between art and the art economy. On the other hand, the implication of "You Are Not a Hero, Just Because You've Shown in Venice" (dao le Venice fei hao han, mixed media on paper, 1999) was: After Venice, what next? Tiehai had already thought art through to its telos: without a doubt, the Venice Biennial was the goal of many artists in China at that time, but in terms of art itself, one still had to climb higher and look further; thus, perhaps it meant nothing to go to Venice? At that time we often discussed the process and purpose of art. It was no different from the 1980s, when the ultimate end of art was always nostalgia. All of Tiehai's works mask his personal sentiments and positions. "I Got an Other Flight Ticket, what a Headache" (tou teng, fei ji piao you lai le, mixed media on paper, 2000) reflects the fact that Tiehai's exhibition opportunities had already multiplied vastly. In this painting, two camels sit ear-to-ear, one holding an Air France ticket, the other eating Saridon tablets to calm himself in the face of so much international travel. Facing up to plane tickets was the same as getting treatment for a headache.

The endgame of art is of course a new beginning. Looking at the "Camel" series, I feel that Tiehai's spirit is bound up with his subjects, that the camel is in fact Tiehai, a symbol for Tiehai, a replacement, a pseudonym. If the camel is unhappy, Tiehai is unhappy; if the camel grasps a plane ticket, so does Tiehai. This might be called "transference." Most of Tiehai's works are directed at his own internal feelings, at expressing his own thoughts and position. At the same time, they also describe a moment in history and the sum of his experiences. Actually, Tiehai has an innocent realist spirit. "I Got an Other Flight Ticket…" precisely captures the reality that since the mid-1990s, successful Chinese artists have spent more time in airplane cabins than in their studios. From this we can clearly see that Tiehai, successful or not, nonetheless persists in encountering the world from the position of his unique innocence. It seems that art will give Tiehai a lifelong headache, which even Saridon cannot treat. And it was this realization that led to another artistic period in his career: Consoling Reality.


IV. Consoling Reality (2000-2006)

Intelligent and perceptive, Tiehai is always able to find new energy in his ordinary conversations with friends. His "Placebo" series (an wei yao, airbrush on canvas, from 1999 on) grows out of a conversation he once had with a friend who worked for a pharmaceutical company. This friend described to him  the process used to test the efficiency of new drugs, and mentioned the 'placebo test': once a new drug has been invented and is undergoing clinical trials, the doctor will administer both the drug itself and an identical-looking pill with no pharmaceutical value to patients; the latter is called a placebo. Devoid of any medical content, the placebo still has its effect, because the patient takes from it psychological comfort. Tiehai began to think about the situation of artists and the art world; for artists, the fame and power of international curators were great, and important, but perhaps like that of a placebo? They could invite Chinese artists to Venice, or collect their works; was this also not like a placebo? Therefore Tiehai decided to express the entire artistic process, from creation to exhibition to sale, in a single work, and to call that work "Placebo." "Placebo" was a reminder to artists, still valid today, that many people in the West have already realized that the curatorial system has fundamental problems, even if the perspectives and methods of Western curators are still used, even by Chinese people and artists, to evaluate artistic output and to answer artistic questions. Many believe that Tiehai's work is satirical, but in fact he is extremely sensitive; he has felt himself experiencing "symptoms," and so he daily administers himself both real drugs and placebos, trying to get to the root of the problem. Many of Tiehai's works contain this element of self-expression.

The year 2000 was an artistic turning point for Tiehai. His works prior to this point were directly realist, and afterward they became directed at people's psyches. His doubts about himself and the state of art grew ever greater; in his works of the "Placebo series" and "Tonic series" (bu ping, airbrush on canvas, from 2000 on) got at this. Where "Placebo" took on the idea of cultural exchange between East and West, "Tonic" looked at Chinese traditional culture as representative of the East. On the one hand, we had been extremely respectful toward all things Western, borrowing Western drugs to treat Eastern diseases; on the other hand, we knew clearly that these drugs could not treat the root causes of the diseases, that they had side-effects, and that we were over-compensating for the urgency of the illness. Tiehai attempted through the "Placebo" series to rescue the Western standard, where in reality he was also up against a wall, not only unable to set aside his own standard images, but also unable to become a real part of the major cultural conversation of the world. The camel-like position played by Tiehai, it seemed, had planted itself deep inside him. "Tonic" was an attempt to magnify Chinese traditional culture to a dizzying size, and as such it was also a projection of Tiehai's intellectual heavy-heartedness. Although they were "tonics," these works remained in the style of the ancients. This was not necessarily a good thing; if used incorrectly, tonics are just drugs and for this reason, Tiehai fears that if he uses them too much, he will become addicted, just as one becomes addicted to a "Placebo."

Zhou Tiehai exhibited a major "Placebo" work, "Placebo Swiss" (an wei yao rui shi, airbrush on synthetic canvas, 3 scrolls, 15m each, motorized, 2000) in his solo exhibition at the Hara Museum (Placebo Swiss , Hara Museum, Tokyo, Japan 2000).  With this work, Tiehai was discussing Switzerland, expressing the ways in which Swiss curators, galleries and curators have supported Chinese contemporary art. Often when we would talk about Chinese contemporary art, we would discuss the art itself and ignore the power behind it, i.e. the support of the West. For example, Chinese rock bands originally had no place to perform, until a Western restaurant provided them with a venue. In many cases, contemporary art in China must first gain the support of the West. Also in 2000, for the exhibition "Met in Shanghai" (Schloss Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany) Tiehai published a book entitled "Met in Shanghai," which expressed his views on Germany. He chose three Germans to contribute essays to the book, including a curator from Siemens whom he asked to write on the topic of censorship, as that was not merely a problem in China, but in Germany as well.   "Duravit > ShanghART" (du la vi te > xiang ge na, cake,created for the Taipei Art Fair, 2001) got at the issue in a different angle: the German plumbing supply company Duravit's sales in China exceeded those of the ShanghART Gallery, thus the plumbing supplier is "greater than" the gallery. As far as Chinese people are concerned, material needs exceed artistic needs. In the work "Civilization," (wen ming, airbrush on  canvas) water represents the East, an airplane (the US spy plane which went down on China's Hainan Island in 2001) represents the West, and the flowing currents and soaring planes that populate the piece all represent different forms of civilization. "Libertas, Dei Te Servent" (Long Live Freedom, zi you wan sui, 2002, shown at The American Effect, Whitney Museum, New York, U.S.A 2003) grew out of Time Magazine's decision after 9/11 to name New York's then mayor Giuliani as Man of the Year, earlier in his tenure, he had closed an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, which famously included a Chris Ofili painting of the Madonna that incorporated elephant dung. In reality, elephant dung is used to construct houses in Africa, and also to make sacred sculptures, so perhaps from an African perspective there was no disrespect meant, so this reveals a cultural misunderstanding. The value systems of two different civilizations can coexist, but their difference leads to two different kinds of history. "Solomon" (So lo men, acrylic, airbrush on canvas,2002 ) depicts the writer Andrew Solomon, a young Western male of a high educational level, who suffered from depression and wrote a book about his experience entitled The Noonday Demon. Depression is quite common abroad, and now more and more Chinese are beginning to suffer from it; this work thus explored the problems brought on by modern civilization, asking what spiritual advantages economic and social development can actually bring to people.

In the 2004 Shanghai Biennale, Tiehai showed a work entitled "Airport" (ji chang, sound work, 8h) [12][12]. A sound installation, this work aped the broadcasts heard in an international airport. Today Chinese artists are invited to cities around the world to participate in biennials, and the airport has become a necessary point of departure and return. This work captured the busy lives of Chinese contemporary artists as they run back and forth among international biennials, and at the same time turned an exhibition room of Shanghai's own international biennial into an airport terminal.[13][13]

In this era, Tiehai's works had already gained international recognition. But being a young intellectual, Tiehai, after earning recognition, fell back into a spiritual trap, feeling that his prospects were boring, wanting to return but being unable. Constantly moving back and forth between East and West, he felt that each had its own distinct problems. In his earliest stage of "rebellion against reality," the object of his rebellion was solitary: the situation of Chinese contemporary art. As for Tiehai's critique of reality, the object of his critique was the model of Chinese contemporary art, just a little sparrow. Now he was facing the entire situation of contemporary art globally and the trends of its development; this was like a giant elephant. Under these circumstances, how was Tiehai to deconstruct himself? Now, he must challenge both West and East, only able to move around between the two. This kind of guerrilla attitude has morphed into the independence and critical power of the intellectual, and Tiehai is no longer willing to stand in the limelight wearing the emperor's new clothes. But now that he has made things "easy," how is he to continue searching out his own clear thoughts and troubles? As far as Tiehai is concerned, this is another new challenge.



V. Seeking Reality

The works that Tiehai has realized in these exhibition halls are missing one part: his future, a future of "Seeking Reality." In the process of seeking reality, he will structure the ideal and subjective reality of the future. When we look at an unpredictable future world, we see that the reality in Tiehai's heart and our ability to appreciate it are similar, that they both contain disjunctures, but that only because of this is Tiehai's art able to give us unlimited space for imagination, enjoyment, enlightenment, and judgment. This is the future of an "other history."

This future is not concrete, but is rather an unknown field, bigger and vaster. Tiehai often consciously leaves some unfinished parts in his canvases, and uses this method to make people continue looking for his clearly expressed artistic imaginings. Tiehai's notion of art is flexible, and his images are also not predetermined; for this reason I think that they contain the calligraphic motifs of Chinese traditional painting; even if they look as if they contain nothing, they still have a thought-provoking power. The unfinished part of these works is indeed the manifestation of a concept; "Feibai" (calligraphic motifs) represent the painterly thoughts of the Chinese ancients, and allow the viewer to think of a world without limits. This way of representation gained aesthetic credence among Chinese intellectuals long ago, but in the context of contemporary art, it is often read as "unfinished." This touches on the issue of how one should read art, and how one should read Tiehai's ideas and meanings. If we recognize that even "feibai" has its own substance, it can also be seen as another theme in the works. Tiehai's paintings, in fact, are all unfinished; they all leave us with space and doubt, but without choices. Tiehai's "unfinished" is different still from the architect Arata Isozaki's notion of the "unbuilt,"[14][14] in that Tiehai's "unfinished" is a space he actively leaves, a possibility of seeking out the reality of the future.

The works in this exhibition include the products of many late night conversations between Tiehai and me over the last twelve years; these works have been flying around the world for the last decade or so. Today, in the spring of 2006, these works return from here to Shanghai to encounter the viewers directly, and we hope that the entire exhibition can rather completely present Tiehai's artistic trajectory and thoughts, and rather fully reflect his different aesthetic considerations and working methods at different points during his career. The works in this exhibition profoundly reveal the special characteristics of Tiehai's art, i.e. the ability of art to be satirical and humorous, especially in terms of handling images and language in postmodern ways. The vast majority of Tiehai's pictorial resources derive from the media and historical memory, as these ready-mades of contemporary cultural transmission are diverted, appropriated, pasted together, and woven into the material components of another reality, together forming "an other history."

When I stand in the galleries, it is as if I have seen Tiehai's entire process of artistic maturation, from a rebellious child to a "seriously joking" adult. In these galleries I also see the time I spent in conversation, debate, and mutual encouragement with Tiehai. Some of these works are powerful and intense, other seem fatigued; but when I walked through the galleries with Tiehai and observed these works reunited for the first time, it was like he was seeing a gang of his own naughty children running through the museum, back with us to confuse things. At this moment, am I seeing history or reality? "There are wonderful things, but with whom to share them?" asked one poet.[15][15] I can only put down my pen, and grow silent like Tiehai, listening as "the lonely light falls on itself, and the heroic spirit freezes into ice and snow."[16][16] What puts us at ease, however, is that in this exhibition, as in all of Tiehai's art, we can see at work an "other history."


[1]Chen Sheng and Wu Guang were the peasant leaders of the "Chen Sheng-Wu Guang Uprising" in present-day Anhui province, which led to the downfall of the Qin dynasty in 209 B.C. Theirs is the first recorded peasant revolt in Chinese history.

[2]Song dynasty, Xin Qiji.

[3]Qian Zhongshu once said, "Knowledge is best pursued by two or three like-minded people in a hut in the wilderness."

[4]Dianshizhai Pictorial was founded on May 8, 1884 in Shanghai as a popular news periodical, operated by the Shenbao organization.

[5] Mao Zedong, "Talks on United Government," April 24, 1945. See Complete Works of Mao Zedong, vol. 3, p. 1074.

[6]Jean Claire, curator of the 46th Venice Biennale's view on Chinese art.

[7] "Are You Lonely" comprised two articles by Zhang Qing: "Are You Lonely: The State of Chinese Artists Today," published in Jiangsu Pictorial, 1997, issue 4, Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House. The second article, entitled "Three Situations of Chinese Artists Abroad Today" was published in Art World in the November-December 1997 issue.

[8] See Zhang Jingnuan, ed. The New Historicism and Literary Criticism, preface, Peking Uniersity Press, 1993.

[9] "Poems from the Heart," Wei-Jin Songs.

[10]See Zhang Qing, "The Whole Garden is Filled with Spring Colors: Notes on Exhibitions of Chinese Contemporary Abroad," New Art (Xin Meishu) Vol. 20, No. 1, 1999, China Academy of Art Publishing House.

[11]Song dynasty, Zhang Xiaoxiang, "To the Tune of Nian Nu Jiao Going across the Dongting Lake."

[12]See Zhang Qing, "Three Talks on the Status and Prospects of Experimental Art in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai," in Gallery (Hualang), 1996 vol. 4, Lingnan Publishing House.

[13] See Zhang Qing's article on "Airport" in the 2004 Shanghai Biennale Catalogue, Shanghai Illustrated Publishing House, 2004.

[14] See Arata Isozaki: Unbuilt, Hong Kong Japanese and Korean International Publishing Company/Hong Kong Technological Publishing House, 2002. Taro Igarashi's viewpoing is that because of "unbuilt" architecture's invisibility in the material world, it can be compared to dreams and the unconscious. If we set aside the unbuilt, then there can be no history of twentieth century architecture. Isozaki believes that "anti-architecture (the unbuilt) is the only true architecture." Ge Tianzhang's prediction at the end of the twentieth century was that, "in the coming twenty-first century, the only architecture will be unbuilt," "architecture" will replace "architectural history." This is also to say that an anti-history of architecture is the only true architecture.

[15] Song dynasty, Liu Yong, Yu Lin Ling

[16] See note 11.

Related Artists:
ZHOU TIEHAI 周铁海

上海香格纳文化艺术品有限公司
办公地址:上海市徐汇区西岸龙腾大道2555号10号楼

© Copyright ShanghART Gallery 1996-2019
备案:沪ICP备09094545号

沪公网安备 31010402001234号