On a sweltering summer evening in Shanghai's Fuxing gardens, hip new restaurant Park '97 is throbbing with the anticipation of a rollicking Saturday night. The foreign diplomats, European businessmen, and chic Shanghainese all swirling drinks in easy comfort seem to mirror the currents stirring China's modern art scene.
With its wall-length fresco of a nude woman stretched on her side (it makes the old men in the gardens press their noses against the glass and mutter darkly about debauchery) Park '97 is becoming a focal point in a city loosely packed with painters of varying talent.
In the semidarkness and flickering candlelight, I have to strain to hear Zhou Tiehai explain how his illusion was destroyed not so long ago and how that in turn fed his work. At the tender age of 32, the Shanghai-born artist is a leader in cross-border sophistication and cynicism, although his straight black hair-frames a surprisingly gentle face.
"I feel that my painting was always linked to my life, it reflected my life, the story of the time, "Mr. Zhou says, lifting a glass of ruby-colored wine to his lips and waving away a waiter offering water.
Mr. Zhou's ersatz magazine covers have got the noses of European collectors twitching as they snap up his work, currently on display in Hong Kong. The first in the series features Zhou Tiehai himself, well-scrubbed in a dark suit on the cover of a confusingly real-looking Newsweek dated April 10, 1995. It's a 25cm by 19cm computer print. The bold white block letters-very much like the magazine's own type-read, "Too Materialistic Too Spiritualized."
Asked about his covers, Mr. Zhou first traces back to the breathless lifting of veils in the 1980s, when he, like many of China's younger intellectuals, first realized that artistic possibilities were not confined to French classical styles or the stumpy gracelessness of social realism imported from the Soviet Union. As China opened her doors, in came Picasso, Van Gogh and the heady anarchism of Dadaism." Da da Zhu Yi," Mr. Zhou calls it in his enunciated Mandarin. With Dadaism, there was nothing you could not do. It ripped your mind open. One day you had to listen to your teacher, he says, and then suddenly you could paint mustaches on the Mona Lisa.
Mr. Zhou's next jolt came during a visit to the United States three years ago when an acquaintance familiar with Chinese artists asked him, "How come I haven't heard about you?" that was a stunner.
"Before I thought to be an artist, all you need is your work to be good. I suddenly discovered that was not the case. You have to be on a list, " Mr. Zhou says. The realization that art wasn't simply, the pure creation of paintings was a bitter one. You also had to be seen, which involved navigating a treacherous web of relations between gallery owners, museum curators, art writers and, yes, other artists. And you also had to be featured in the world's most powerful media.
"The point was, as a Chinese artist, you have to be on the cover of the West for people to know you," Mr. Zhou says. So his own mock covers became a way of documenting an obsession with the process of jockeying for visibility on the horizons of foreign media. As he candidly explains, this honest display of an artist's ambition to be known also put into gear a formidable public relations machine that would reflect Mr. Zhou's march to international fame.
The resulting covers-of ArtNews, Spring 1995 ("Washington Here I come"), Der Spiegel, the New York Times Magazine-are slick productions in which the artist thumbs his nose at these doyens of established international media but keeps the viewer guessing over his real motives.
In one acerbic work, Mr. Zhou prints in English, "If you want to know how the West sees Shanghai, read Time, Der Spiegel, The Asian Wall Street Journal, etc. If you want to know the view of a Shanghai artist, see the next page." While the viewer is still reeling from this odd mirror view, the observer who feels observed, the next page shows Mr. Zhou himself. He is seen behind a large podium flanked by international flags, as though he were giving a speech at the United Nations. "The relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post-Cold War era, "reads the inscription.
"I'm using international relations to describe relations within art circles, even between artists, and this conflict is difficult to resolve," Mr. Zhou explains. Profit, who benefits, who gets to know about you. In an exhibition, where the works are placed, on this wall or that, how you get on with one curator. "It's like a mafia and it depends which godfather you're in with."
There is also the question of Mr. Zhou love-hate relations with foreign perceptions of Chinese artists. He says the West needs and wants to see that in China there are artists with democratic thinking or people who have democratic ideas, as an example of opposition to the Chinese Communist Party. But the only thing preoccupying him is work, not opposition to the government, he claims. "Freedom," Mr. Zhou scoffs. "What's freedom?" He relates how a German artist at a show sponsored by giant firm Siemens wanted to exhibit a list of questions challenging Siemens. It was not approved and the artist withdrew from the group.
In fact, Mr. Zhou cannot wait until the "Chinese" is dropped from in front of "artist," because, "the Chinese label is a political label." But he won't deny this is the same political label that has helped China's modern artists get the attention they need to survive. What an exhausting dilemma.
Perhaps Mr. Zhou's peculiar appeal lies in how he derides the game but continues to play it. Thus does he appear to mock his own fame in a brochure made to look like one issued by a securities firm. Entitled "New Listing, Zhou Tiehai Rises on debut Before Reaching Fair Value," it features a market analyst at a Shanghai-based firm explaining that "if the Zhou climbs much higher it will find itself very vulnerable to market fluctuations and exposed to the whims of profit-takers."
Despite being implicated in all this – or perhaps because they are so bound up in the process-foreign buyers can't seem to get enough. Andreas Kruger from the German consulate here has just begged some of Mr. Zhou's work. "His work is unfinished in a fascinating way. It leaves questions unresolved," Mr. Kruger explains. Besides, "We're bored with Mao and Coca-Cola, all that's dead."
THE ASIAN WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 24-25, 1998