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Mr. Camel, the most faithful portrait of Shanghai today

On Zhou Tiehai's work Author: Hou Hanru 2006-09-11

Zhou Tiehai's one of the most remarkable artists from Shanghai. He is perhaps one of the most eccentric minds from the city, that is making huge efforts to achieve the status of a global metropolis in a certain contradictory and even eccentric way–a kind of surprisingly efficient combination of Socialist and free market Capitalist values, as well as blending of nationalist pride and postcolonial complex... this makes Shanghai an apparently seductive but potentially violent playground for national and international adventurists, speculators and even gamblers while some of the most audacious social and economic reform projects are being cooked up and tried out here. It represents a historically unprecedented and culturally innovative relationship between China with the outside world today. And this is going to have complicated and unpredictable impacts on the restructuring of global economy and geopolitics. In this process, many eccentric things can happen, and they are actually happening. One of the most interesting events is the making of an amazingly original and attractive, somehow mysterious, scene of contemporary art. It's essentially urban, individualist and elegant, often humorous, and occasionally outrageously cynical. Eventually, it's a particular form of critique–one can even deduce it as perversion of critique itself, a skill to survive social and political dilemmas generated by the schizophrenic reality struggle between claims for freedom and political control, increasingly eroded by the corrupting force of monetary power and dream of the nouveau riche… Shanghai is a perfect example of a contemporary vanity fair. And the art world is a crème de la crème of this dreamland, while the artists are insistently striving to escape its grasp without forgetting taking benefits from it...

Zhou Tiehai has been a central figure of this art scene. And he purportedly maintains an estrange relationship with it. His work is pungent, critical, sensitively mirroring the mutating reality of city for the last two decades, especially since the invasion of consumerism and, along the way, the intrusion of the international art market and institutional powers. Using wide range of media from graffiti to video, from digital image to oil painting, from performance to conceptual writings, his artistic language is clever, cool, sensitive, sensational and systematically shifting in order to avoid any aesthetic seize. In the meantime, they are clearly targeting some specific goals: the very problematic relationship between the Chinese art world and international industry of the spectacle, namely art market and representational institutions and other agencies. He realises, from the earliest period of the birth of this relationship, that this is a fundamentally paradoxical one that can affect the nature of artistic activities in the city, and the country at large. It is an intensive embodiment of "real-political" between Chinese society and the world economy today, which is dominated by Western corporate and ideological powers.

The interaction between the sides has been rapid and dynamic. The result is a spectacular establishment of a radical and excessive consumer society. It's even largely taken for granted as a common good that is suspicious to replace the long lost traditional and communist values. Chinese population has been fervent smokers. And the introduction of Western brands of cigarette such as Camel, Marlboro, etc. has endowed the smokers, especially those urban, privileged who can afford them, with a hue of modernised and chic. Images of the Camel becomes a sign of success, and hence superiority. From the early 1990s, after years of deconstructive re-appropriation of iconic images of the Cultural Revolution as good-bye to the Maoist years, Zhou Tiehai has embraced a new icon: the Camel. But his "love" for this icon has always been helplessly desperate and ironic. He has recreated a kind of counterfeit of the Camel, somehow representing his own identity change in the age of social mutation. His Mr. Camel, wearing brand new Western suites and sunglasses, appears majestic and powerful.  However, he always fails to hide away his true feelings: lonely, empty and hysteric. This new icon of the artist is, in fact, not only an image of an individual. It's the very image of a newly born society which is increasingly integrating to the global cult of consumerism. And almost nobody would doubt about the goodness of such a cult. The fetishism of the Camel has become a brand new and overwhelming, quasi divine force, shedding light on our way towards a wealthy future.

In the art world, this "divine" force is by no means less powerful. The difference is often merely laying in the purportedly complicated, ambiguously reorganisation of the signifiers in the art works. The superpower of money can systematically consume and transform almost any kind of provocative and "abnormal" expressions into nice decorations for "tasteful" life styles while the most creative and critical personalities can be easily turned into new icons of the star system of "cultural industry".

Zhou Tiehai, being merged in the current of this turbulent sea, understands this intimately and perfectly. However, he has not simply surrendered to the market force. Instead, he insists on a certain strategy of resistance, and hence an achievement of jouissance. He plays with various icons of the star system, especially those who have somehow forged an "internationalised" Chinese art, often with a mixed intension of sincere interests and skills of manipulation.

Lately, Zhou Tiehai, has extended his legendary narrative of Mr. Camel's to a more focused field of iconic works of the global art market. He recycles the images of some of the most famous and expensive modern and contemporary works, which have often obtained great successes in the auction market, to construct his own versions of the success stories. He replaces the heads of the trademark personalities by superstar artists such as Picasso, Andy Warhol,  Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Mariko Mori, Richard Prince, Frida Kahlo, Nan Goldin, Maurizio Cattelan, etc. with the portrait of Mr. Camel. The result is incredibly funny but irrelevant. They are clearly ironic. In the meantime, one can always sense a kind of self-mockery. Is it the ultimate dream for a Shanghai artist like Zhou Tiehai to become a global star? If he did, could he be really happy? Or simply, he would fall into exactly the same feeling as his creature Mr. Camel: majestic and powerful but ultimately lonely, empty and hysteric?

Perhaps, this is the most faithful portrait of Shanghai, the most exciting city for day-dreamers in our time of globalisation...

Seoul, 11 September 2006

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