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Chinese Artist Zhou Tiehai Proves the Emperor Is Naked

Author: By David Barboza | The New York Times 2006-04-30

SHANGHAI, April 30 — In the early 1990's, when Chinese contemporary art was just beginning to take off, a young painter here named Zhou Tiehai came up with an ambitious plan to make himself famous.

He would succeed by beating the art market at its own game, exposing its commercialism while exploiting it to the hilt. He would produce paintings that he hoped would be acclaimed by the same Western collectors and journalists who, in his mind, had advanced the careers of too many mediocre Chinese artists.

And he would do all this without lifting a brush: he would delegate that work to hirelings.

Somehow, he pulled it off. Mr. Zhou is now one of China's hottest artists. His meteoric rise from marginalized rebel to mainstream superstar culminated in a solo exhibition of his works at the Shanghai Art Museum in March.

Many of the biggest names in Chinese contemporary art were on hand for the opening. Mr. Zhou choked up with tears, seemingly awed by the lofty stage he had ascended.

For more than a decade, his work has mocked the art scene. In an era when every leading Chinese artist seems to have a recognizable brand, a series of obvious signature pieces, Mr. Zhou slyly appropriated Joe Camel from the American cigarette ads and transformed it into his own improbable brand. (Many people here refer to Mr. Zhou — pronounced Joe — as the Joe Camel guy.) Now important collectors boast of owning his paintings. His works, which command prices as high as $100,000, have been shown in New York, London and at the Venice Biennale.

That he doesn't paint them himself seems to make little difference, even, or perhaps especially, to those clued in to his game. Karen Smith, a Beijing-based art critic, calls him "the child who dares to suggest the emperor is indeed naked." Others hail him as a marketing genius.

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