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The Strategy Behind the Artist's Self-Portrait "ZHOU Tiehai"

Author: DIRK LUCKOW Oct,2000

Zhou Tiehai and I met for the first time in 1997 in a bar in Shanghai. As a curator for the Siemens cultural programme I asked him which exhibitions he considered as being important for China. "Joseph Beuys" and "Bauhaus" and its fundamental architectonic ideas, he answered. Irrespective of this conversation, it was the overwhelming modernisation of the cities that attracted my attention during my visits to China. Fundamental questions regarding urbanism imposed themselves on me and led to an extensive project for the development of the cities of Peking, Shanghai and Shenzhen in co-operation with the Bauhaus in Dessau. Hence, the idea of the exhibition was a direct outcome of my encounter with Zhou. His suggestion to exhibit "Joseph Beuys" in China is still to be realised. Why did Zhou suggest Beuys? Apart from the fact that such an exhibition might have an interesting effect on the Chinese understanding of art, there exist - though not so obviously - some connections between him and Beuys. They concern the political elements in his work, the bringing in of his own person and at times, in older pieces, the application of colour or the gesticulatory way of including text fragments in his paintings.

Our contact was continued through the exhibition "Brushholder Value" which I arranged at the Miinster Art Society. This exhibition was to show positions adhering to a painterly quality of the works and, at the same time, pursuing contents of social criticism. The exhibition was a reaction to a series of exhibitions dedicated to the topic of art in the nineties, on the occasion of which aspects referring to society had been neglected in favour of an art reflecting itself. Zhou demonstrates in his paintings, collages and inductive works that the conditions prevailing in art are always analogous to political and international relations. He picks out as a central theme his own situation as a Chinese artist in this political world of art. The Miinster exhibition to which Zhou had been invited along with five German artists, was accompanied by a scandal. One of the artists had attempted, in every way possible, to prove the exertion of influence of the industry. After his contribution to the catalogue had not been accepted unedited by me and the director of the art society jointly responsible for the exhibition, he withdrew his entire contribution from the exhibition and turned to the media with the reproach of censorship.

For Zhou, this Miinster event represented a deja vu of Chinese conditions. Quite unexpectedly he had become an observer of a cultural-political conflict in the West. Any avant-garde art exhibition in China is political dynamite and walking a knife-edge, not rarely resulting in the closure of the exhibition. For Zhou, however, such events do not only express the heroic courage of the artists or curators but also, very often, a clear tactic of those involved to make themselves politically interesting outside China. Remembering this, in Miinster Zhou did not feel compelled to show solidarity towards the artist whose contribution produced a scandal. He reacted with the painting "Can the Left make the Right Happy" and thus utilised the Miinster experience as a motif for a picture. It suggests a possible fundamental contradiction between the promotion of economic development and contemporary art, as well as the problematic rapprochement of the capitalistic West and China. The "Left" as well as the "Right" are represented by a Yuppie type wearing sunglasses: both alike give an impression of stupidity and the same egoism is hidden behind the facade of both extremes. The use of the old German script, however, may also point to a public debate on the freedom of art, which in its moral claim to purity is typical for Germany and inconceivable in such a way in other countries. The piece fits into the series of Zhou's paper works, reminiscent of graffiti, which focus on his personal experience with art, commerce and politics as spheres of influence profoundly affecting each other.

His work turns political aspects into a concept. In "New Listing. Zhou Tiehai", the artist assesses his own value as a share on the international capital market. Other computer print-outs show manipulated magazine covers of relevant cultural or political journals of the Western world with texts like "Next stop Catherine" as an insinuation regarding the Kassel documenta or "Here I come Washington". Full of irony, he alludes to the longing of Chinese artists, including himself, for international success. At the same time, the mechanisms of an art world in which no spirituality is conceivable are being criticised. He does not only create awareness of the market dependence of contemporary Chinese art on the Western world but also comments sarcastically on the contradictions of a country that is proud of modernisation and globalisation, yet does not concede that contemporary art has a right to exist beyond certain traditional limits. This could be the reason why he would appreciate a Beuys exhibition in China. The subjects of Zhou's paintings deal with stories from China as cliches - some of them using a decal character - existing between cultures:

Subjects like the cultural revolution, the Chinese rejection of western decadence, the cadreman, or Shanghai's reputation as a prostitute of the Western world, no longer elucidate the trauma of a politically oppressed artist but are reinterpreted and refer to Zhou's own experience gained in the network of international art contacts. The group of paintings in the style of a Camel advertisement showing the "nouveau riche" as "longnose" (the Chinese soubriquet for Western people) could represent him in the pose of the successful artist. Altogether, his art, which was once classified by Monica Demate as belonging to the realm of "meta criticism", reflects political and cultural contrasts between different peoples with a great awareness of their superficial similarity.

Furthermore, Zhou's paintings are full of allusions to the ex-colonial ties of his Shanghai environment to the Western world and the materialism of a metropolis, which is doing business again today with the Western world as it did in the beginning of the 20th century. His works refer in various ways to the city of Shanghai. For example, through the affinity shown in individual subjects for the Shanghai-specific colonial architecture, the cinema tradition of the city ("90 Years of Chinese Cinema") and the free journalism which has its roots in Shanghai (Fake Covers). Zhou's sound instal-lation "Airport" announces Shanghai's departure times for flights to international art centres like New York or Frankfurt. Not only does it thwart the interests of Chinese artists in these places, but also the ideals of Shanghai city itself, which is converting into an international traffic junction and financial centre. On the other hand, the movie "Will/A Silent Movie" is about the arrival of the international art establishment in Shanghai. The director of the museum and the military are involved in the building projects for the airport discussed in the movie.

Behind Zhou's exposition of the (art) world are the political and cultural contradictions as inevitable factors of a modern artist's life in the People's Republic of China. In contrast to the political art of Hans Haacke, whose art attempts as an autonomous, moral authority - irrespective of one's own person - to uncover social connections, Zhou includes himself in the game of artists, owners of galleries and critics as a mirror reflecting the global political haggling for power, success and the future. The text "The relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post Cold War era" is recited by himself as a newsreader wearing a suit and tie in front of the flags of leading nations in the large-format picture "Press Conference". In addition to this, his current project "Art Basel, Art Unlimited" was to interfere in the structure surrounding him in a way that would be understood as real behaviour. At Art Basel 2000, the entire ShangART gallery - including the female artists represented by it - was to be offered for sale as an art project by Zhou. The management of the art fair rejected the project. ShangART is Zhou's own gallery. "Buy ShangART" is the title of an early work of his. The calculatedness of advertising and strategies of art are blended together. The political aspect turns into an advertising point for the artist's self-portrait "Zhou Tiehai".

Dirk Luckow, Munic

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