"Don't worry about making mistakes"

by Grace Fan on the first exhibition of Placebos in "Don't worry about making mistakes" at ShanghART, Oct. 1999 (Shanghai Talk, Oct. 1999).

"You've seen his "fake covers" hanging in the city's hottest art gallery, ShanghART. Or you've heard, in brief snatches of conversation, the buzz about one of China's most intriguing contemporary artists, 33-year-old conceptual artist Zhou Tiehai.

Now, fresh from his sojourn at the most-hyped international art exhibit in the world, the Venice Biennale (an event that still has the power of bestowing art stardom on up-and-coming artists, thought critics bash it as aging and too-establishment). Zhou is finally gracing the Shanghai art world with his first solo exhibit in China.

On exhibit will be Zhou's new series of airbrushed works called "Placebo", based on the wedding photo studio technique of airbrushing romantic backgrounds like Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls. Among the works are two large hanging motorized scrolls, featuring, among others images often a dapper Joe Camel. The scrolls automatically roll up and down to show different pictures when the viewers press a button - a mechanized twist on that 60s art notion of inviting audience participation.

Zhou is one of only a handful of artists in China who has leapt over the brave new world of cenceptual art, an area of art that even those who have neen schooled in 20th-century art history sometimes castigate as drivel.

"He is not an artist in my book," snorted one Hong Kong journalist recently, upon learning that Zhou doesn't actually paint or construct any of his works. ¨He comes up with an idea, then finds someone to execute the idea for him - more a movie director, really, instead of an Emersonian do-it-youself-er."

One of Zhou's influences, not surprisingly, is Marcel Duchamp, arguably this century's most influential artist. Ducham first shot to aesthetic notoriety in 1912 with his painting Nude Descending A Staircase (nudes were supposed to recline or pose seductively, but - gasp! - a moving nude?). A few years later, Duchamp graduated to "ready-mades", by taking an already manufactured snow shovel and a toilet, signing them (or getting a friend to sign them for him), and then exhibiting them as Art Objects.

The readymade sent an other shockwave through the art world. Disturbingly, it posed the question "What is art?" and suggested that "art" could really be anything at all. Opponents blasted the entire notion as sacrilegious. Duchamp's own explanation was that is was "a form denying the possibility of defining art." He also said, laconically: "It was the idea that came first, not the visual example" - a concept that the contemporary art world, 80-odd years later, is still grappling with.

Enter Zhou who carries Duchamp's concept of the readymade into the post-industrial world of global brand-making and commerce. Could art .. be Joe Camel? Why not? In his best works, Zhou playfully and ironically collapses the worlds of art and advertising, with a cool brashness that questions the value system of a world in which everything, including an "art star", is a made commodity, not born."

Grace Fan