Zhou Tiehai, Shanghai and Globalisation

Zhou Tiehai has been one of the most important Chinese artists on the international scene in the last few years. He is known for his creative peculiarity and for the personal role he plays.

His symbolic figure declines every kind of classification and categorisation. He is his own agent, his own spectator and at the same time he is his own self-critic as well as a critic for the art of his times. He is a sort of “meta-critic” He perceptively examines the observations that foreigners and Chinese mutually make and studies the surrounding environment to understand the tendencies and demands which he satisfies with exceptional speed and ability.

His artistic life began on the assumption that to be an established artist you had to be “on a list”(an expression that he often repeats) from the very beginning in order to enter the museum, gallery, critics and mass media circle which allows art to exist. Zhou entered this list from the moment he printed his face or slogans and images which referred to his work, on the front page of international art magazines such as Flash Art, Art in America, Frieze …and then sold these “forgeries” at their original price.

Since that fateful day in his friend’s studio when he felt he was not considered because he was unknown by one of the many American critics, he realised how important it was to enter the global art market.

He was born in Shanghai, where he still lives and works, and he reflects this modern and rapidly growing city in his outlook.

Zhou fully answers this request for development and experimentation, even if he wants to criticise it and wants to argue polemically the ruthless manipulation of an exotic art and the “third world “ by the international art market, the media and the institutions.

Perhaps he does not realise that his outlook is not only meta –critic but also meta-geographic and therefore international. In fact, from his work it is easy to understand that his point of view is not exclusively Chinese nor Occidental but he seems to observe his own people with Western eyes and to observe the rest of the world with typical Chinese curiosity. According to him success and fame for a Chinese artist totally depends on the recognition and the acceptance of the West. The Chinese do not completely understand his art, which is considered alien and foreign whereas the West says he and his work is visibly “Chinese”.

Shanghai is like London and New York and offers the same opportunities, therefore the influences and exchanges between citizens from all over the world are the norm (a rare and privileged condition for a country such as China which was isolated from the outside world until not long ago). Zhou Tiehai has travelled abroad a great deal without ever settling, like many artists from the previous generation did. He always returns with new ideas. All this has enabled the artist to mature an avant-garde and universal point of view without losing his own cultural and Chinese imprint.

Although proud of his origins, Zhou Tiehai does not succumb to that common international tendency which appreciates the different aspects of China for its diversity and wants us to believe and perceive that “the West wants China to have artists thinking democratically or to have people with democratic ideas to use as an example against the Chinese communist party.” However this political theme does not seem to touch Zhou , who is totally immersed in his own work.


This particular dual polarity China- the West remains the main characteristic of his studies and his artistic production.

Educated at Shanghai College of Fine Arts by a teacher, who qualified in Russia, Zhou Tiehai ‘s foreign knowledge of art was limited to an ornamental European classicism and to a social Soviet realism.

Following the reduction of Soviet control in Deng Xiaoping’s China, the West’s consumer culture began to spread all over the country and involved every circle, enriching art disciplines which assumed global comprehension and were more detailed in different European and American styles even as far as modern Pop Art or Dadaism.

This information, received with great enthusiasm, was followed blindly and perceived as practically revolutionary. It was absorbed by modern Chinese culture and was evaluated according to parameters of an in depth and articulate critical judgement.

In fact, historically speaking, only from the beginning of the Qing dynasty period the thoughts and the ways of Western visual representation were introduced into China by missionaries. At the beginning of the twentieth century many Chinese painters went to Europe, especially France, where they brought back typical pictorial styles to their homeland. All this was filtered by another predominant aspect, the influence of social realism and the so called art of propaganda, so much so that the artist himself said,” The visual propaganda of the Cultural Revolution is unthinkable without the hero of the proletariat and without all the Mao portraits.”


Zhou Tiehai is sick and tired of the political effigies of Mao, the historic president used as a sacred idol and all those consumer symbols and American brand names, (such as McDonald’s or Coca cola) and so he substitutes them with his own icon and personal brand name, Joe Camel. The face of this camel begins to fill up his canvas and he uses this image because it is amusing but in reality it ironically recalls the American society, which is typical and for us recognisable in Pop Art according to which “ all is pretty”.

The camel is a symbol of a very well known cigarette brand imported from America into China, but it can also be a common Chinese caricature of “waiguoren”(foreigners), often laughed at by the Asians for their “great noses”. It is also used as a publicity image and stereotype for the middle –classes of the “nouveau riche”. It refers to ties between ex-colonial Shanghai and the West and to the materialism of a city founded on foreign commercial trade.

Joe is every one and no one or simply he is the voice of its author who uses it as a channel and a cover to diffuse his own ideas and criticisms. So, in all his numerous works of the Placebo series, the artist substitutes the faces in famous Victorian and Renaissance portraits with the head of this

typical exotic animal.


The works of the Placebo series is linked to those of another project called Tonic and represent the fundamental idea that Zhou Tiehai has regarding art.

The inspiration of such a concept came from some information given to Zhou by a Swiss chemical worker concerning the time it takes to develop new medicine. During the research and before the marketing of the new product Pharmaceutical companies give the experimental product to some patients and to others a palliative instead of the real medicine to cut costs and production time and to compare the results with this kind of “psychological sedative.”

Placebo is therefore not considered as a medicine to cure an illness but simply an attempt to give people psychological comfort.

Reconsidering this concept, art becomes a placebo of the artist’s perception of today’s world where the people possess everything; money, work, and material goods but in spite of this they are unhappy. Works of art serve to make the people happy creating well being and temporary happiness like opium for the people who are waiting for a utopian cure. This function also serves Zhou Tiehai and all those who try to emerge on the world scene with the meaning and the sense that art can serve as self –consolation and is an end to an end, in other words “ art for art”. This is because, as the artist says,” When I was at school the spirit was important but today the only important thing for students is to make money.” At the same time a tonic is a neutral substance which is part of traditional Chinese life. These substances such as “ginseng” are considered to contribute to health and longevity according to Chinese medicine.

The works of the series Placebo begin from the Chinese perception of Western art, which is orientated on the trail and the discovery of something “new”.


This artistic rediscovery is structured on investigation and bivalent study: on one side Western art perceived in China generally as “ ancient” and expressed in Zhou Tiehai’s works by Victorian and Renaissance periods and on the other “contemporary” art and especially a well known gender, American Pop Art.

Although this was not understood at the beginning due to foreseeable incompatibility and cultural differences, the Chinese opening to the West in the last few decades has posed the immediate need for a total opened minded attitude and for a not instantly understandable but indispensable assimilation.

According to the artist, when you observe other cultures and other cultural developments, the perception of the people is not systematically deep and real and there is not an immediate reciprocity between the sender and the receiver but often in interpreting every element the people are influenced by the diversity and peculiarity of their own original culture. Every discovery or intuition brings typical elements either from the sender’s or the receiver’s culture resulting in a very strong semantic enrichment.

For this reason the painting he reproduces are not chosen according to a precise criteria but casually, as often occurs when many people come across a new culture. According to Zhou the paintings he chooses to reproduce represent a certain sort of symbol of traditional Western society(aristocrats, priests and saints). This is what is perceived of European culture seen from a Chinese point of view in these oil paintings. So, without having the precise knowledge of the background of these works of art and their historical connections, he rebuilds a visual image that illustrates the way China looks at the West.

If you observe each work of art it is clear how the reference and allusion are numerous. The Mona Lisa with the camel head is a clear example that not only refers to the work of Leonardo, which is without doubt the most well known and reproduced portrait in the world but also to one of the most famous desecrators in the history of art, Marchel Duchamp , who reproduced the image with a moustache. This madness of Duchamp and the particular art of ready made at the beginning of the twentieth century created a shock in the international artistic world and solicited the question what art really was, with the implicit answer that “art” could be anything.


Because of this upset one of the maxims of contemporary art, especially conceptual art was developed ; what is important is not what you see nor the physical work but the idea that is concealed.

So even Zhou Tiehai does not paint nor construct from the beginning any of his works but most of the time he gives the idea and his collaborators carry it out.

Numerous assistants work on his works and in Zhou Tiehai’s opinion, one in particular, Zhao Lin, should co-sign many of them. His studio makes you think of Andy Warhol’s Art Factory in New York.

It is curious how such an equivalent to this creative reality can be found chronologically and geographically some decades later in China and how it is not an imitation nor emulation. Instead it is simply a casual result of similar needs. The artist himself sustains that in such a vast project it is necessary that many people collaborate to carry out the works of art based on his ideas and that they are also needed to maintain contacts and public relations.

All this keeping up to date with current and social events, like a Chinese “dandy” in the Andy Warhol style, is a way of self stimulation and interior research in his own ambience in order to continually create

Not only in his specific field but also in all creative environments, Zhou like Andy Warhol promotes artists and any initiative for what is new in art, music and cinema. Like a director of the Chinese jet set which is more than ever rich in stimuli and always fermenting, he is able to recognise the synergy and the people to launch and insert in that global dimension of Art, which he tries to observe and therefore in part controls.

Also his technique is a challenge to the public and to himself to show how far he can go with his own experiments. In fact he proposes again classical oil paintings using a spray technique with an airbrush which is linked to “bad painting “ and graffiti.

As the airbrush is not a very well known and nearly undervalued technique he is launching another

provocation to the artistic world and enforcing his own capacity.

This frivolous pictorial language, as the English say “pretty and nice”, but also raw and apparently cold bring once again the meeting of East and West, denying the pictorial standards of Chinese water and ink techniques (shuimo) and the oil on canvas of the West, emphasising the ironic and desecrating contents of Zhou Tiehai’s works.

In this way the artist suggests a contemporary and avant-garde vision of art, especially on painting, showing the necessity to keep detached from canonical and academic creative standards. His work is an anti-painting, which observes and absorbs everything but has impermanent features and ethereal nuances. He uses various supports, ranging from the common canvas to painting on newspapers, which come from old Chinese “dazibao”(newspapers to hang up) to propose the ready made genre and to show, always in a provocative way, that art has no value but it is only old paper.

Sometimes he uses motorised moving rolls of paper so that when the spectator pushes a button the rolls move automatically. This idea came to the artist from the Chinese photographic studios where they were used for special backgrounds, like waterfalls and pyramids, as they did not have the economic possibilities to travel.

In reality if we read behind the lines of his irony and apparent simplicity in connection to art we will surely find a great cognitive faculty and an exceptional culture.

He is able to elaborate again and contest concepts, which are always unknown to Chinese society. If it were not for him they would not be able to grasp the meaning because they are so different.


Through the reinterpretation of a certain kind of portrait painting, for example, Zhou Tiehai opens

an interesting question about Renaissance, the real foundation of the Western “modern”, and also his impact on China.

A rebirth in the artistic field was brought about when the Western man became aware of his superiority and his superman attitude between the XV and XIV century. It was centred on the return of the classic form and on the adoption of an experimental method of the study of nature and above all on the conception of the individual as a measure and a centre of the universe.

This accepted and implicit concept emerged as a harsh concept to the Chinese culture principally for two reasons. Firstly it is difficult to conceive how man’s centrality could be perceived by a country where centenarian philosophies such as Taoismo which ties the individual to a marginal post (in landscape paintings people appear minute) because the individual is a simple element of a universal all and no human nor divinity can be located in the centre of the Cosmos

Secondly China is today still considered a country of multitudes whether for its number of people or for its politics. In fact the individual surely does not have that knowledge of himself and above all that importance and consideration that we are used to taking for granted (also at a level of liberty and human rights).

Notwithstanding Zhou Tiehai is able to grasp these ideas for himself and with a persuasive and redeeming capacity make the portrait his bulwark. In China, where to reproduce a face was seen as a bad omen because shade and chiaroscuro could allude to a prediction of death.

The versatility of Zhou and the typical openness of art allow the culture to receive new stimuli and enrichment even if they are not totally understood. Moreover the different interpretations lead to an exchange of cultures and enhance internationalisation.

So Zhou Tiehai proposes religious images such as “Charity” by Andrea del Sarto, a Christian subject and theme, which has been alien to China for centuries and probably still today is misunderstood and considered by many as “exoticism”.

In other occasions we meet these continual cross-references and changing points of view that complete each other on the basis that art is the bearer of a strong communicative.


This particular double geographical view linked with the subtle criticism in the cultural environment stands out in his career and can be seen in most of the works of this Shanghai artist. In Shanghai, as in all the Orient, contemporary art has a brief story because self-expression in China does not have a long tradition and even today the artistic expression remains a challenge

In his silent film “Will», created for the Shiseido exhibition in 1997, Zhou describes the attempt by young Chinese artists to study a strategy to break their isolationism and to be known. The proposed solution was to build an airport, a metaphor for an ideal and physical connection with collectors, critics and curators. In these short and superficial foreign visits the understanding that the foreigners have is practically nil. So much so that one of them exclaims,” You have only traditional medicine and crafts and what you are producing is not art”. The Chinese answer to this is that they have art equal to the West but it is simply responds to different standards and so is difficult to understand by other cultures. Zhou Tiehai criticises the fact that Art like every artist needs a patron and finds that this system of recommendations and acquaintances leads to a real and proper Mafia.

Instead, in his work” Press Conference”1998, he depicts himself standing on a podium talking into a microphone during a press conference and his cutting declaration is that” the relations in the art world are the same as those between the States after the Cold War”. This is another example of the conflictual but diplomatically necessary relationship that there is inside this sector.

Zhou Tiehai knows what he wants and how to obtain it. In one of his creations, the winking Joe Camel addresses everyone with the phrase, ”Hurry up! The history of art won’t wait for you!” This is a parody of a famous Chinese proverb that says it is not great if you do not climb to the top.

This artist is surely climbing to the top. He is famous in his own country thanks to his participation in numerous shows and Biennial Exhibitions. He is now managing to merge China and the West however, without tying nor identifying himself to either of the two cultures, raising a strong interest and bringing innovation to both.

His versatility is appreciated in both the USA and in Europe and therefore he has been chosen to participate in international events, such as the 2003 Basle Fair, the Exhibition “Alors, la Chine?” at the Pompidou Centre in June 2003 and the group show “The American Effect” at the Whitney Museum. This show analysed the effects of the American culture on artists from all over the world and again shows that artistic exchange and that cultural openness is preparing us for a hypothetical future “Chinese Effect”.

Eleonora Battiston