ZHOU TIEHAI is one of the most unique artists to appear in the contemporary Chinese art scene in the 1990s. He lived in Shanghai, the most rapidly modernizing and expanding city in the world. Shanghai can be seen as the very focus of the experiment of sudden globalization, which generates an unusual version of modernity. Zhou Tiehai is extremely sensitive to the mutating reality. In his multimedia work, he targets the question of globalization and commercialization of his society. No doubt, the changes in his environment are by no means isolated; on the contrary, it is the model of globalization itself. Certainly, this process is never smooth and simple. It is, instead, confrontational and conflictive. Art as a part of real life has to be involved in such a turbulent negotiation. Zhou Tiehai’s work demonstrates this clearly: in his poster and painting series “Press Conference” (1997–8) he declares, “The relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post-Cold War era.”
Full of satiric critique, his artistic language is informal and relaxed. He rejects any established definition and even positions himself beyond the conventional process of creation. He uses multimedia to criticize the manipulation and exploitation of “third world art” by the “international” art market, media, and institutions, often under the disguise of self-mockery. Along with all kinds of experimentation with photography, video, and computer generated images as well as performance, he regularly “returns” to painting. However, his “painting” is an ironic interpretation of painting itself, which can easily fall victim to commercial art. He produces only ideas and motifs. The actual realization of the paintings is carried out by assistants he hires. They spray various images onto bolts of fabrics with industrial paints. The images, smoothly “painted” to resemble hand-painted advertising, rang from portraits of stars of pop culture and the art world to famous art museums. Recently he has developed a series comparing Western and Chinese painting. Entitled “Placebo”—implying that art serves a kind of self-consolation for those who strive to succeed in the art world—these funny and ironic “storytelling” scrolls can be manipulated by the audience. Viewers can roll them up or down via control buttons attached to the installation. This invitation for public participation finally debunks the myth of painting as autonomous and sacred. Its status now oscillates between creation and vacuous game playing as the ultimate emptiness of art activity itself is revealed. To push this idea further, Zhou Tiehai even deconstructs his own identity by dissolving the distinctions between himself and his assistants.
In sum, Zhou Tiehai’s art is anything but predictable. Far beyond any egocentric indulgence, his art is totally open. It is simply like life itself.