Lecture by Zhou Tiehai - Placebo-Swiss at Hara Museum

I was always very idealistic when it came to art, and thought that if you made good work, recognition would come naturally. But then I found out how difficult it was to get one’s work appraised without first being introduced and becoming widely known. When the so-called “Great Cultural Revolution” came to an end in 1976, China began initiating reforms and opening up to the outside. Western contemporary art was introduced into China, Chinese artists became interested in it and began making similar things of their own. But their activities were, for the most part, neither recognized nor supported by the State, or by the wider public, and so they began to turn to the foreign diplomats, journalists and business people in China, and began establishing reputations among them. In 1993, the writer Andre Solomon came to China, made contact with many artists in Beijing and Shanghai and wrote an article about Chinese contemporary art for the New York Times Magazine. It was like Columbus discovering a new continent. 

At the time of Solomon’s visit, I made a work titled “A Man Called Solomon Comes to China.” And I inscribed on it, “The great Mr. Solomon came to distant China and made very sharp observations about the mind of the people in this remote country.” Why did I use the word “remote”? Because the Western art world still sees China as a place far from the center of things.

In 1996, I had the following experience. While at a friend’s studio, I met someone from the United States who said to me, “Your name is not on my list.” Since that time, I knew that getting known abroad required being reported on by influential newspapers and magazines and the media. This of course has nothing to do with artistic activity, but is something artists have to do. So in 1995 I began a series of fake covers of well-known foreign publications with my own face on them.

One work (photo 1) is a fake cover of Newsweek magazine. I put my face, with my work in the background, on the early covers, including Artnews, frieze of London, Art in America, and Flash Art. The fake covers closely followed the design of the originals and were similarly priced. For example, Art in America cost about five dollars, and so did the work.

Five years ago, when I began doing art again, I knew I had to get my work seen by critics and curators, but few chances exist for young Chinese artist to do this. In the end, there are only the people who come to China to whom you are introduced. But I had neither the time nor the information to make that happen.

One work of mine (photo 2) shows a representation of a map of Shanghai. The vertical line is the Huangpu River and the horizontal line the Suzhou Creek. The flags show where the artists are. The point of the work is to let curators know that there are these people working in Shanghai.

This is a scene from a film of mine (photo 3) that was shown at a Shiseido exhibition in 1997, entitled “Bi Xu” (Chinese for “Will”). I call this part the “Strategy Meeting.” In the back is the map that I described before. This scene shows young artists refining their strategy for breaking out of their isolation and getting known. The young artist in the center says, “We have to build our own airport,” meaning that artists have to have their own airport in order to get the airplanes carrying curators and critics from abroad to stop by. And because the foreign curators and critics spend only a very short time in China, the young Chinese artists must visit them as if they were going for a 15-minute checkup by a doctor. So this segment is saying that artists must build an airport in order to be seen by foreigners. And on top of that, they must establish good relations with the critics, curators, and collectors. (Editor’s note: In the film that was actually shown, the artist deliberately cut out this and all other parts, leaving only the words “Will ” at the beginning and “Farewell Art” at the end.)

In “Press Conference” (1998) (photo 4), I wrote at the bottom, “The relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post Cold War era.” Another work is an AP Dow Jones article announcing that Zhou Tiehai has been listed on the Shanghai stock exchange. In Shanghai, there are two types of securities: “A” securities and “B” securities. “A” securities are those traded in by normal domestic investors; “B” securities are sold for dollars to foreign investors. In my case, I was listed with the “B” securities. My volatility index, written on the bottom, tells you that at the time I was first listed, there was a lot of interest and my stock kept rising, but then there was a temporary drop. What it means is that the value of young artists is determined from beginning to end by foreign investors. This work and the fake magazine cover series were shown at the Venice Biennale last year.

In the work titled “Target-Art Museum,” the art museum lies at the center of a dartboard. The meaning is that one must master and practice the art of darts in order to hurl one’s works at the museums. In the upper-left is a short escalator. It signifies that though the escalator to the museum is a very short one, the museum would not be reachable without a special escalator.

The meaning of the work titled “Buy Happiness” is that in order to grow up quickly and healthily, one needs to be protected by a mother or a godfather, and that if you have a godfather looking after you, your value will rise quickly.

“Hurry Up! Art History Isn’t Waiting For You!” This is the title of a work that parodies a famous Chinese proverb that says those who do not make it to the top are not great.

The “Joe Camel” character appears a lot in my work. I use it because of its funny, playful appearance. In one work (photo 5), two camels are talking. One says, “Oh dear…I got another flight ticket.” And the other responds, “What a headache. Take Migranol.” The ticket represents an invitation to an overseas art fair, and the work refers to the many invitations that I get and what a true headache they are.

During these past years, I’ve given some thought about the role of art. Someone from a Swiss pharmaceutical company told me about the long time that pharmaceutical companies spend developing new drugs, and then the clinical trials that they must do in which some patients receive placebos instead of the actual medicine, for comparison sake. It seemed to me that the role of the placebo was applicable to artwork and artistic activity, and so I used the expression in the present exhibition.

In the past, I used newspapers, video images and the video soundtracks in my work. For this exhibition, I used airbrush in every piece. In Chinese photo studios, these types of airbrush picture screens are used as backdrops.

The series of works that I made for this exhibition, “Placebo-Swiss,” depicts my activities over the past five years. During this time, I maintained a close relationship with Switzerland, and so, for the most part, the works depict my activities in Switzerland. In 1995, I met Lorenz Helbling, a Swiss man who started a contemporary art gallery in Shanghai (photo 6).

In a work that I showed at the Basel Art Fair this year, there is an escalator at the bottom of the picture. It is the escalator that carried me to the Basel Art Fair, allowing me to show work there for the first time. 

One picture depicts Harald Szeemann, the curator of last year’s Venice Biennale who selected 19 Chinese artists to participate at the biennale. I made this picture when someone suggested that Szeemann should bring a starting gun and to fire it at the biennale, implying that the biennale was like the Olympic Games, and that the artists were like the contestants in a race (i.e., the biennale). Galleries and curators were similarly competing against each other.

Another picture shows a small island in Switzerland, the location of the home of the former Swiss ambassador to China who had collected a great amount of contemporary Chinese art. The island is thus thought of by Chinese artists as a “Zhongnanhai” of Chinese artists, after the real Zhongnanhai, a place in Beijing populated by government people, and thus comprises a kind of “nerve center” of the country.

A lot of Chinese artists make work that underscores a kind of “Chineseness.” At first glance, I believe people don’t see anything Chinese about my work. But all of my work reflects my creative life in Shanghai. As I mentioned before, all the thoughts that I have had about art till now are reflected in my work. I do not know how long I will continue my creative activities, but I hope to continue observing the relationship between artists, galleries, and curators.

(Excerpted and edited from a slide lecture given in Chinese on October 24 in The Hall at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art.)