' You only have traditional medicine and witchcraft, not art' says a foreigner to a group of Chinese people during the supper scene in Zhou Tihia’s silent film Will. After this blanket assertion by the 'foreigner' – presumably a Westerner – someone walks determinedly into the room and says: 'Nonsense, we have art,' and seeing the surprise on his interlocutor's face, adds: 'Does our art have to conform to your standards?'
One might define Zhou Tiehai's work as 'meta-critical', given that it involves a perceptive and amused examination of the criticisms that 'foreigners' and Chinese have made of each other. It is curious that Zhou, having so lucidly identified contemporary Chinese art’s dependence on Western critics and museums, should be one of those who have most ably exploits that trend which has enabled Chinese artists to participate in important exhibitions abroad. In fact, he is not only one of the few Chinese artists to have his own website, he also seems to deliberately design his work for an international market (by frequently using English rather than Chinese). The fact is that his work is based on a clear-sighted and detached analysis of the mechanisms governing the world of art and the relations that exist between critics, artists, museums and mass-media. Proficiency in the use of these mechanisms has proved to be know-how fundamental to the very exercise of art – and so Zhou Tiehai uses it at the same time as he criticizes it with lucid disenchantment.
In the 1994 series Mr. Solomon has arrived, he ironically dedicates some large-scale canvases to Westerners’ recent discovery of Chinese art. A year later in Fake Covers, Zhou Tiehai created mock-ups of such internationally-famous publications as ‘Newsweek,’ ‘Art News’ and ‘ Der Sqiegel’, with news about himself or Chinese art on the cover. No half-measures, reticence or metaphors are used in this direct expression of his determination – and need – not to be relegated to a backwater (even if that backwater is the most populous nation in the world).
References to the mass-media made their appearance in the early 1990s, when he was using news-print to make dazibao bearing information on Western art. Subsequent works-such as Frederic le Courierec (1997) and We Went in Search of Love (1996) – could, as Hou ‘Hanru has said, be considered as ‘bad painting’; they contain a strong ‘propaganda’ element, with extensive use of text that is largely sarcastic in tone. In Press Conference II, Zhou himself is got up more like a businessman or PR-man than an artist, The golden background of the painting contains numerous national flags and a slogan that reads: 'The relations within the world of art are the same as those between nations in the era following the end of Cold War.' The claim is made by a Zhou Tiehai in suit and tie, who appears rather swollen with the importance and gravity of what he has just said. In effect, it describes the situation that many within the field of contemporary art (artists, critics, gallery-owners. ect.) encounter every day, considering it par for the course.
It is strange how Zhou Tiehai seems to focus on one means of communication at a time: whilst Will was a silent film using subtitles (similar to the texts in his paintings), in his 1996 solo show in Beijing the artist made ample use of acoustic communication, faking an entire series of flight announcements regarding imminent departures for some of the major centers of contemporary art (for example, Frankfurt and New York). Every Chinese artist dreams of takimg one of those flights, and for some that dream has become a reality. Thanks to his recent joint first prize in the Contemporary Chinese Arts Awards (shared with Yang Mian and Xie Nanxing), Zhou Tiehai is one of those with a ticket.
(in 48a esposizione internazionale d'arte, by La Biennale di Venezia)