Wednesday, March 11, 2009


It was a privilege to meet Zhou Tiehai and have the opportunity to view his works at his Moganshan studio.  It's always fulfilling to have the opportunity to understand an artist and his or her work through being in that artist's personal space (as opposed to a more commercial space, such as a gallery) and it was also exciting to view the works that he has yet to publicly exhibit.

Thankfully I read up on Zhou Tiehai before last Thursday's trip where I was surprised to find out that he actually employs apprentices who are the ones responsible for actually carrying out the physical processes of creating the artwork.  Zhou himself is responsible for conceiving of the work but then dictates the creative process to these apprentices.   Initially I found this to be baffling, but as I read more about his artistic process and the reasons behind this process, I gained more respect and a more comprehensive understanding of Zhou's artistic statement.

The readings from the second week all echoed a similar theme concerning the emergence of the contemporary Chinese avant-garde artistic movement: Chinese artists looked towards the West--towards Western artists and Western artistic standards--in conceiving their identities as Chinese artists.  Zhou's works stand out from these artists in that he re-appropriates Western works instead of letting a dominant Western artistic mode appropriate his identity as a Chinese artist.  He does so with whimsical (yet decidedly calculated) kitsch and a playful irony that is rooted in a transnational medium so indispensible in today's cultural economy that fluency in neither English nor Mandarin matters.  This medium is popular culture* and he reinterprets something as iconic (and American) as Joe Camel into a canvas that is open for interpretation and alteration by a Chinese artist.

Regarding the Western perception of the emergence of new and avant-garde art in late-80s and early-90s China, Zhou said in this (incredibly helpful and informative) New York Times article that, "The way foreigners thought about Chinese art was too simple.  They just thought about politics."  This quote was particularly striking as I was curious to hear if he thought this foreign perception of Chinese art has changed.  He replied that it hadn't.

Continuing in this vein of challenging Western notions of Chinese art through appropriating facets of Western popular culture, Zhou's latest venture Recherche is certain to inspire conversation concerning Zhou's role as an artist (after all, he conceptualized the idea but has French bakers create the desserts) and about the ties that food has to nation and memory.  Just as mapo doufu elicits fond nostalgia for someone who was raised with Chinese culture, the French desserts will inevitably elicit connections with decidedly non-Chinese ties.  But ultimately, it is Zhou's conceptual output that is responsible for the creation of this French dish and does Zhou's artistic stamp make the work Chinese?  (And also, is it not a bit coincidental that the Zhou's title is Recherche, which echoes Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a novel that began with the involuntary memory triggered by a bite of a tea-soaked madeleine?).

As long as this post has been, I actually have more (yes, more) unanswered questions that arose from researching Zhou, but for the sake of time, I'll just go ahead and type them all out.  They're just questions to ponder, not necessarily answer:  What does Zhou Tiehai's distinct and decisive use of other artists to complete his works say about his own identity as an artist? Does the fact that he does not partake in the physical construction of the of his works demean his status as a legitimate artist (which of course begs the question of what a “legitimate artist” even is)? What does decision to not physically create his own artworks mean?  Does art just exist in conception and idea? Where does an artist's responsibility for an artwork begin and end?

*Though my assertion of culture as a medium here is certainly open to debate.

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