ON and OFF with Zhao Zhao

by Liang Shuhan 梁舒涵
translated by Fei Wu

As a preview to the exhibition “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice,” randian is publishing aseries of conversations in the lead-up to the opening, offering insights into the concept and planning of the show, and the perspectives of participating artists. 

 “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice,” an exhibition of the work of 50 young mainland Chinese artists, will open at UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) in Beijing on January 13, 2013. Curated by Sun Dongdong and Bao Dong, the exhibition aims to survey the work of these artists in the tense context of recent Chinese history and their experience of life and artistic practice. Liang Shuhan met artist Zhao Zhao to discuss the exhibition in the final weeks of its preparation.

Liang Shuhan: What does the title “ON | OFF” evoke for you?

Zhao Zhao: I quite like this title and literally understood it to mean “ON|OFF” like a switch. I am constantly facing this question myself, whether it’s from a creative standpoint or a personal one. For example, the biggest issue I’m facing now is whether my works can be shipped overseas, since most of my works get stuck in customs – this is a type of barrier. Similarly, living in China, I have to use all kinds of software to jump the firewall [the Great Firewall] and find certain types of information on the web. Paths and networks have been switched off by the Chinese government. I’ve never been “On”; I struggle for freedom in the passive state of “Off.” China is a static environment of “Off”.

As for myself, I don’t live my life within the system. You could say I’m one of those who have nothing: I have no permanent home – my current living situation is extremely temporary and could be torn down at any moment; I have no security – I solve all of my own problems; and I have no one to fall back on, and what insurance I have is just a promise the Government has given me. And lastly, I don’t have an official residency permit to live in Beijing, so no work unit [danwei] will accept me. Every time I leave this country, I have to return to Xinjiang where my residency status is registered and go through the paperwork to come back to Beijing. So I’m really wary of my passport expiring — thank goodness I renewed it two years ago.

LSH: Can you briefly introduce the work you will be showing in the exhibition?

ZZ: I’ve been planning to have the work shown in the exhibition since 2011. Back then, I created a sculpture at Chambers Fine Art weighing 40 tons and reaching 8.6 meters high; it was  a broken statue of a great man. This time my work continues to be sculpture, but it’s not the same as the broken statue I did in 2011. This time, the sculpture is related to faith and belief — I’m going to sculpt a Buddha, but a Buddha composed of broken pieces. I collected over seven hundred shards of sculpture over the course of a year. I’m going to cut off the hand-made portions until the only thing remaining is the original stone material, and then take these pieces and re-form them into a three-dimensional shape. It’s an extended process of collection and reduction.

LSH: How do you conceive the relations between your work and the curatorial framework of this exhibition?

ZZ: “ON|OFF” is a framework, but I didn’t craft my work solely around this framework; the work on display at an exhibition can be an artist’s most recent achievement. There are quite a few topics for discussion related to this work. On the surface you could talk about the direct shift between ancient art and contemporary art. But there are political elements as well, like the phenomena of different dynasties’ destruction of Buddhist icons in Chinese history. Buddhism provokes and challenges China. China has faced two great challenges: once was when Buddhism first entered China, prior to the Tang Dynasty; the second time was during the Boxer Rebellion, when the imperialists invaded China. To put it nicely, Chinese people have many taboos and beliefs, but if you put it another way, you could say they are ignorant, and there are still some superstitious people. I wanted this work to be shattered because I wanted to express the current mentality of instant success. All the images of the Buddha currently on the market hold an economic value, but true Buddhists would never worship a false idol. These broken Buddhist relics are seen by museums as their “fall back.” You couldn’t possibly get your hands on anything belonging to a museum, but it’s possible to find something of slightly lesser quality on the market, and once in a while you might even find a more exquisite piece than something in a museum’s collection. A lot of these relics are bought and sold in speculation, but I believe these broken Buddhas obscure more significant information. The cost to make my work was quite high; Chambers Fine Art provided a lot of the funding. The Ullens Foundation wanted to have my work as part of their collection, so they also contributed to its completion.

LSH: As a young artist, how do you understand the current broader conditions for emerging artists today – what are the barriers and opportunities for you?

ZZ: Opportunity is like this – when you don’t have many opportunities, you will give your all to hold on to any chance that comes your way, but when an array of possibilities are laid out in front of you, they can no longer be called opportunities; they become a matter of targeting and selection. For young Chinese artists, most of us are concerned with how to work with the galleries and organizations, how to introduce our works to more people — it’s a struggle of sorts. In fact, artists are all pretty selfish. However, my generation of artists does not hold much capital; when we possess more capital, then we will be able to analyze what quandary we face. Everyone deals with the question of survival, and there is the economic question of the lack of physical and economic security. Many young artists in China deal with this question; when we graduate, we have to find a job to sustain our work. This process is interesting. When you’re accumulating funds for your living expenses, you also have to consider other non-material matters – you have to find a reason to express yourself in the tiny gaps left to you.

I believe all artists should be hobbyists. The artist should have his own job, and this could be unrelated to art, or only slightly related. Who really relies on art to live and lives well? In Europe, only very mature artists can say they’re professional artists. Chinese artists may think what I’ve just said is laughable, but this is the tragedy of my generation. A temporary bubble has appeared in China — a mirage allowing a few artists to have some money, and they start calling themselves professional artists. In fact, they are miles away from being true professional artists! Of course having money is a good thing; art requires money to support it. Even “Arte Povera” cost a lot of money. Artists do not represent wealth, but we know some artists of the 60s and 70s possessed some capital, and their works would sell for millions. This misleads the next generation, but reasonable artists don’t care about these things. Some artists born in the 50s and 60s like to buy sports cars or open restaurants, yet I don’t think they made any contribution to art; they are tragic. No matter how much their art auctions for, they were tragic. Ever since my first work was exhibited, I have never seen my works being sold at auction, and I have never heard of my work being transferred form one collector to another. I think the auction market is a tragic fact. The fact that China uses auction records as a measure of success is completely warped.

An artist should enter into society and must take in the experience of society. Ai Weiwei, by using art to do something for the public good, has influence for this reason. The current generation of artists should carefully consider one question: when you do something, have you thought about what comes after?

LSH: What is the most significant question facing your artistic practice now?

ZZ: With regards to my works, I care most about aesthetics. I ask myself questions like, “How do I paint a good painting or a bad painting?” Otherwise, I question my concepts. “How do I use a concept to convey the next step in my plans to other people?” I need to communicate with others; it resembles a blueprint. When you’re working on a piece, you’re not concerned about issues from everyday life. like power. Half of the work are related to questions of aesthetics —how to solve problems of composition, problems of sculpture — these are the most primal questions. In all the different disciplines of art, painting continues to be the most progressive form and expressive mode. Painting is a primal, mysterious force allowing people to sense things on the frontiers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *