Tang Contemporary (Gate No.2, 798 factory Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China), Sept 3–Oct 22, 2016
Zhao Zhao once stole small wooden pieces from an installation by Anselm Kiefer, turned them into toothpicks and displayed them as his own art. He was a painter, but became a conceptual artist and an activist after meeting and working with Ai Weiwei, from whom Zhao learned how to turn daily objects into symbols of resistance and provocation, as well as how to carefully select readymade and other objects which can easily become “arty versions” of themselves.
He has been brave and determined in trying to attract attention to and raise awareness of injustice and unfairness in China, exposing through his artworks and through documentary films and other forms of witnessing the kinds of stories and situations the authorities would like to hide. For this, he has been intimidated and jailed several times, and so he has learned to become subtler and more detached—more strategic, less emotional. Now, Zhao is a rising star among young Chinese artists and has shown internationally. He can pull off big-budget projects; he stages huge installations and creates spectacular artworks through which he says he tries to reflect on China’s issues.
For this recent solo show curated by Cui Cancan, he decided to place a refrigerator in the middle of the Taklamaklan desert and plug it in so that it can be turned on. Zhao says this is a political gesture linked with the situation of the oppressed Uighur Muslim minority.
At the entrance of the gallery was displayed video documentation of this huge operation; the refrigerator cables were rearranged in big bundles as a monumental minimalist installation based on rhythmic repetition and regularity. Also on show were a collection of typical Xinjiang knives, again in a simple and conceptually cool way, and, in minimal metal boxes, a very expensive Dolce and Gabbana jacket Zhao bought for his first solo show in New York, and a replica of it that his mum created to prove she could make exactly the same jacket for a tenth of the price.
The show was handled in a very smart way, with strong, simple statements making good use of the space and the gallery’s volumes. The atmosphere was calculatedly bold and intimidating, and the overall tone serious.
This operation could be seen as a prank, a stunt, an absurd provocation or as unjustifiable except as a gesture from an artist who simply “can” and “wants” to. But there is this seriousness, this gravity and, of course, the huge scale of the whole project—economically, logistically, and communication-wise. On the conceptual side, it looked a bit easy, a bit formulaic—a good exercise in tailor-made contemporary art.
It was difficult simply to laugh at it; at the same time, it was difficult to take it as a meaningful political piece; it was also difficult to appreciate it from a purely aesthetic point of view. None of the three was convincing enough.
This young rebel, this witty thief who mocked famous artists’ huge installations, is now on the other side of the fence. He is the authority now, and he is in charge of operations; there is no improvisation, sabotage or disobedience; this was about budget control, planning, organization, and execution. Maybe a young, restless Chinese artist who has that kind of energy and carelessness we spoke about will steal a button from Zhao’s D&G jacket or cut off a piece of electric cable, and make an artwork out of it.