ZAKA: the Anonymous Artist

Halo (solo exhibition by ZAKA)

Don Gallery (Room 26, Blackstone Apartment, No. 1331, Middle Fuxing Road, Shanghai) Sep 7 – Oct 17, 2012 

Allow me to relate an unrelated story before discussing ZAKA’s artwork. Not long ago, a European acquaintance of mine working in antiques was sifting through a pile of painted Chinese fans at some rural flea market in Europe, and he purchased them for a pittance. By pure happenstance, the works were brought to an auction house in China, and appraised as genuine silk paintings from the Song Dynasty; the name of the artist had been lost through the centuries. Although not the works of great masters like Ma Yuan or Xia Gui, these anonymous Song-dynasty court fans still made considerable waves. All of the pieces were purchased at high prices by a collector, with the European successfully staging a small coup in the Chinese antiques market. For collectors, the fans’ desirability lay in their status as genuine artifacts from the Song Dynasty; their very anonymity only heightened their uniqueness as historical relics. Anonymity was a creative path for ancient artists, especially with Song painters, most of whom were all career artists. They made a living through painting for rich patrons, nobles, or members of the court, and the idea of carving a name for oneself as an artist did not really exist.

With the advent of idealism came individual creativity; it allowed the artist to step out from the shadow of his work and transformed him from an artisan into an individual with a real name and identity. His work became an expression of his desires and experiences. A well-known Chinese expression, “You are what you paint; you are what you write,” articulates this: that the work expresses the artist’s inner world. The figure of the artist soon ascended to near-mythological status and was robed in the mysterious mantle of a celebrated “master.” Hackneyed as this title might sound, it invariably became a reality. In today’s society of instantaneous, technological communication, it would be difficult for a successful artist to remain anonymous even if he chose to do so. It is precisely this inability that makes ZAKA’s exhibition that much more intriguing.

Strictly speaking, ZAKA is not an unknown artist; rather, he is a faceless artist who uses the pseudonym ZAKA to navigate the art world. Cheng Xixing, the director of Don Gallery, was first contacted by ZAKA a year and a half ago; the “artist known as ZAKA” requested that Don Gallery manage his works, with the proviso that he would never reveal his identity. For the past 18 months, ZAKA has held to his promise; all of his works are sent through couriers, with the sender’s name left blank. Sometimes, a truck will appear at the gallery with his larger pieces in tow. Any enquiries made of the driver about the artist’s identity are met with a scowl or an unreadable expression. The drivers guard their secret carefully as if they were all paid off by the artist. To date, everything the gallery knows about ZAKA is that he/they is/are Chinese and reside(s) in Shanghai.

All of this sounds like one of those performance art pieces that have permeated the art world. It could be any number of things — a joke, a game, a declaration, a challenge, any or all of the above. This anonymity is certainly an element of ZAKA’s works. While we examine the colorful abstract pieces mounted on the gallery wall, we can’t help but wonder about the anonymous creator hiding behind. In some works, an amalgamation of lines transitioning from light yellow to green is laid on a color block background. In others, colorful three-dimensional shapes are imbedded directly into the densely painted textile background. The colors become the artist’s camouflage, who lurks leopard-like in the jungle. Secure in his hideout, ZAKA observes the social experiment that he himself directs — and one could even imagine him sneaking gleefully into his own opening as an observer. Watching the confusion and eavesdropping on the speculations about his identity, the prankster is probably trying to keep a straight face all the while maintaining a low profile.

What painting opens up is a window to the world. For the artist, painting could be something like the windowsill from which he observes the world. Whether looking inward or outward, his work gathers and reproduces his knowledge, experiences, and emotions. In today’s society, as art crosses ever more boundaries and extends into different areas of knowledge, the weight of experience borne by art will surpass the experiences of a single artist and take on universal significance. This is why theorists like Roland Barthes have questioned the artist’s domination of the dialogue and shattered the myth of the artist as lone genius. The “death” in Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author” speaks to the diminishing of the artist’s identity when faced with the multitude of other influences affecting a work of art — including the individual interpretative powers and a sense of participation on the part of the viewers.

Works of art embody the context of the times and the attitudes of their society. What then is the attitude ZAKA embodies by choosing anonymity? We could view it as a rebellion against an art market that places more and more importance on an artist’s name; or as an experiment on fame that asks the questions: Can an anonymous artist carve out a place for himself in an art market enamored with commercial trends? Do collectors and critics look at an artist’s work or are they blinded by the artist’s bright aura of fame? ZAKA’s rebellion is obviously calculated, from his first missive to his continued anonymity. Following his own game rules, he seems to be seeking to shift the conversation from outside the picture frame to the work itself. The results have been precisely the reverse, yet ZAKA must have predicted this as well. When the hype surrounding the artist’s anonymity becomes a distracting gimmick, will ZAKA secretly applaud his own efforts?

ZAKA’s first solo exhibition “Halo” presents colorful pieces with lively, playful lines that somehow abide by their own pattern of logic — and the curator has seen the halo. With colors and abstraction, one naturally thinks of Richter’s 1973 series Color Chart, where the permutations of color and the vacillation between order and chaos dazzle the viewer. But what experiments in color is ZAKA undertaking? What logic is hidden in his intense color charts? We can only obliquely perceive the answers through our own understanding. But one thing is certain: in an era of postindustrial mass production and internet-based age of information explosion, the myth of the artist as a genius is collapsing in on itself. Though entitled “Halo,” the exhibition is really about the halo being destroyed. Its creator might at this very moment be ensconced in his hideout, dressed in camouflage, enjoying the calm of smoke lifting from the land.

The Chinese version of this article was first published in the November 2012 issue of Yishu Dangdai (Art China).

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