Zhou Tiehai's entire artistic output and professional orientation can be seen as an extended critique of the social dynamics and political practices of the Chinese art world, and particularly, the Chinese art world in relation to the West. In 1996, he produced a short film under the title "Will," which used the visual language of early twentieth-century Chinese film to address the contemporary situation. In the famous opening scene, a general appears at the head of a war-room table, banging his fist and demanding to his lieutenants that they must build a special airport to welcome visiting curators, collectors, and museum directors. "Without our own airport," he insists, "we will have nothing!" Fifteen years later, since April 2010, Zhou directs the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, a major art institution right in his native town, owned by a Chinese bank and exactly the "airport" he was originally referring to.
The evolution of this sort of power center took a very long time, and in the intervening decade Zhou took it upon himself to criticize what he saw as the absurdity and unfairness of how the art scene in China was developing. As the political pop and cynical realism painters, mostly clustered in Beijing, began to become famous for single motifs—bald heads, laughing faces, green dogs—Zhou decided to choose an icon of his own. What's more, he decided to cut out the middle step of using any identifiably "Chinese" reference and directly appropriate his hero from Western advertising. Thus, in 1997, he began to paint Joe Camel. The joke is only heightened by the fact that "Joe" is a homophone for the artist's surname "Zhou," and the easy way for Westerners confused by the Chinese spelling to remember its pronunciation.
The earliest Joe Camel paintings were in gouache on paper, with the paper often drawn either from current newspapers or the artist's own personal files. These works, which mark the beginning of Zhou's conceptual painting practice, are now exceedingly rare, as a fire in his studio in the year 2000 destroyed most works from before that year. Can't the Right Make the Left Happy (Lot 884) was executed for an exhibition produced by Urs Meile in the German city of Bremen, and makes reference to the politics of late 1990s Germany, in which two programmatically similar parties struggled for power against the broader background of reunification. This sort of engagement with the context in which the exhibition would take place—above and against a simple reflection on the situation in his native China—marked Zhou as an artist unwilling to be pigeonholed. Coming from a one-party state, he claimed a "right" to comment on another nation's politics, much as Western journalists and diplomats comment on China.
From there Zhou Tiehai turned to Western art history, inserting his Joe Camel avatar into famous images from around the canon, such as Jean Dominique Ingres's 1806 portrait of Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière in Mademoiselle Rivière, (Lot 883). Held in the collection of the Louvre, that painting is regarded as among the best of Ingres's early commissioned portraits, and is one of three he completed of different members of the Rivière family, headed by a powerful Napoleonic courtier. In choosing this subject, Zhou is obliquely positioning himself in a long continuum of artists working to serve a market. His extremely kitschy take on Ingres's refined neoclassical portrait, in turn, serves to show just how drastically the world had changed in the intervening two centuries—from the artist as master working for a specific patron, to the artist as conceptual showman, working for an abstracted, albeit still largely European, group of clients. There is even a note of dire pathos in this selection of source material—the sitter in Ingres's original painting, somewhere between 13 and 15 years old at the time the image was made, died within a year of its completion. Again, Zhou sets his parody on a backdrop of newspaper, lending an archival depth to the composition as
the moment of its creation remains eternally present.
Early Camel paintings like this marked for Zhou the beginning of a sustained interest in the actual mechanics of Western aesthetics. In recent years, for example, he has focused his efforts on a series of desserts named after various professional roles in traditional Europe—"the judge," "the minister," "the diplomat," etc. Working with a pastry chef, he developed recipes for these exquisitely European confections, objects that contain not the slightest element of Chineseness and thus cannot be assessed or interpreted in connection with Zhou's nation of origin. "I make cakes for Westerners to eat," Zhou once described the project, and by extension, much of his output. For each of these cakes, he creates an apocryphal story describing its origin, and then, a cycle of paintings illustrating that story.
This recent project is in turn an outgrowth of the next turn his Camel paintings would take in the late 1990s with the Placebo series, of which Placebo 5-3 (Lot 885) is an excellent example. Named for that element in a medical study which makes certain trial subjects believe they are ingesting medication when in fact they are not, this series plays on the psychologies of art, and specifically making and collecting art. For Zhou, the Placebo series, which is realized entirely in acrylic airbrush on canvas, and completed by a studio of assistants, was a way of taking his personal touch out of the equation. By refusing to paint himself, Zhou was defying the way in which the market has the power to make what amounts to a personal judgment about every artist.
That was only part of the equation, however. The Placebo series is actually about the influence of Western art on Chinese art, and more generally about the geopolitical dynamics between these two civilizations. For Zhou, who experienced the "'85 New Wave" and the optimism with which his fellow Chinese artists began to experiment with different styles and schools of Western contemporary art, the "Placebo" in question is Western art itself, and the ailment it purports to treat is deeply psychological. As he once said in a lecture given at Stanford University in 2006:
"I am interested in the question, if through further development of our civilization, we will be able to still the human hunger for freedom and liberalization of the self. Can we really cure the wide-spread depression common to both poor and wealthy societies in today's world? Depression. Depression is such a common phenomena."
While the Placebo series continued for a number of years, this specific work dates to the moment when Zhou was first beginning to question its effectiveness. He said in the same lecture: "In my own artistic development, I encountered this feeling of "can't move" in 2000. Realizing that the western art world, how developed it ever is, cannot bring solutions to important problems, I started to look at the Chinese art world." The Tonic series—focusing on Chinese, rather than Western, elements—would be the counterpart to Placebo. The Chinese names of these two series further explain how they differ; "Placebo" is called anweiyao, a very direct an scientific translation that might come from a Western medical textbook; "Tonic" is named bupin, coming from the notion in traditional Chinese medicine of substances somewhere between foods and drugs which provide a less specific kind of nourishment. Over a decade later, Zhou Tiehai remains in this pivotal position, sandwiched between the competing anxieties of East and West. These three paintings from the late 1990s together highlight perhaps the most important moment in his career, when he truly came to understand the delicate situation of which he was a product and a protagonist.
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