Zhou Tiehai

Yuz Museum, Shanghai | 余徳耀美术馆
No.35 Fenggu Road
July 11, 2017–August 27, 2017

Zhou Tiehai, Will/We Must, 1996–2004, acrylic on canvas, 51 1/4 x 75".

In the silent vintage film footage on view, a military officer points at a civilian airport on a map. An intertitle drolly reads: “It has the monopoly to welcome museum directors, critics, and gallery owners.” And a bit later: “Comrades, we must remember we will have nothing without our own airport.” Thus begins Zhou Tiehai’s satiric 1996 video work on the Chinese art world, its foibles, and its predicament in the 1990s. Appropriating the language of old film footage and grasping at diverse metaphors, the artist adds pointed intertitles throughout the nine brief scenes, wryly critiquing an art scene that was then blossoming forth from the shadows of the official art system only to become entangled in a whole new web of power dynamics involving powerful critics (depicted as jealous lovers), “foreign experts” (here, foreign doctors receiving Chinese artist patients), godfather figures, and desperate artists (“I’ll take part in any exhibition you have”). There are also perceptive readings of unequal relations between Chinese artists and the Western art world, as well as within the local Chinese scene—as such, the artist is invested in equal-opportunity critique.

Always fleet-footed, Zhou has been rather astute in analyzing (and climbing) the art system. His prognostications in “Fake Covers,” 1995–98, a series of paintings in which he portrays himself as famous, have even come true. With his run of influential positions in a museum (Minsheng Shanghai) and an art fair (West Bund Art & Design)—the latter of which happens to take place on the site of the old Longhua airport—he has, in a sense, built his own airport, welcoming museum directors, critics, and gallery owners. And yet one wonders: Here we are now; where to next?

Daniel Szehin Ho