Zhou Tiehai, Will/We Must, 1996, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 9 minutes 17 seconds.

Zhou Tiehai, Will/We Must, 1996, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 9 minutes 17 seconds.

Zhou Tiehai

Zhou Tiehai, Will/We Must, 1996, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 9 minutes 17 seconds.

Zhou Tiehai may be best known for campy paintings in which he transposes the head of Joe Camel, corporate mascot of the cigarette brand, onto paintings by Goya, Ingres, Manet, and other European masters. You might also recall his airbrushed portrait of Rudolph Giuliani, Libertas, Dei Te Serventi (Liberty, May God Protect You), 2002, which was included in “The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990–2003” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2003. The bottom corners of this canvas sport a pair of elephant-dung balls, a playful homage to Chris Ofili’s controversial painting The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, which had inspired the then New York City mayor’s infamous attack on the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibition in 1999. Nor is Zhou averse to lampooning some of the art world’s sacred cows. Fame, power, and money in a hyperactive art marketplace have all been grist for the artist’s parody.

Featuring works mostly made in 1996 and ’97, “Will / We Must,” Zhou’s solo exhibition at Shanghai’s Yuz Museum—and his first museum show since 2010—is like the excavation of a twenty-year time capsule. The show included Zhou’s 1996 black-and-white silent film, Will/We Must, accompanied by fourteen related airbrush paintings, mostly monochromatic and many on old pages of newspapers collaged to unstretched linen, of large-scale film stills taken directly from specific scenes. It was the first public presentation of the fourteen paintings since they were created.

The film—presented in nine acts or vignettes, each about a minute long and subtitled—plots the angst and anxieties of young artists in the years just before Chinese contemporary art entered the international arena. In “Act One: The Military Meeting,” a high-ranking officer surveys a map belonging to something called the Shanghai Avant-Garde Business Association, explaining to the assembled soldiers (all played by friends or students of the artist) why they need an international airfield: “This is a civilian airport exclusively,” the officer specifies. “It has the monopoly to welcome museum directors, critics and gallery owners.” He goes on to declare, “Comrades, we must remember we will have nothing without our own airport!”

My favorite scene was probably “Act Seven: You Only Have Traditional Chinese Medicine and Witchcraft,” in which we see a prim and proper foreigner dining with some Chinese men dressed in Qing-dynasty apparel—think ponytails and beanies (and opium wars). The foreigner, gesticulating as he speaks, says, “You only have traditional Chinese medicine and witchcraft, but no art.” The reaction from the Chinese host is one of astonishment, of course. “Must our art live up to your standards?” he retorts. The final scene, “Act Nine: The Raft of the Medusa”—a re-creation of Théodore Géricault’s famous painting of 1818–19—shows a group of men adrift on a makeshift raft in turbulent waters. “We can’t go forward. We can’t go back either,” the subtitle reads. The hokey stagecraft of this stormy ocean scene is especially amusing. In a final panoramic view, the crew all helplessly shout out, “Farewell, art!”

Will/We Must is a prescient document of how far Chinese contemporary art would go—and of how much it would stay the same. Zhou’s only film was considered a radical work in its day, yet twenty years later, many of its concerns are still relevant to young Chinese artists. And for them, these issues are no laughing matter.

Arthur Solway