Cosmic Wonder

Li Bowen on Zhao Yao’s event at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing

Zhao Yao, The Power of Nature, 2018. The Workers’ Stadium, Beijing. Photo: UCCA.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, the artist Zhao Yao experienced what it’s like to be a pop star, preparing for a one-show-only event at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing. Built on the tenth anniversary of the new China in 1959, the stadium has been a cultural and sports center for the past six decades, accommodating various activities, but mostly football games and pop music concerts in recent years. It’s also surrounded by the most popular nightclubs in Beijing.

To the stadium, Zhao brought his 108,000-square-foot painting, The Power of Nature. Think of it as a massive rug made of cloth and fabric, on which are abstract patterns that are typical to Zhao’s long-term painting practice. (He’s known for appropriating colorful but intricate pictures from brain-teaser books in his paintings.) At 6 AM on May 18th, Zhao and some fifty people from his team loaded the rolled work in and unraveled it in the football field.

Two years ago, when the work was first conceived, it was named Spirit Above All. It was an expansion of the artist’s 2013 eponymous exhibition at Pace Gallery in London. That show evoked a religious atmosphere: the paintings on denim were shown against a background of enlarged photos of a Tibetan Buddhist temple. The artist had actually brought the works, once completed, to a “Living Buddha” in Tibet for his blessing, before showing them in London.

Zhao Yao, Spirit Above All, 2016-18. Moye Temple, Yushu Autonomous Prefecture, China. Photo: Duoga.

With Spirit Above All, Zhao took yet another laborious trip to western China in October 2016. Designed and manufactured in Beijing, the ambitious work traveled to Moye Temple, in Yushu Autonomous Prefecture, where it was unfolded by the local religious population and left there for some six months on a mountain. Here, Zhao adopted the local tradition of Thang-ga drying, which happens annually and is led by Living Buddhas and monks from the temples. For this ritual, the local religious populations carry large, ancient Thang-ga paintings (some larger than Zhao’s work) out of the temples and leave them on the mountains for a day, before taking them back into the temple. This is a ceremony that is deeply part of everyday life there; it is a religious act, but the regularity and the repetition of it renders it mundane for the locals. (And this is where tourists—Western and Chinese alike—tend to get it wrong in their own one-off appropriation of spirituality. In effect, this religious act is as eventful or uneventful as one’s birthday.)

For those who saw how brightly Zhao’s work shined under the Qinghai-Tibetan sun, whether in real life or from photos and videos, it was perhaps even more surprising to see the sprawling piece in the Workers’ Stadium—chiefly because the colors faded drastically compared to bright (albeit also faded) hues of the seats and the very green grass (to be tramped upon by the football game next day). The piece wasn’t as visually vibrant and aesthetically delicious as it was in the otherwise dull mountains. Perhaps that’s because it’s a work that really soaks in the daylight, the rain, and the snow (when it was in Yushu, it was covered in snow half of the time). Against the monumental immobility that is the Workers’ Stadium, the work seems as mundane and freewheeling and funny as Philip Guston’s painting of a shoe by an Egyptian pyramid.

Zhao Yao, The Power of Nature, 2018. The Workers’ Stadium, Beijing. Photo: Yang Chao.

But maybe we need that kind of freedom right now. Art worlders as well as children enjoyed the event, much like the young monks and children did in Yushu—having fun by largely missing the point. With recent art fair events, it feels like the Beijing art world has not been able to enjoy itself carelessly for some time. And so the event, which was hosted by the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and supported by Beijing Commune, reminded me of the false fire alarms that often went off at my ex-girlfriend’s school. Of course, all of the students were always happy about that, especially in the summer, because it meant everyone had to go to a little park nearby and just chill there with a couple of drinks under the sun.

Eventually, around 9 PM, a couple of friends and I helped the people who were folding the work back up. It is a really heavy rug.