Chinese contemporary artist Zhao Zhao’s “One Second” series of drawings and paintings seek to establish a dialogue about depictions of time.
Art Radar takes a look at Zhao Zhao’s recent exhibition at H Queen’s in Hong Kong, curated by Barbara Pollack, Professor at New York’s School of Visual Art, for Tang Contemporary.
In 2015, Ai Weiwei wrote the following statement about Chinese-born, multidisciplinary artist Zhao Zhao:
Today, Zhao Zhao is in a good state of mind. He still goes out looking for trouble where there is none. He still gets bored… Zhao Zhao has attitude, and this attitude of his, neither too hot nor too cold, is going to take him far.
Zhao Zhao had formerly been Ai Weiwei’s studio assistant for seven years; they had first met in 2004, a year after Zhao had graduated from the Xinjiang Arts Institute. Ai Weiwei’s close friendship with Zhao Zhao is very much in evidence in this particular essay that Ai Weiwei wrote for Zhao Zhao; in it, he recounts the various projects that Zhao Zhao and himself have worked on together. Ai Weiwei is generous in his praise about Zhao; yet, it is undeniable that Ai Weiwei’s observations about Zhao’s state of mind hit close to the mark.
Over the course of his career, Zhao has racked up a number of interesting accolades: he must be the very first person who has successfully placed a refrigerator full of local Xinjiang beer in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert, part of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (Project Taklamakan, 2016). He has also slapped people in the name of performance art (A Slap to the Face, 2014), and stabbed fellow contemporary artist Sun Yuan in the back in a gut-twisting performance work (Secret Love, 2014). The provocative nature of Zhao Zhao’s work is laced with deeper observations into Chinese society, governance and politics, garnering him a reputation as one of China’s most politically-engaged artists today.
For “One Second • One Year”, his second exhibition at Tang Contemporary Art, which ran until 22 September, Zhao Zhao showcased a quieter, more contemplative side to his practice. Curated by Barbara Pollack, the author of Brand New Art from China: A Generation on the Rise (published 2018), the show examines Zhao’s “One Second” series of works. Encompassing drawings, paintings and sculpture, the show centred on Zhao’s reflection on the passage of time.
Zhao’s “One Second” drawings capture otherwise ephemeral moments in time, marking paper with single, fluid gestures that stretch across the face of the paper. Zhao creates the drawings by holding a group of ten pencils in his hand; his spontaneous sketches end up consisting of multiple lines that vary subtly in intensity, weight and depth, even as they follow the same movement across the surface of the paper. Sharp, vivid and almost jagged in shape, the lines evoke notions of a rash, aggressive guiding impulse. The works are described as “encapsulat[ing] a vicious loss of control”. In this sense, Zhao Zhao’s “One Second” drawings find echos in the conceptual foundations of modern art movements such as Abstract Expressionism, where artists acted on their emotional impulses, allowing the subconscious mind to guide their acts of physical mark-making.
Zhao demonstrates a strange about-turn by translating these drawings into oil paintings. The lines of his drawings are transferred onto large-scale, monumental oil on canvas paintings, rendered in almost neon-like colours. Yet, Zhao flies in the face of his initial impulsive tendencies, applying the paint on his canvas in a meticulous, restrained manner. If Zhao’s attempt is to capture the “one second” in this series, his paintings appear to freeze the moment in a certain sense of solidity and momentousness through the sheer scale of the works and the colours used.
Zhao’s process of translation from drawing to painting reportedly took about a year to complete. In some ways, Zhao has spent the better part of a year contemplating ten seconds – it is a strange sensation to see his drawings and paintings side by side. Between the quick spontaneity of his initial drawings, which highlight the fleeting nature of time, and the expansive solidity of his paintings, which stretch out as a timeless horizon, time takes on a double-sided nature. It is as though Zhao is telling us that our experience of time is all relative: it can be as long, or as short, as we want it to be.
Adding to his presentation on the “One Second” series is Zhao’s follow-up to his “Constellations” series, which he had made from 2014 onwards. The idea for “Constellations” began after Zhao was involved in a serious motor accident in 2008; he then saved a pane of shatterproof glass that his head had been flung against. Noting the spiralling cracks on the glass that resulted from the force of the blow, Zhao became interested in investigating the effect of violent intervention on already-extant forms. “Constellations” became a series of oil paintings that reconstruct the images of bullet holes left behind in glass, evoking imagined notions of gunshots, violence, pain and trauma. Painted with Prussian blue, brown and white, the paintings are ghostly, spectral images that hint at the violence that was wrecked on it just moments before, leaving only traces behind.
For his new addition to the “Constellations” series, Zhao created the “Jade Constellations” works, whereby circles of jade are inserted into the glass. Jade has traditionally been used as an element in rituals, being imbued with protective powers as well as healing energies. Using jade sourced from Gansu province, Zhao’s “Jade Constellations” is a strange juxtaposition of healing elements versus aggressive brutality; by inserting the jade rings at the central areas of impact, “Jade Constellations” can be read as a starting point for the process of rejuvenation, regeneration or reconstruction. By tempering the shattered glass with discs of jade, Zhao presents a meditative piece, where beauty can be found in the boundaries of the fractured and whole.
Accompanying these works were recent oil paintings, and an embroidered tapestry from the “Constellations” series. The exhibition showcased Zhao’s dexterous engagement with multiple formats, and forms of art, allowing the audience to engage with the multiple facets of the artist’s practice. Although better known for his performance works, and for his brushes with Chinese law enforcement, his recent presentation at Tang Contemporary Art harboured a no less dogged energy, addressing universal themes in humanity and human life.
“One Second · One Year” by Zhao Zhao was on view from 8 August to 22 September 2018 at Tang Contemporary Art, 10/F, H Queen’s, 80 Queen’s Road Central, Central, Hong Kong.
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