whitehot | August 2008, Interview with Zhang Hongtu
Bird's Nest in the Style of Cubism
oil on canvas
36 X 48 inch
Charles Schultz speaks to Zhang Hongtu
Zhang Hongtu is a New York based, Chinese-born artist. In the early summer he was invited to participate in the Go Games, Beijing exhibition, an international group show organized to coincide with the Olympics. The exhibition opened on Monday, August 4th, without Hongtu’s contribution. His painting, a rendering of the Olympic stadium in a mock cubist style, was seized by the Chinese authorities at customs. I went out to Hongtu’s studio to talk with him about his controversial painting?
Charles Schultz: First, can you explain the background of the Go Games, Beijing exhibition, and why you decided to participate?
Zhang Hongtu: The exhibition was organized by a European company called Brands United. They organize art exhibitions around international sporting events. I think the last one was with the World Cup in Germany. Basically the idea of the curators is simple, they want to make a show that highlights the mixing of cultures, all the different nations coming together. So they invited me, and it was a perfect time for me because I recently began to make work that is more focused on contemporary issues. The Olympics is a huge contemporary issue, so I thought this would be a good exhibition.
CS: Was your Bird’s Nest painting done especially for this exhibition?
CS: Can you explain a little about the painting? What inspired it? How it came together?
ZH: When I started this painting, the basic idea was about deconstructing the image of the Bird’s Nest. I wanted to express my own feeling not only about the Olympics but also about the human right issue in China My idea to deconstruct the Olympic stadium—the Bird’s Nest—was very natural, it already looks deconstructed, so I thought I would paint it in the cubist style, after Picasso. Once I had the painting I would find the right words. I chose words from the media that related to the east west issues surrounding the Olympics.
Re-make of Ma Yuan's Water Album #1 (780 Years Later)
oil on canvas
50 X 72 inch
CS: Why was the painting seized at customs?
ZH: The government gave three reasons, they said the color is too dull, the rendering of the stadium is not acceptable, and the phrases are all too sensitive.
CS: What were the phrases that upset them?
ZH: I used key words from the media, “Human Right” and “Tibet” I wrote in English. In Chinese I wrote the Olympic Slogan “One World, One Dream” and the government’s phrase for the Olympic torch. They call it the “Holy Torch.” I chose these words very carefully, like acupuncture, they are precise and they hit a nerve.
CS: What do you think about these phrases?
ZH: I think they highlight many big problems. First, I think it is ridiculous the phrase “One World, One Dream” It is ok for a slogan, but very superficial, very shallow. One thing about the world that I love is that everybody has their own dream. I mean do I have the same dream as the Tibetan monk or the immigrant worker that built the stadium or the Russian athlete that will play there? No. Also calling the torch “holy”; I think that is very ridiculous. It’s not sacred, but if the government says it is, then many Chinese people will believe it. So it’s easy for them to get upset when protesters extinguish the sacred torch. But these things are surface problems, what they cover is a much deeper dilemma.
Re-make of Ma Yuan's Water Album #2 (780 Years Later)
oil on canvas
50 X 72 inch
CS: What is the deeper problem?
ZH: The deeper problem is that most people only have one source for all their information, the government. So take the example of the situation in Tibet, most people in China have no idea about what is happening in Tibet. It’s not their fault; they have no chance to read what the Dalai Lama wrote in his book, no chance to hear him talk, they really don’t know anything about him. But they all criticize him, curse at him, call him the devil. This is unfair, and it really frustrates me. For me if I want to criticize you first I must get to know you, not just make accusations based on the government’s propaganda.
CS: This painting signals a departure from your previous work. I know it’s not the first of its kind, but it’s among the beginning of a new body of work. What triggered this shift in focus?
ZH: Well, I want to say one thing first. I never make a choice when I will change direction, I always let the change happen naturally. I have been working on my previous body of work, the Shan Shui series, for almost ten years. In that series I used the styles of the western old masters, Cezanne, Picasso, Monet, to make reproductions of old Chinese master works. It is very enjoyable making those paintings, having a dialogue with these artists that I really respect. But I began to feel like there was something more the paintings could do. I’ve always been greatly interested in environmental issues and especially with water pollution. In my new work I still incorporate some of the styles of the western masters, and I still copy old Chinese master works. But where those masters saw raging waters, I see dry riverbeds. Where they painted clean water, now I am painting the polluted water. The funny thing is the water is still beautiful, it might be very dirty, very polluted, but it is still beautiful. Think about Turner’s paintings of the Thames, he made them during England’s Industrial revolution; that fog is probably smog, but it’s still beautiful. Only it’s a sort of poisonous beauty, the pollution isn’t obvious like tin cans in a river, it is in the air and water much more deeply. That is what I see. That is why I am making their masterpieces modern; I am filling them with the true beauty of now.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief