Sunset district artist doesn't do anything in a small way
Heather Knight, S. F. Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2003
He scored a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the longest artwork, a 10,000-meter dragon that covered part of the Great Wall of China. A fraction of it was used in the Chinese New Year festivities last month, blanketing most of Union Square. He became well known in the Bay Area last year when he designed an artwork that involved 2,500 volunteers holding 3,000 American flags along five miles of the San Francisco coastline to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11. Now, his latest artwork -- 22,000 square feet of canvas, believed to be the largest wrapping ever constructed in California -- covers two sides of the new Asian Arts Museum. Constructed in China, the shipping bill totaled more than $4,000.
Sitting in his Sunset District home beside the huge picture window overlooking the world's largest ocean, Pop Zhao was asked what he thinks of the notion that good things come in small packages. He just gave a smile and a laugh -- both huge, of course. "I like big formats," said Zhao, 40, a master of the understatement when he speaks, but not when he creates art. "That's what gives you power. "If you see only one section of the ocean through the window, you feel one thing. But if you see 180 degrees of ocean, you see the whole moment. It's the same with my artwork -- to see the whole thing on the Great Wall or along the ocean, oh!"
Zhao has become well-known for what he calls "earth art," large-scale pieces displayed outside that require the help of many volunteers. A believer in the harmony of sky, earth and people, he said his artwork combines all three. "With a sketch on paper, I can control it," he said. "With this, there is a lot happening. I like the excitement. It's not just for yourself to enjoy and appreciate. It's for the whole society." David Lei, a commissioner at the Asian Arts Museum, suggested soliciting Zhao's participation in the institution's debut after reading about his Sept. 11 piece and being surprised anyone would take on such a expansive project. "We say these are works of high art because you have to climb high mountains to achieve them," Lei said. "Just looking at it, you know there are thousands of phone calls, hours of coordination, getting people to come out. I thought it would be a great idea to get someone like him who has a background and a record of pulling a lot of people together."
Zhao's work is big, but his story begins small -- in a middle-class family of six in the town of Taiyuan, an eight-hour train ride from Beijing. He was born Jianhai Zhao, a name which, ironically, roughly translates to "achieving something big." He took the name Pop in 1993 so Americans would have an easier time remembering it. ("A name is just a symbol, just a brand," he said.) His father worked in manufacturing, making construction material and glass. His mother was a saleswoman at a department store. His three older brothers have all followed suit, working in business. But from the age of 3, Zhao was different, constantly clutching pencils and a sketchbook in his tiny hands. "Usually in China, it's the youngest kids who study art because you don't have to support the family so you can do whatever you want," he said.
His parents would tell him to go outside and play with the neighborhood kids, but Zhao wouldn't leave the house without his art supplies. "I didn't go out to play with kids just for fun," he said. "I didn't want to waste my time." As a schoolkid, he'd stay after class drawing until darkness fell. On weekends, he'd take trips to the zoo where he'd draw all the large animals: elephants, lions and tigers. Born in the Year of the Rabbit, he's never liked painting that animal much, calling it too small. Walking along the streets, he'd stop to draw construction sites and try to "catch the feeling of working." He was also happy drawing at train stations, department stores and parks. Some of his artist friends didn't enjoy sketching in public places, but Zhao never minded people stopping to look at his work and ask questions. "I kind of liked that," he said. "It's in my character to communicate with people, to talk about my art." When he was 16, he became one of 40 students selected from a pool of several thousand around China selected to move to Beijing and attend the Central Academy of Fine Arts high school program. He gulped up all the art history he could, learning about classical Chinese painters, European impressionists and others. Four years later, he was chosen for a 12-member class at the institution's university. In 1986, he became the first known artist from outside Tibet to explore that country's Sacred Mountain and Sacred Lake. He banded with other artists to stage avant-garde performance pieces, involving improvisational dancing and screaming, at Beijing University, the Great Wall and Ming Tombs. Similar pieces were performed in the United States in the 1960s, but in China, they were deemed controversial.
OTHER SIDE OF CHINA
When he graduated in 1987, many of his classmates went on to corporate positions in design firms, but Zhao wanted to retain his creativity and freedom. Intrigued by what he heard from friends who had traveled to the United States and American movies he'd seen, he moved to San Francisco in 1988 and became a citizen on March 6, 2000.
He lives alone, saying he's been too consumed with his artwork to marry or have kids. He's lived in many neighborhood, but prefers the Sunset, where he's lived since 1996. "I can see the ocean, and I know on the other side is China," he said. His home is decorated with some of the huge paintings that he is creating as part of a series called "Temple Gate." So far he has created 150 paintings that show Buddha figures and ancient Chinese characters but envisions that there will be 999 in the series. "I still have a long way to go," he said. Other artwork fills various walls, leans against furniture and lies stacked in boxes. To look at it all, one would never guess it was created by the same man. It's a comment Zhao hears often. "People say, 'How many artists are here?' It's like 10 artists in one," he said with a laugh.
Zhao's more traditional paintings of Chinese musicians, among other subjects, are sometimes likened to Rembrandt. And his kitschy, brightly colored depictions of Mao Zedong have been compared to the work of Andy Warhol. Paintings like these earn Zhao his living and are collected by art lovers all over the world. Prints sell for $95 and originals range from $300-$8,000. He typically creates his "earth art" on a volunteer basis. "I want to always be style free," he said. "I don't want to focus on one style. Style's not important. What do you want to say? What do you want to express? That's what's important." For his large-scale works, the obvious comparison is Christo, the Bulgarian artist living in New York City who has wrapped various buildings around the world and has installed sculptures using items ranging from oil barrels to umbrellas. Zhao said that he believes his artwork is less abstract than Christo's and more accessible.
Jeff Kelly, an art theory and criticism professor at UC Berkeley who advised Zhao on his latest project, said Zhao is like a Chinese Christo, with Zhao once struggling to create public art in his repressive homeland and now working in a society "where you can pretty much do anything you want, but maybe fewer people care." His work has had to expand to match the "public proportions of the American spectacle," Kelly added. In doing so, Kelly said Zhao's artistic identity has had to sometimes take a backseat to whatever it is he's promoting -- be it China winning the Olympics or now the debut of the Asian Arts Museum. "Sometimes that's what public artists are called upon to do, not simply to express themselves on a public scale at a public place, but to work to create and image or an event or an occasion that calls attention to something else," Kelly said.
Playing with his Chinese heritage and American home, Zhao juxtaposed the images of Mao Zedong and American brands including Playboy, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Nike for a ribbon of material unfurled along the Great Wall of China on Jan. 1, 2000. He titled it "The First Artwork of the 21st Century." He said making students memorize "Quotations of Mao," as the Chinese government once did, isn't so different from the constant refrains in American advertising to "Just Do It!" He doubled the length of that artwork for the dragon, which debuted June 23, 2001 in celebration of China being awarded the 2008 Olympics.
Despite his growing acclaim in China, Zhao didn't become well known in the United States until the anniversary of Sept. 11, when he displayed "Celebrate: Life, Liberty and Beauty." Dedicated to the day's 3,000 victims, it attracted 2,500 volunteers eager to stand side-by-side holding silk-screened flags. "It was just wonderful -- beyond my imagination," Zhao said. "It was so beautiful from far away. You could see the power of the piece -- like a ribbon -- from the sky." The following month, he began working on the project for the Asian Arts Museum along with Young-Mi Chi and other Bay Area artists. They tossed around many ideas, knowing their first priority was to draw the public's attention. "The buildings are very gray -- there's no color," Chi said. "We wanted it to be big and colorful. Hopefully, people driving by will see it and say, 'What's that? What's that?' and want to come closer." The canvas covers the sides of the museum facing Fulton and Larkin, with one side showing an array of artwork in the museum's collection and the other showing some artwork interspersed with images from Zhao's Olympic Dragon piece. Zhao said he's excited that -- after five months of effort -- the work is up for the entire city to see. "That's what's so exciting about being an artist," he said. "To finish your work and see it hanging there. It's like seeing a kid grown up." The sad part comes with seeing the canvas taken down, probably in about two weeks. "You kind of feel like seeing a good friend go, but you have to," he said. No matter. Zhao already has his eye on his next project: wrapping Malaysia's Petronas Towers -- the world's tallest buildings -- in mesh this August.