Art bridges China-U.S. gap

BY NINA WU Of The Examiner Staff

Chinese-American artist Pop Zhao plans on Sunday to unfurl five miles of a silk banner made of 3,000 U.S. flag panels along The City's coastline. Zhao's last project, the "Olympic Dragon," stretched for 10,000 meters along the Great Wall of China.

Nina Wu: What were you doing on the morning of Sept. 11?

Pop Zhao: I was on my bed. I had just got back from eight months in China after my Great Wall project and was recovering. Then I turned on the TV. At first, you don't understand it. I think it's just like a movie, not the truth. So I don't believe it. I stayed the whole day, watching. I forgot to eat anything ... just the whole day, watching.

Q: Did you have friends or family in New York?

A: Not directly.

Q: But it made an emotional impact on you.

A: I see one tower collapse and just cannot believe it. So many lives. I know how much struggle there must be inside because everybody wanted to find a light to get out, to try to be alive. I felt so sad, that moment. Before, I considered this place a studio. I work here. It's not my hometown. All my family, friends and favorite things are back in Beijing. But after Sept. 11, that changed. I consider this my home now. Treasure life, treasure everything here. Make some contribution.

Q: Why did you use the U.S. flag and five Olympic colors?

A: The five colors are a continuation of my last project, the Olympic ring colors. The Olympic spirit is to bring people together from different backgrounds and cultures. It's just like San Francisco. We're from everywhere. The Golden Gate is a gate to immigrants. That's why I wanted to continue that spirit.

Q: What does liberty mean to you? Did you grow up with freedom?

A: My parents and people of their generation suffered from political movements like the Cultural Revolution. But my generation didn't have that. Freedom means to grow up and do whatever you pursue. In all my artwork, you can see the image and inspiration of China. Art has no borders, no matter where you're from, no matter what you express. You're always going to find an audience.

Q: Is there as much artistic freedom in China as the U.S.?

A: Ten years ago, you could find in China a lot of limits, just like a wall surrounding you. But now China has gone through tremendous change. I think it's so great if China can open to the world to host the 2008 Games.

Q: Are you proud that Beijing won the bid?

A: Oh, so proud.

Q: Will human rights improve if China hosts the Olympics?

A: I think sport is sport and politics is politics. The spirit of the Olympics is to bring people of different cultures together. Also, you need to give it time to change. Ten years ago, I think Beijing was not ready, but today, I think it's ready. It's a new generation. It's more modern and fashionable.

Q: Any comments on China's occupation of Tibet?

A: I'm an artist. I went to Tibet. When I was little, I saw a lot of movies and pictures of the mountains and scenery. I was really impressed by the spirit of people there. They have strong beliefs. I'm a Buddhist. I like harmony and energy. In a lot of my work, I painted monks.

Q: What did you do in Tibet?

A: I went for four months by myself. I went through a lot of difficulties. I went to try and see an art site in the desert and got lost. There's nothing but the sky and bright sun, getting littler and littler and so white. Then I had a dialogue. Help me to find the road. If I find it, I live, if I don't find it, I'm dead. I had to walk, walk, walk. So I had this experience about life. Life is like porcelain. If you drop it ... broken.

Q: Tell me about your Chairman Mao pop art mixed with American commercial logos.

A: It's a combination of a political icon and a commercial icon. I grew up in China during Chairman Mao's time. We grew up with the slogans. Every day we read Chairman Mao's book. The slogans are political: Read Chairman Mao's book to be a good student, a good soldier or a good farmer. ... So when I came here, I see the company culture. Nike: "Just Do It!" McDonald's: "We love to see you smile."

Q: Is China becoming more commercialized with open markets?

A: In China now, people enjoy two systems. Back in China, people joke that (in the U.S.), you only enjoy one system -- capitalism. But here, we enjoy two -- socialism and capitalism. Q: Can you have socialism and capitalism at the same time? A: In the people's life. Of course, the country, they say, "We are socialist." But people in their daily life -- what do they do?

Q: They're going to McDonald's and buying Nike sneakers.

A: There are entrepreneurs and free trade. I think that's a good thing. That's why I think China is changing.