pop zhao: Fortune Man

Jeff Kelley, Art Critic, Visiting Curator of Contemporary Art

Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Pop Zhao is among the most accomplished artists to emerge from China in recent years. He is known in the US for his public scale, participatory spectacles ­ including, in March of this year, his wrapping and inaugural "unveiling" of the new Asian Art Museum, using massive fabric banners printed with images from the museumšs collection. On September 8th, 2002, Zhao teamed with the Red Cross and other local organizations to present, as a memorial tribute to the victims of 9/11, a five-mile long silk banner composed of 3,000 American flags held aloft by 2,500 participants along the San Francisco coastline.

Environmentally scaled spectacles like these are familiar to Western art audiences. One needs only recall Christošs 1976 "Running Fence," an 18 foot high, 2.5 million square foot curtain of nylon cloth cutting across Sonoma and Marin counties on its way to the sea, to appreciate the extent to which such works have become parts of the history ­ and local lore ­ of contemporary art.

For Pop Zhao, however, there had been no artistic tradition of performance art to draw upon in China. The works he did there ­ during the brief period between 1986 and Œ88 ­ were not responses to the provocations of vanguard art, but to an intense desire among Chinese artists and students at the time for more social and political openness. This desire led Zhao and several of his collaborators to enact a series of public performance events called "Concept 21," the first of which was performed on the campus of Beijing University in December 1986. Involving two hours of ceaseless activity, the first performance of "Concept 21" mixed actors, the audience, and various arts media in an effort to aesthetically capture the sense of "movement" Zhao had experienced during a recent fourth month trip through Tibet. The nomadic movement of its people, the endless lines-of-sight from place to place in Zhaošs own wanderings, the overwhelming sense of unconstrained space, the slow movements of the monks ­ Tibet had become a metaphor of freedom, of an excitation of the senses that pressed from within against the forms of rigid conformity and discipline binding the modern Chinese spirit. Zhao wanted to reinvent and express those feelings as an artist. His journey to Tibet had been a spiritual one, but not ­ as we might assume today ­ a political one. Tibet as a political circumstance was not the subject of Zhaošs experience. Rather, it was his personal experience there of freedom as movement that inspired him to think up "Concept 21" when he returned home to Beijing in 1986.

If there was a political dimension to "Concept 21" it was drawn from Zhaošs sense of the choreography of Chinese political street theater of the Cultural Revolution, with specific reference to the public "trials" in which citizens judged to be "reactionary" were denounced and criticized by throngs of Red Guards. Tapping into this reserve of public emotion, Zhao and two cohorts, dressed in billowing black and white fabrics (with 30 foot trains wafting behind them on a windy day), walked and rode bicycles throughout a gathering crowd of students who had been given paint-laden brushes (yellow, red, black) and paint-filled tubes with which to slap and squirt at them as they passed. The flowing black and white garments of the performers were soon a-splatter with paint and color; and this within a drab but surging sea of blue and green military overcoats worn by all the students. It was like the Cultural Revolution as a kind of half-conscious street dance. As the three performers skirted and probed their audience, they were thus publicly "marked," but without political meaning or intent. Meanwhile, a kind of impromptu marching band ­ art history students playing drums, trumpets, and gongs ­ made non-melodic, score-less, but very percussive noise from a nearby sidewalk, helping to stoke the building excitement of the crowd as well as the performers. All were caught-up in the unscripted happenings of the moment. For Zhao, the process of moving through a crowd of ten thousand students, of circling its perimeter by bike, of leaning and turning at sudden right angles, of coursing towards a phalanx of (sometimes frightened) students only to see them give way and open up before you ­ this process was intoxicating, like a dream of flight. It made perfect sense, then, that Zhao and his fellow performers would conclude the event by climbing up a ladder onto the roof of the studentšs main dining hall. Once on top, they moved around on the roof, faced the cheering crowd, and then poured bottles of ink on themselves. Zhao, who had never been above a crowd before, remembers thinking of Chairman Mao gazing upon the masses from the balcony of the Forbidden City. Certainly, the students below saw the same image, only now as a symbol of liberation, of having taken the public stage for themselves ­ however briefly. Later that same day, the students of Beijing University enacted their first public demonstration in favor of greater freedom and openness in China. Thus began a period of anti-government protests and backstage Communist Party maneuvering that would culminate, ultimately, with the tragic events of June 4th, 1989, in Tien An Men Square. Art had presaged life. "Concept 21" was not a political work of art, but it helped stir up the art of political work among a generation of Chinese students. This was not its intention, but its effect. As a consequence, Zhao and his collaborators were almost expelled from school, and the two future performances of "Concept 21" ­ on the Great Wall in 1987, and in the Ming Tombs a year later ­ were enacted as far from audiences as possible. Zhao wanted to avoid trouble, so he cried to the ghosts of history and performed for his nationšs dead Emperors in places that were beyond the politics of the day.

In 1988 he immigrated to the US, where he found a different sort of public space for art. Here, public spaces are adorned by art, and the politics they stir up tend to be those of the arts themselves, tempests in teapots mostly. Itšs as if the theater of politics had vacated the public stage (for the television studio), leaving to artists the job of trying to get together a crowd to reclaim it. In a word, that is what Pop Zhao now tries to do when he memorializes tragedies (9/11) and drapes museums (this one). He has had to adapt to a context in which there is almost no public audience for art. Thus, the Asian Art Museum has offered him the chance to come inside, and with his performance of "Future Man" the artist allows the museum he recently draped and unveiled to drape and unveil him.