Tang Contemporary Art is pleased to announce the opening of White, a solo exhibition for Zhao Zhao in the gallery's second space in Beijing. Curated by Cui Cancan, the exhibition will open on 20 May 2020.
White is Zhao Zhao's first solo show of 2020 and a continuation of his Green exhibition at Song Art Museum. In contrast to his western trilogy (Taklamakan, Desert Camel, and In Extremis), this new sequence or story, which begins with a change in color, is no longer limited by place or time; the issues of vision and direction become broader and more majestic, and the sense of time and place in the work are elongated. If Green was the preface, then White is the most important introduction to Zhao Zhao's new action. The colour itself symbolises the first ray of white light after the end of the primal chaos—it is the pure beginning to all things.
White only has one work, one element. From cotton, the piece extends into an earth-shaking period in history, and all past events and symbols recede and disappear into the artistic form. Here, white encompasses everything and nothing.
Notes on White: Cui Cancan
(I) — The story begins with cotton. In 2016, Zhao Zhao returned to Beijing from Taklamakan and began to conceive of how he would present this epic work. One of his first ideas was to place cables on a floor laid with cotton. However, this presentation seemed a bit wasteful and wrong, and because he valued cotton, Zhao Zhao abandoned the proposal. From that time onward, he began to contemplate transforming the cotton into the entire meaning of the work, part of a magnificent yet unique garden.
Where there is cotton, there are armies. Zhao Zhao grew up with the Xinjiang production-construction corps, and he has a special connection with cotton. From middle school to high school, Zhao Zhao performed six years of voluntary labor and picking cotton was his only job, a necessary job. The meanings of labor and products were entirely different when he was growing up. Today it seems that cotton represents a place where Zhao Zhao lived, an economic mainstay of the production-construction corps, and a period in history when the previous generation battled the elements. This was also an indelible memory for Zhao Zhao; this time of boredom, repetition, and hard labor left a deep imprint.
Cotton had a special place in Zhao Zhao's life, but it was also waiting to foster a new kind of relationship with him. To create his 2016 western trilogy (Taklamakan, Desert Camel, and In Extremis), Zhao Zhao left Beijing and returned west, which provided him with the opportunity to look back on this relationship. From that moment onward, cotton became a guide, a white vessel, constantly pushing Zhao Zhao to look into the distance and toward a broader array of histories and materials.
'In May, the cotton blooms, and in August, the cotton withers. When the flowers open, the weather is warm. When the flowers fall, the weather is cool,' wrote Ma Suchen in describing the importance of cotton in early Qing society. Coincidentally, cotton has an amazing story, playing a significant role in human history. At first, cotton was planted in Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Central America. Like a gift from heaven, it allowed traditional civilizations to flourish autonomously. When the English arrived in these places, cotton products became fashionable across Europe. The distant and ancient East became a rich 'New World' to Westerners. The capital flowed where the profits were. The British East India Company began a large-scale trade in Indian cotton. This trade eventually evolved into a colonial war, and India formally became a British colony. Later, countries in Europe, through material exploitation and the pursuit of maximal profits, established their own camps in the ancient 'New World.' Factories and plantations were golden industries, and the control and exploitation of raw materials greatly reduced costs. However, labor was the next issue, which was resolved by the advent of slavery. Large numbers of Africans were enslaved and transported to the southern United States to cotton plantations, opening the bloodiest chapter in the racial history of the United States. Slavery, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, imperial expansion, and armed trade supported machines and factories; cotton made the shift from war capitalism to industrial capitalism possible. Cotton nurtured Western industrial civilisation and capitalism, but it also quietly dictated the rise and fall of certain countries and regions. The center of civilisation and the economy shifted and ideas of East and West, backward and advanced took on other meanings.
Several hundred years ago, when cotton was planted in southern India, no one realized that this crop, which had already been cultivated for thousands of years, would have an immense influence on the future of human life. The most important invention in the industrial revolution was the spinning jenny, and the world's first factory was a cotton textile factory; modern working systems were born in the cotton textile industry. In everyday life, soft, breathable, and warm cotton clothing became synonymous with comfortable homes. In harsh winters, cotton was made into reliable outerwear. On the New York Mercantile Exchange, cotton is one of the products that traders follow most closely.
By 2000, China and India produced half of the world's cotton; global cotton planting and processing had returned to their pre-1780 centers. When the young Zhao Zhao was picking cotton that seemed to stretch into the horizon, he did not know that the 'flowers' before his eyes had nurtured these histories. Many years later, Zhao Zhao's identity and outlook had changed, and he salvaged and reprocessed these memories; how they appeared and the understanding and intentions fused into them became different.
(II) — In 2020, Zhao Zhao began an entirely new project that was the crystallization of many years of thought and provided viewers with a creative structure. The cotton used to build this structure feels like a soft, warm, and safe material, and it has a close relationship to his emotions. Cotton also reflects histories with many different references and properties and lots of information related to labour, economics, and capital. Zhao Zhao gave the work—an Eastern garden in Beijing's 798 Art District—a special name: China Garden.
'Chinese Gardens' are a general term for Chinese-style gardens built in other countries, such as Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Fanghua Garden in Munich, the Yanxiu Garden in Liverpool, the Seattle Chinese Garden in Seattle, and Yi Garden in Vancouver. Some of these gardens were built in the early 1900s. Just after the end of this period of exploitation, Eastern styles became fashionable in Europe and the United States. Some of these gardens were built in the 1980s or afterwards, serving as cultural 'gifts' between cities or countries and forming new historical relationships. Regardless of the reason, China Garden embodies cycles of history; it is a Western vision of Chinese culture, and a cenotaph that bears the yearning and distant histories of Chinese people.
Distance is another of the most important ideas in China Garden. Zhao Zhao stacked the cotton into bricks measuring 1.2 meters on two sides, but with different lengths. These bricks create another kind of labyrinth within China Garden. In this cotton maze, all of the distances and gaps were set at 1.2 meters, and all of the relationships and structures are multiples of 1.2 meters. This base number of 1.2 meters can be the foundation for endless layering or subtraction. 1.2 meters is the distance between people in this white garden. In international practice, this is the most common safe distance, but 1.2 meters also symbolises the constantly shifting distance between Eastern and Western.
Zhao Zhao has designed for viewers a public park with a private safe space in which people can maintain the best psychological and legal distance. As viewers walk in the garden, the repetitive yet tight sequences and the equidistant and undifferentiated relationships comprise a white mirror world, adding some purity and mystery to this garden. Early in the design process, the Sanskrit-like labyrinth had somewhat religious implications, but this garden also builds for us a microscopic landscape of distance. Here, distance is the most important information and most essential experience conveyed by the garden.
This distance is an examination of relationships, which are Eastern and Western, historical and political. From distance, humanity has produced civilisation, aesthetics, and thought. In the animal world, distance allows animals to coexist. When the distance between two animals is smaller than 1.2 meters, a fight is sure to start. In humanity, distance produces complex relationships between different peoples, cities, countries, societies, and systems. The smallest units are the close interactions between people and the comfortable distances between lovers or strangers, the distance between cars in the city and the distance between two cities, as well as the borders between countries and the differences, comparisons, and collisions between systems. In society, scientific, cultural, and political developments are shrinking distances and removing obstacles in order to seek out the maximum universality and speed. In the city, rules and arrangements facilitate the high-speed movement of groups by controlling for a safe and effective distance between people.
Cotton, distance, space, orderly passages, or voids become parts of the garden's design or control mechanism. A Chinese garden built in its native land is part of the current reality, but it is entirely built according to Western logic, techniques, and philosophies. In this garden, traditional aesthetics and literati dreams have already disappeared. The white tape on the exhibition hall floor replaces what would have been moss and duckweed in the past. A steel frame that can be quickly constructed, disassembled, and moved has replaced the pillars, beams, and flying rafters of traditional buildings. Western minimalist and industrial aesthetics replace the secluded ideal of ancient Chinese garden design. Cotton—which was never a 'flower' in the garden, but was a source of profit in the eyes of Westerners—blooms everywhere in Zhao Zhao's Chinese garden.
It is simply white, fully white. What Emperor Huizong of Song called the colour of 'ceramic that cannot be used because it was improperly glazed' has become the only tone for the entire garden. In Western civilisation, white has a decidedly different meaning; it can be political, radical, and terrifying, but it can also mean purity, emptiness, and concealment. White is presence and absence; it is a general summary.
However, this Chinese garden that is entirely 'northwestern' in structure, but it also has Buddhist symbolism. Zhao Zhao places every viewer within a white plane. In the moment that viewers enter the garden, they become props, like a tree or a bird. In this garden, you are in me and I am in you. Cotton and the viewers together create this new China Garden.
(III) — China Garden has a deep Eastern sensibility and we can easily feel the Otherness in the name. It reflects a Western view of Chinese culture that began with the sixteenth-century missionaries, underwent multiple colonial and trade revolutions, and culminated in a love of Bruce Lee and kung pao chicken. Chinese gardens are symbols of ancient China and the Far East, and products of the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures; it's simply that one side is the oppressed and one is the oppressor.
Today, the idea of the Chinese garden, created by Westerners, has become the title of this work, and Zhao Zhao added a layer of humour and satire. The cotton opening in the garden is not a feature of an Eastern garden and it is not part of the civilisation disseminated by Westerners. The stories conveyed by safe distances, simple structures, and dazzling white transform current references to cotton into something completely ambiguous and indistinct. The garden touches on past events that are full of joy and blood, violence and money, prosperity and decline; they flutter around this modern Chinese garden like flowers and dust.
Zhao Zhao sensitively captures and expresses all of this. He simply catches these fleeting temporal-spatial emotions, and he also imbues these emotions with larger historical frameworks and real references. There is nothing left of these aestheticised and romanticised Chinese gardens. The distances we are dealing with are no longer as far as the East India Company traveling around the Cape of Good Hope, so we no longer need to understand the world from the writings of missionaries and wandering authors. In this garden, fabricated visions have long since disappeared. The simple structures and densely packed and packaged cotton represent labour, harvest, evil, purity, and money. This garden is not the allegorical world of the literati, a reclusive utopia. It has already become a tightly packed and neatly planned modern factory. The garden just seems to be white, but it encompasses red and black, crime and punishment, idiots and saviors.
The evolution from ancient Chinese gardens to China Garden currently located in Beijing is concentrated human history, and sensation itself. An artist's job is to solemnly convey this to viewers. In the garden, everything is white; it symbolises everything and nothing. It cuts off the past, but it does not point elsewhere. At this moment, everything is a silent mystery.
Or, it is privately owned by Zhao Zhao, a young man with distant memories.
(IV) — 'I don't know if people have left the trees in the courtyard, but late spring and early fall are as beautiful as ever. Only the carp in the pool shows me affection, guarding the falling petals for those who have left.' In this poem about a serene place, things are permanent and people are transient, reminding us of the quick passage of youth. This is the feeling that China Garden conveys to the viewer.
Regardless of the kind of information contained in the works, it's simply a hidden interpretation. Distant histories are always forgotten, and past suffering always contains another redemption. The stories of a particular time and place will always wear away. However, this shows the spiritual forms of the stories, which makes them eternal. When viewers are flowing in, occupying the space, and leaving, the deep meanings and interactions represented by all of these histories and all of old China leave with them.
In this field of white, we feel as if we have been placed within a vast white landscape to appreciate a series of watercolors hanging on the wall. The glaring white world is a bit too stark. Sometimes you are alone in the garden, and sometimes you are joined by small groups. At still other times, it bustles with activity, and with the noise of a few more people, it seems to reflect the uncertainties and past events that were part of interacting in the world.
When we cannot see the true nature of Mount Lu because we are standing on it, impressions seem more accurate than stories, and impressions are far more interesting than opinions and news. We cannot summarise it at all, much less in a few words. China Garden reminded me of a line of poetry by Bian Zhilin: 'You are standing on the bridge enjoying the view. / Someone is watching you from the tower. / The bright moon adorns your window, / And you adorn someone else's dreams.'
Look, this is white; although it is manmade, it seems to have sprung from nature.
Zhao Zhao was born in Xinjiang, 1982. Now he works and lives in Beijing and Los Angeles. Zhao has worked in a subversive way all along and is keen on raising challenges on the reality and its traditional practice of art forms through various media. He creates a body of work which examines the power of individual free will and the intensity of authoritative control. He concentrates on the dramatic change in contemporary China, and presents it in his work. He directly confronts the inner suffering and stress of human beings. Zhao's work creates a sense of risk and threat, suggesting the everyday experience in contemporary China and other regions, as well as ephemerality and uncertainty in modern society. His artworks also reflect his concerns about the coexistence of collectivism and individual ideals.
In recent years, his bold and radical artistic practice has won him international recognition. He has held solo shows in many galleries over the world, such as Alexander Ochs Galleries (Berlin, Germany), Carl Kostyál Foundation (Stockholm, Sweden), Roberts & Tilton (Los Angeles, USA), Chambers Fine Art (New York, USA), Mizuma Art Gallery (Tokyo, Japan), Lin & Lin Gallery (Taipei, China), Tang Contemporary Art (Beijing, China) and CAAW (Beijing, China). His works have been collected and presented by numerous art institutions, such as MOMA PS1 (New York, USA), Tampa Museum of Art (Florida, USA), Pinchuk Art Centre (Kiev, Ukraine), Groninger Museum (Groningen, Netherlands), Museum of Asian Art (Berlin, Germany), Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art (Berlin, Germany), Padiglione D'Arte Contemporanea (Milan, Italy), MAXXI Museum (Rome, Italy), DSL Collection (Paris, France), Espai d'art Contemporani de Castelló (Castelló, Spain), White Rabbit Gallery (Sydney, Australia), M+ West Kowloon (Hong Kong, China), Minsheng Art Museum (Beijing, China), Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (Beijing, China), New Century Art Foundation (Beijing, China), Taikang Space (Beijing, China), Luxelakes · A4 Art Museum (Chengdu, China), Minsheng Art Museum (Shanghai, China), Museum of Contemporary Art (Shanghai, China), Start Museum (Shanghai, China), Ming Contemporary Art Museum (Shanghai, China), Tianjin Art Museum (Tianjin, China), Hubei Museum of Art (Wuhan, China), He Xiangning Art Museum (Shenzhen, China), Wanlin Art Museum (Wuhan, China) and NOW IS THE TIME - 2019 Wuzhen Contemporary Art Exhibition (Zhejiang, China) . In 2019, Zhao Zhao won the 13th AAC (Award of Art China) for the Artist of the Year. His Taklamakan Project was chosen as the backdrop of the posters and catalogues for Yokohama Triennale in 2017. In the same year, he was appraised as one of the Top 10 Chinese artists by CoBo and was nominated for the 11th AAC as the Young Artist of the Year. He was also listed as one of the 25 Artists to Watch by Modern Painters.
Cui Cancan is an active Chinese independent curator and critic. He has won CCAA (Chinese Contemporary Art Award) Art ReviewAward for Youth, Critics' Award in Chinese contemporary art by YISHU, AnnualExhibition Award by Art Power 100, Nominee for Lincoln Curator Prize by TANCAsia Prize, The Best Artist Solo Exhibition of the Year Award by Chinese Contemporary Art News, Best Exhibition Award by Gallery Week Beijing, Annual Curator Award by Art Bank, etc. Since 2012, he has curated 81 major exhibitions, including group exhibitions like Hei Qiao Night Way (2013), Xiang Cun Xi jian Chui (2013), FUCK OFF II (2013), Unlived by What is Seen (2014), Between the 5th and 6th Ring Road in Beijing (2015), The Decameron (2016), Rip it Up (2017), Spring Festival Projects (2018) and The Curation Workshop (2019).
Press release courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.