Review: Zhao Zhao – Constellations
by Irini Zervas
Zhao Zhao was born and studied in Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1982. He currently lives in Beijing and works in such diverse media as painting, sculpture, video and performance. The artist has gained international notoriety for his interest in the politicization of events and controversial aspects of Chinese culture. A former assistant to Ai Wei Wei, Zhao Zhao certainly adopts a critical stance regarding the uses of the past, but there is also a certain subtlety to his new work.
The exhibition consists of the Sky series, three oils on canvas, and the Constellations, sixteen works done in glass and held together by stainless steel. The show is a presentation of new objects made in the past year and reflects an interest in relating stylistic forms to the organic.
Yet, they also seem to reveal a preoccupation with the manmade. The glass-and-steel works, entitled Constellations, are a series of 59” x 47 ¼ “ glass panels that the artist has punctuated with gunshots. They are displayed adjacent to each other and slightly offset from the gallery walls, causing the cracks to form shadows on the flat, white surfaces behind them.
Zhao Zhao’s use of the shotgun as medium of artistic expression is belied by the difficulty that the artist had to go though in order to obtain the gun illegally in China. In a video for Art Basel Hong Kong, where the series was first displayed, the artist discusses how his fascination with firearms led him to seek out the history of their usage in China. He remembers bullet holes he’s seen in Beijing, remnants of the violent act of repression in Tiananmen Square. He notes that some individuals have photographs of the event, subtly hinting at the Chinese government’s seeming erasure of their own egregious gun use.
Zhao Zhao’s recollection of gunshots at Tiananmen in relation to supposed documentary evidence of their occurrence, and then to his current use of firearms, highlights the varying ways in which events are recorded or preserved. He relates his personal memory of a moment in Chinese history with his own art practice, a move that suggests the Constellations are a materialization of the act of remembrance itself. The work’s shattered panes are held together precariously by slabs of stainless steel. Hopelessly stunted in the midst of their own process of disintegration, the Constellations are caught in a moment between permanence and impermanence.
While the glass panes may recall a controversial subtext, the artist refuses to assign them a direct political meaning. The works represent the artist’s movement away from direct political referencing into non-figural work. This is evidenced in the luminous blue Sky paintings. Done in oil on canvas but sufficiently lucid and freeform in application of paint, they suggest washes of Chinese ink or the abstract perspective of landscape painting. Both series relate Zhao Zhao’s artistic practice to natural forms, and to a limiting of the artist’s control over the work. Displayed next to each other in continuity, the Constellations form an earthen image of a celestial pattern, or even a peaceful pond dotted by water lilies. Refracted light from their cracks etches shimmering, moving lines on the wall that shift according to the viewer’s perspective. Perhaps the real message here is not transmitted through political or historical reference, but in the works’ ability themselves to create the pattern of meaning, the “writing” on the wall.
Zhao Zhao: Constellations is showing from Sept. 12 – Oct. 25, 2013 at Chambers Fine Art, 522 West 19th Street, New York, NY, 10011.
Irini Zervas is an MA student in her first year at Hunter College’s Art History program. Her research interests include depictions of gender and the body, performance studies, and the politics of dress in relation to identity. She is a writer for Hunter MASO.