Artist: Zhao Zhao 赵赵
POB: Shihezi, XInjiang
Education: Xinjiang Institute of Arts in 2003
Lives and works: Los Angeles
No. works in collection: 3
Born in 1982 in Shihezi, a remote place surrounded by the Gobi Desert in the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, multi-disciplinary artist Zhao Zhao graduated from the Xinjiang Institute of Arts in 2003; he later briefly studied at the Beijing Film Academy. A protégé of Ai Weiwei, Zhao worked as his studio assistant and collaborator for seven years, and in 2007 he was the cameraman for Fairytale, documenting Ai’s ambitious piece for Documenta 12, and assisting with his research of the death toll from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. His own works, like Ai’s, critically examine aspects of contemporary China: like his mentor Zhao has sometimes come into conflict with the authorities as a result. His work has been exhibited in solo shows in China, the United States, Sweden and Germany and he has participated in many group shows internationally, including Islands, Constellations and Galapagos: Sixth Yokohama Triennial and Post-sense-sensibility: Trepidation and Will, Shanghai Ming Contemporary Art Museum (both 2017). Provocateur, joker, and social critic, Zhao Zhao’s reputation as one of the leading artists of the ‘post-80’s’ generation is predicated on the originality of his uncompromising works. Working in the vernaculars of global contemporary art, he makes subtle allusions to societal injustice and the abuse of power. Zhao’s work also reflects on his journey from the majority Muslim Xinjiang Autonomous Region – today one of the most heavily surveilled and policed places on earth – to the art centres of Beijing and Los Angeles. Remarkably, though, his paintings of cloud-filled skies, constellations of bullet holes, and fields of mouse droppings reveal Zhao Zhao’s ability to see beauty in surprising things. Zhao Zhao lives and works in Beijing and Los Angeles.
#1 Accession Number: 2013.087
Title: Mouse Droppings 1
Broad Medium: Oil/Painting
Specific Materials: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: Painting: 200 x 200 cm
Description: Apparently abstract canvas covered with tiny, mouse-dropping-like marks in black and colour
Mouse Droppings 1 is from an ongoing series of works begun in 2009. Large, apparently abstract canvases are covered with tiny dots, dashes and flecks of black and coloured paint inspired by the pattern of mouse droppings on the floor of Zhao Zhao’s old studio: he describes collecting exactly 5,113 pieces of mouse excrement from underneath his bed when he moved out. Despite his initial disgust, he came to think the droppings were signs of individual lives taking place in the darkest corners, and thus worthy of respect. From a distance many works in the series appear monochrome; only on closer inspection is the hectic variety of Zhao’s tiny, carefully painted marks revealed. Critic Michael Young, writing in Art Asia Pacific magazine in 2015, interpreted these paintings as a reflection on the conflict in China between homogeneity and individualism. Like Ai Weiwei’s one hundred million apparently identical porcelain sunflower seeds exhibited in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, these paintings may be interpreted as a response to a society emerging from enforced collectivism: thousands of tiny paint marks may seem to be the same, but they are, actually, all quite different.
Despite Zhao’s insistence that these are not abstract paintings, Mouse Droppings 1 may also be read as a riff on western Post-Painterly Abstraction – a jokey reinterpretation of mid-twentieth century paintings reflecting on how western conventions came to dominate Chinese avant-garde art in the 1980s and 1990s. By replacing fields of pure colour and form with a reference to humble mouse excrement, the ‘high’ art credentials of modernist abstraction, and the relationship between art and real life, are called into question.
#2 Accession Number: 2017.090
Broad Medium: Embroidery/Textile
Specific Materials: silk embroidery
Dimensions: 300 x 980 cm
300 x 140 cm x 7 panels
Description: Seven panels – embroidered bullet holes
Exhibition History: A Fairy Tale in Red Times, NGV, 2019
After a 2005 car accident in which Zhao’s head smashed into the windscreen; he kept the shattered glass and made works inspired by its appearance in different materials including bronze and steel. Replicating the crazed patterns of the broken glass, Zhao created images of shocking, random violence. We are invited to extrapolate broader social implications from this singular autobiographical incident. From these works Zhao developed a connected series, Constellations (2013––). Having seen images of bullet holes left after the June 1989 Tiananmen events, he purchased a gun (illegal in China) and fired it into sheets of glass. The firing of the gun was only a starting point: he began to make detailed oil paintings of the patterns made by the bullet holes, cracks and fine radiating lines that are surprisingly beautiful. As Zhao Zhao painted their starburst patterns with painstaking detail, they reminded him of the creation of stars and galaxies and of the pulsating energy of the universe. Later still, assisted by his mother, Zhao made these works in the form of silk embroideries; the violent moment of the bullet’s impact becomes a laboriously stitched work of overlapping radial forms and cracks recalling delicate spiderwebs. Constellations (2017), in the White Rabbit Collection, is a seven-panelled silk embroidery work measuring almost ten metres in width. Multiple bullet holes fracture its surface, their punctures surrounded by radiating lines. We think of the trajectory of the bullet, the shocking moment of impact, and the destruction wrought on human flesh by gun violence. Zhao describes his bullet holes as purposefully constructed, ‘a kind of orderly violence’. The contrast between a traditional Chinese craft and the modern image of the bullet hole, seen so often in popular culture, seems dissonant – although it was, after all, the Chinese who invented gunpowder.
#3 Accession Number: 2018.011
Title: One Second
Broad Medium: Oil and Acrylic/Painting
Specific Materials: oil on canvas
Dimensions: 200 x 300 cm
Description: black canvas with scratchy, scribbly diagonal lines across it from top to bottom
With a pencil, Zhao Zhao draws a thick line in a second, working without conscious intention. This line is transferred to an oil painting by a process of replication, including the granular traces left by the pencil on the paper. This meticulous and painstaking process takes a year.