“I associate ants with the cruelty and hardship of people’s life, which fill your eyes with tears.”

Born 1970, Hechuan, Sichuan

Zhang Xiaotao is an art professor, and he slips easily into academic lingo, with learned references to semiotics, cultural self-colonisation, cognitive structures and ontological language. You wouldn’t suspect any of that to look at his work. His huge oil paintings are extravagant portrayals of decadence: dehumanised zones awash in lurid colour, where gigantic ants and reptiles reign over mountains of mouldy garbage and discarded condoms, and rivers of blood and semen. The artist consciously echoes illustrations from classic books and uses the colours of traditional Chinese porcelain and jade, as if to underscore how far Chinese civilisation has fallen. For the gorgeous physical rot he depicts is a metaphor for its moral counterpart, deadly yet superficially alluring and everywhere to be seen and felt in today’s China. “I sometimes feel like dirt, an ant, a dead rat, a pile of stinking garbage,” Zhang Xiaotao says. His pictures are “magnified pictures of our material life, which is full of absurdity and lust.” Yet corruption too has creative force, he adds: “What tension! What vitality!”

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