Zhu Tian

Zhu Tian, Waiting like a prostitute, Half shamed Half despaired, 2015

We are proud to announce our new China Contemporary section on our website. For the launch, we chose Zhu Tian(朱田)as our first young Chinese Contemporary artist to showcase and promote. China-born and London-based, Zhu Tian is a multidisciplinary artist who subverts the everyday and undermines the expected through sharp humour and provocations, or as the artist states “hiccups – to interrupt and disturb”, that serve as a critic to today’s society.

Both an artist and performer, her artistic creations transverse contemporary society, exploring man’s relation to sex, money and other aspects that today’s world has made emblems of power and freedom. Tian builds up a discourse, of both social and political nature, that deeply questions these power relations, and puts at the centre of this debate on freedom and individualism, the very same public.

WoMA: At first sight, your art appears as colorful and playful. Yet, at a second glance, your works assume a totally different look, shaking the perception and especially the conscience of the viewer through themes related to sexuality and human existence in general, that ultimately give rise to a profound sense of uneasiness and discomfort. What is your artistic will and intent?

Making art to me, first of all, is a conversation I have with myself about my life, the world and my life in this world as an individual – it’s a way of processing and thinking. But when a work is presented to others, the conversation or discussion is handed over to the public. It’s relevant but not just relevant to myself any more. Everyone and anyone becomes the interrogator and the subject matter.

Why do we call making art ‘creative’? In one sense, I think it means adding substance. I have no interest in confirming or complying with the established and the conventional. Instead, I am more inclined to do the exact opposite.

Zhu Tian, Babe, 2013
Zhu Tian, Babe, 2013

WoMA: Your works, as in the case of Waiting like a prostitute, Half shamed Half despaired, are highly provocative, and emanate an irony that seems to reflect your personal disapproval and disgust towards contemporary society; an attitude that contrasts with the conservative and repressive policy that your native country has been pursuing. What are the reasons behind your determination to break ties from the present state of China? In which ways do you want to put in force this disruption?

Although I grew up in China, I have been living in the UK since I was a teenager. Now I’m in my thirties. I don’t consider my work as intentionally specific to any culture or nation, as I myself don’t have a very strong sense of ‘nationality’. I am one of those weird products of post-modernism, which you would find difficult to put under any category. Having said that, it is true that I have a lot of concerns and doubts about contemporary society and the individual’s state of existence within the system.

WoMA: Your work Babe, in particular, can be read as an open critique to today’s society, on how every commodity revolving around women has been sexualized and fetishized. A piece of art that both exalts and horrifies the flesh; yet that piece was commissioned by Elle China. Any comments on this?

Yes, that was a funny one. When ELLE approached me to make a piece of work involving a pair of Christian Dior’s stilettos, I knew very well that their goal would be to promote them as a sexualized object – as they always do. So in the end I presented Babe, which quite obviously didn’t serve that intention and even subsequently opened up quite bit of a critical debate about the whole fashion industry. However, to my surprise, ELLE happily accepted the final piece and published it in their magazine. Maybe that is one of the interesting aspects of being an artist – you might influence others in unexpected ways, sometimes without them even realizing it.

Zhu Tian, Dirty, 2015
Zhu Tian, Dirty, 2015

WoMA: In A partner, A half lover, Another half lover and Dirty, you reproduce human organs via resin and fiberglass. You take life out of caged and uncaged hearts or carcasses that are powered and connected by intertwining tubes; a process of dehumanization, an attempt to reduce life to misery and squalor. What are the thoughts that give life to these impulsive creations?

Funnily enough, these sculptures are actually cast from inflated sheepskins, which appeared in an earlier work, Dear Boss. So technically they are animals rather than humans. But I did use those obscure organic shapes as avatars for human beings, and in different works placed them in different scenarios and backdrops. I use them to tell allegorical stories about our society and the ridiculousness of contemporary life.

WoMA: You not only provoke the public through your art pieces and installations, you also challenge society through performances as in Money. A lifetime performance, but also a lifetime commitment. Displaying your bank account online, you not only reveal your financial status as an artist, you also expose your personal life sphere as an individual. A criticism of today’s values that seem to solely worship the God of Money; a trend, but also a social phenomenon that seems to occur especially in today’s China. Would you agree?

I believe the cultural tendency to worship the God of Money does not only exist in China but in every capitalist society. We are all familiar with it, living in it, and perhaps participating in it. Money is not intended to simply criticize that attitude, but is designed to serve as a mirror, to reflect and examine the relationship we have with ‘money’ and its effects on us and our life. It’s an ongoing project, and it’s far from its conclusion, so I would feel reluctant to narrow it down to ‘criticising’ at this stage. We might realise something unexpected throughout the process. I just don’t know yet.

WoMA: You are receiving many art prizes and awards, also at the international level. In your opinion, what differentiates a great artist from the mass? What is the right balance between talent, commitment and luck according to you?

To me, a great artist is someone who provides something different, something new. Their work plays a role in advancing or expanding the discussion about art. The first names that come to mind are Marcel Duchamp, Bruce Nauman, and Francis Alÿs.

As to the second question, unfortunately, I think you would need no less than all three to become a great artist. Talent and luck are out of your control, so work hard, and harder on ‘commitment’. That’s what I’m doing anyway…

Anni Wu