AAA’s Chair Jane DeBevoise sat with artist Zhou Tao to engage in a conversation about Tao’s recent and past works as well as his time as a resident artist in New York City.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Hi Tao, thank you for coming. Shall we start the interview?
Zhou Tao (ZT): Sure.
JD: Okay, my first series of questions. When did you arrive in the United States, how did you get here, and what are you doing?
ZT: I came to New York in September 2009. I received an Asian Cultural Council (ACC) grant, which provided me with the opportunity to come to America for my first time to experience a new culture, history, and way of life. Everything seems quite different here! When I was a student in school, I read about several American modern and contemporary artists. When I heard the news about the grant, I was surprised and excited; what a fantastic gift! But, you know, my view of America has changed since my arrival. During my first month here, everything was so interesting and fresh. I visited art spaces and museums and many buildings and shops that I found interesting. The parks, the outdoor space…there was so much to see. The second month, I felt differently about my situation. New York is very nice, but there are too many art spaces, galleries, and museums! It seems harder to focus on my work and thoughts. I think I’ve changed a little too. I’ve spent so much time here being busy, whereas in Guangzhou, my life was very quiet; nothing much would happen on a daily basis. I would stay rather still and ponder all day long.
JD: So when you first arrived, you were too busy and didn’t have time to think?
ZT: Yes, but during my second month here, I wanted to do a new project about how to deal with my New York life. I bought ten balls of thread and [using] my body, I created a visual motif of my daily movement. The thread followed me throughout my apartment and I would use small tacks to tack the string onto the walls wherever I would take a moment. I recalled my every action.
JD: You did this for how long?
ZT: I did it for twenty days in October.
JD: Let me understand. So, you took the ball of thread and attached it to yourself?
JD: And you hung the ball of thread on your body, which would unravel as you walked around? And whenever you went somewhere and stopped, you would tack that part of the thread to the wall and then move on to someplace else where you would continue to do the same thing?
ZT: Yes, it would follow me into the kitchen, the bathroom, onto the sofa where I watched TV; any time I moved anywhere…
JD: The thread would leave a trace, your trace.
ZT: Yes. While I recalled my movements I thought that maybe after two months the apartment would be full of thread, so full I wouldn’t be able to move anymore.
JD: What happened after twenty days?
ZT: Something happened one day and the thread broke. It was a life-moment: someone at any point in life can break your thread and bring movement to a standstill. But it’s okay! Now that two more months have passed, I have wanted to redo this project. It was very important to me at the time; I just needed to do it. It is a project that deals with my New York life. I also think this project is like a big mirror; you can study yourself and your history within a space. Most of the time the project was quite boring, and in a way [that] made each movement seem like a chore or some kind of self-demanding job. Sometimes I would forget where I was. It was a test of my ability to adapt to New York City.
JD: So you’re going to do it again?
ZT: Yes, actually, I already did it a second time. I can show you photographs.
JD: Sure, do you have them now?
ZT: Yes, I have them here.
JD: Great. Let’s take a look.
JD: [Looking at more images of the thread piece]… Oh my goodness!
ZT: Here’s a picture from the beginning, as you can see.
ZT: Actually I haven’t yet had a chance to speak to anyone about this project in English, and have only told one friend in Chinese.
JD: In San Francisco, did you have a chance to speak in English?
ZT: Yes, but it was tiring. The gallerist wanted to ask me several questions about China, Europe, my work, and my thoughts. The Director of the gallery is from South Africa, from a rich, farming family. His father has 20 children, and oh! He has a brother in Hong Kong.
JD: What kind of gallery was this?
ZT: It was Marina Abramovic’s space.
JD: It’s a non-profit art space, right? Or is it a gallery?
ZT: It’s new; about three months old I think. It has only had a few shows.
JD: And what is the name of the space?
ZT: It’s the Marina Abramovic Institute West, and I think there is one in the East too, here in New York. Marina has a building in New York, but it’s still being renovated.
JD: How long were you in San Francisco?
ZT: About ten days.
JD: So you have this string attached to your belt and it unravels and unloosens as you walk. You did this for twenty days?
ZT: Well, more like fifteen days. Just over two weeks.
JD: Did you ever go outside?
ZT: Yes, sometimes. Sometimes I’d go out to eat dinner.
JD: It’s very complicated. Amazing, really. It looks like you went back and forth around here quite a bit.
ZT: Yes, between bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. Also, there was a lot of movement around the front door.
JD: That’s also where the bathroom is. Let’s see, this is the door here, and behind here you enter into the kitchen?
ZT: Yes, it’s quite a long distance because the hallway is long. I actually have photos for different spaces. Maybe I can show them to you on my camera, as I haven’t put the images on my computer yet. Here: for the first round I used yellow thread.
JD: And after this how did you feel?
ZT: Well, I just sat at home and watched quite a bit of TV. I felt like I was part of an audience. I continually try to work on my performance of everyday-life, a performance about levels of consciousness between audience and character.
ZT: Yes, as part of the New York audience. Audience is a really important concept to me. I’ve taken many videos on my New York walks. My life…my walk: the relationship is like a film where I am also part of an audience. All my works come from moments like these. I become New York’s audience; and like a film, I am influenced by the information I receive while simultaneously situating myself within that film to become a character of the film; to live in the theatre of reality. My creations are often influenced by a consciousness in performance and viewed through the moving image – my relationship with reality and the filmed image.
JD: Yes, interesting.
ZT: I made another work in New York. It’s a piece about how to walk and how to deal with reality while walking. I think there is a gap between reality and imagination. New York and Guangzhou are like films, different films. I make work about these locational films.
JD: When you are in New York, you walk the streets and you engage the street as an audience member, as someone who participates in the film, but participating and watching the film at the same time. How is New York different from Guangzhou? Guangzhou is also a big complicated city, but do you feel differently in Guangzhou?
ZT: Yes, it feels quite different. You know the works I made several years ago, titled 1,2,3,4 and Gong xi fa cai? They are based on specific realities that are different from the realities in New York. How do you understand different realities and how do you handle them? When I was twenty, twenty-one, I studied oil painting but I hated it. Well, not really hate, but greatly disliked it. I am not into oil-based materials; I like water-based ones, or acrylic more. I received some awards for my painting and have some knowledge of the art of Chinese painting, but I mostly studied mixed media in graduate school alongside video. While working with video and the moving image, I often considered levels of consciousness, especially the consciousness I have to my own being. My work helps me approach this existence.
JD: In these works there doesn’t seem to be one central moment; there are multiple perspectives and series of moments, all linked together.
ZT: Yes, yes. You observe one even bigger world and universe through film. It is a special method that can be used for thought processes, to find greater meaning.
JD: I thought your piece Mutual Exercise was very interesting because you created a series of pictures, tableaux — a combination of distilled actions and actions that arrive and stop, like actions caught in mid-action and stopped. Mutual Exercise seems like a series of tableaux or distilled moving pictures — a series of actions that are at some point arrested and framed like pictures. You’re always walking back and forth between the real and [the fictional]. And around you, you have the street, to which the actions are connected and not connected.
ZT: Yes, one picture, two people, one camera. In Mutual Exercise, I moved the camera three times. Our movement spanned across three connecting scenes, and we utilized mutual exercises to approach and re-experience our everyday reality.
JD: The effect is very interesting.
ZT: Theatrical. Recently, ‘theatre’ has been one of my key words. How do you find the difference between art film and theatre? I still don’t know the answer.
JD: So, a few weeks ago, you went to San Francisco for the first time. What was that experience like? What did you do? Have you been to Los Angeles? That place is one big movie.
ZT: Yes, when I was in SF, everyone said ‘you have to go to LA.’ To American people, it’s a very special and important place.
JD: For you it would be interesting, because many movies are made in Los Angeles. In some ways you’ve already been there because you’ve seen the city on television or in the movies many times. So when you finally go to Los Angeles, you’ll probably feel that it is very familiar.
ZT: Very interesting.
JD: Yes, you should go, definitely! It’s a very strange place. A lot of people hate Los Angeles, but I think it’s very interesting; it’s an American dream and nightmare all in one place. But returning to San Francisco… What did you do there?
ZT: I was there for the exhibition ‘Non-Aligned.’ I think that’s what it was called.
JD: Was it a group project? With how many people?
ZT: Two artists. This show was the Institute’s second show and featured two Chinese artists, Duan Yingmei and myself. Yingmei lived and worked in Germany for a long time, and married a German person too. Twenty years ago, she did some performances in Beijing, in the East Village of Beijing. This exhibition in SF was just for us. I think the experience of working with her was quite nice. Before SF, I never worked with another performance artist. Performance to me is an interesting question: what is it? Working together with Yingmei gave me the opportunity to discuss this question along with [other] issues regarding performance. She considers live performance to be the only ‘real’ form of performance, while I consider live performance as one of many links to the real.
JD: Does performance have to be ‘live’? If it’s recorded is it still considered ‘live’ to you?
ZT: I think it’s quite an interesting question. I’m still trying to understand what performance is. Yingmei has a completely different perspective from me. I appreciate her work, because many works describe her personality and she is different from me. She has a performance called Xiao Chou [Clown], where she would just sit there giggling, laughing, like, ‘hehehehe, hehehehe’, like that, and you would feel nervous and awkward and then that was that. She played the clown and got you to question her identity. I think it’s quite adorable. Her works are like child’s play; they have true feeling and are very straightforward and genuine. To me, the level of honesty she holds is interesting. We talked about many things in San Francisco.
JD: Her work seems to depend on the reaction and relationship she has with her audience. Her work requires that relationship. She’s looking for a reaction…waiting for a reaction – is that right?
ZT: Yes, anyone’s reaction. Even people she does not know well.
JD: So their reaction is of great importance.
ZT: Yes. But she doesn’t seem to think about these things. She mainly wants to open herself up, for some kind of personal internal exposure. For example, she slept on a board for seven days, for everyone to see, and that was that. She would sleep when she wanted to sleep; she would sleep for ten minutes or so and then get up again. When she was younger, I think she may have had a situation of sorts. But in performing her work, she would do it without much thought or worry.
JD: Interesting. Okay, well now back to you.
ZT: In San Francisco I showed five videos and a new performance piece. My performance piece began the morning of the exhibition opening, at 10am on January 30th. I started with a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe, followed by some shopping at the market. I bought some books from the local bookstore, enjoyed my lunch in a restaurant, visited some friends, and with a little bit of time I took an ocean side walk. I picked things up along the way, things on the streets or from my friends or things I bought in shops…anything I found interesting. I ended my performance at the gallery opening, with all my collected items to display.
JD: So with no pre-existing plan, you went walking, from here to there, to pick up materials? Whatever you found?
ZT: Yes. I wandered around the city and visited a lot of different spaces. At the end of the day, I returned to the Institute, bringing with me various things from the outside world. In my mind, the line between art-space and other-space would become blurry because of my itinerary and the stuff I carried with me. Spaces are spaces, and I disregarded the type and genre of the spaces I entered on my walks. Artists often create things to put in an exhibition space. I want to dismiss the relationship one has with art-space to find some kind of resolution in performance. Wandering around was my favorite thing to do in SF; by the time I returned to the Institute on the opening night, I had so many collected things to share. I really want to change the relationship space has to its original meaning. I remember Paul Chan once said, ‘Art is both more and less than a thing.’
JD: I recently read an interesting article by him in e-flux.
ZT: I remember meeting Daniel Knorr in Guangzhou, whose piece for the Romanian Pavilion [for the 51st Venice Biennale] was an empty exhibition space. It allowed for a materialization of concept. It seems there are lots of artists who are paying attention to materialization and dematerialization. I also visited Tino Sehgal’s show at the Guggenheim recently. I think I better relate to Paul Chan’s notion of materialization, or maybe I’m coming from a totally different perspective. I do like questioning how work can be material and immaterial, and how one can have them co-exist. I am interested in touching something amidst the flood of changing information. I am also moved by writings on different modes of observation, like Mou Zongshan’s philosophical works on Neo-Confucianism, which I enjoyed throughout college. There are many ways to perceive, contemplate, and make work. I think it’s important to think about being, the experience of being and the spirit of being.
JD: Yes. You briefly mentioned Tino Sehgal’s work at the Guggenheim. What did you think of the show?
ZT: I knew of Tino Sehgal’s work before seeing the show. He is very good at handling museum space in a new and effective way and his work poses many interesting questions about exhibition and performance.
JD: Have you seen any of Paul Chan’s works lately?
ZT: No, but I have read a few of his writings recently. I think when I first came to New York, I didn’t really know what to expect, but being able to question what artists do and make has been really exciting and surprising.
JD: Now that you’ve had exhibitions here in New York, Europe, and China, can you describe your perspective on how your work is perceived? Does it change with the site of exhibition?
ZT: Yes, in China, other artists and I used to ask each other about our Chinese heritage, as though being a Chinese artist was any different from being an artist. What does having a Chinese background really mean in the art world? Should ethnicity prevent or help someone’s art from being received? I think it’s better to note at the very beginning that an artist is also just an individual. From my experience, conversations with artists and curators in America have been more focused on art talk. It also seems as though New York artists question art’s overall meaning a lot and the processes of understanding and thinking are extremely important. There are some people whose first impression is ‘Oh, he’s a Chinese artist’, but young, New York artists don’t immediately jump to that conclusion. Having said that, I don’t really care when people classify me into my ethnic group. When people look at my work, I think they can formulate different points of view, none of which are entirely Chinese-specific. I think that’s interesting. I think when a piece of work can walk on its own feet and transcend boundaries, ethnic boundaries or otherwise, the work becomes a great participation piece – a bit like my 1,2,3,4 piece. It’s boring to the Chinese, but to me it is fascinating to have an audience that responds to it with new eyes. In making work, I’m not trying to rebel against anything, whether it is culture, politics, or home. Instead, I ask questions about things I find interesting and see whether others find them interesting too. It seems that the primary issue I am now coming to terms with has to do with notions of the individual versus the group, and between an individual and collaborators.
JD: Interesting. What other impressions do you have of New York?
ZT: It’s funny, when walking in New York, you sometimes forget that your feet are moving below you; all of a sudden your thoughts are taking you to another place, and there you are, you’re not in New York anymore but you’re elsewhere, enjoying the ‘elsewhere’, forgetting that your feet are moving you forward, and that’s just the way things are. Your subconscious takes over and spaces keep changing. Sometimes experiences are changing when in reality nothing is really happening to you. There are times when I’m walking and I don’t react when someone hits me on the elbow; it’s as though I’m not there. Maybe they realize we’ve bumped into one another, but at the time it won’t even occur to me. Then there are other times when I’m hyper-aware of my surroundings, but they are also lifted and pulled out of reality. Maybe it’s the air, the place, the city, my walking pace…I don’t know. Once in the park, I decided to sit down next to a man and mimic his actions, not to joke around or hurt him, but because I thought his movements seemed so natural and I wanted to experience his natural resting states. I was his audience and his performer. When I performed his actions, I felt hollow because I couldn’t live up to his realness; I felt superficial. Then there were other people who came by to take photographs, which made it quite fun. I didn’t think about whether it was a good or bad idea; I just did it. In Guangzhou, I think I am too familiar with everything around me so when nothing is going on, it feels like nothing is going on. The experience is less energizing.
JD: Did you teach back home?
ZT: My students didn’t really understand me so I thought I wasn’t a good teacher, but really, it’s just a difference in communication. That isn’t to say teaching is easy, because I know it’s not and is incredibly difficult. It requires great patience and responsibility. I think I am probably not the best at focusing my attention on teaching. If I have to say something more than once in class, I grow impatient and just can’t go on. New York is great for studying different forms of communication. It is also a good place for observing situations in silence, with the hustle bustle of the city as a backdrop to new happenings.
JD: How else has your experience here made you think about your work?
ZT: Like Gong xi fa cai, shown at the Nanjing Triennial in 2005 – also a work I discussed with Xu Tan in detail – I find a work evokes greater hidden meaning when placed in a new context. Understanding is expanded through structure. For me, the circularity of things is quite interesting too; I feel like we always return to some form of the beginning. My life in Guangzhou is quite peaceful and quiet…it’s not like Shanghai or Beijing. I visit both cities from time to time, but I think if I lived in either city I would have difficulty making work. Oh, I’ve gone off topic again…
JD: Let’s look again at some of the photographs you took at the exhibition in San Francisco.
ZT: Yes. I felt like such a child in San Francisco ; it was so beautiful there. I was always googly-eyed wherever I went. Also, being slightly disoriented made me recoil back into a childhood state of sorts. There are so many pictures to share with you. Let’s see…this is when I came back, with all the books, flowers, street grass, and other things I collected during my walks. Here, Yingmei’s works; her thoughts on her travels, with her suitcases exemplifying her thoughts. Here is the second floor, and here we are conversing next to my piece 1,2,3,4. Xiao Chou [Clown], Yingmei’s piece…and here, she made a crooked bed, with objects from her dreams flying all over the place…here.
ZT: The space was quite cool actually, almost like one of China’s warehouses. Perhaps it’s because the space isn’t fully renovated yet, but I like it. Marina Abramovic didn’t even have time to put a bathroom in, but she’s fostered and created a wonderful space for artists. I think the space was geared for performance purposes. I suppose it makes sense as Marina Abramovic founded the Institute.
JD: So, from now till your departure, what do you have planned?
ZT: Well, there’s that piece I mentioned earlier, Stuff, which is a work in progress. Then there is another video piece that I have been working on with another artist, but he had to leave New York midway through my residency so the piece is left unfinished. I like it and would like to finish it, so maybe I’ll find someone who looks like him. And then I have another project that I would like to try out in Central Park. I’m thinking about dressing up in bright colors and guiding passer-bys towards new and different routes along the pedestrian walkways. I want to maneuver and change people’s regular paths. I want to make these routes visible; maybe I’ll have seven to nine routes to choose from. I want create a discipline that exists somewhere between traffic coordinator and film director.
JD: When does the residency end? In a month?
ZT: Yes, it ends March 31st, but I will fly out on March 30th. I have some time left. I’m really excited about this last project. Cities really create a pace that people follow; a pace that is sometimes hard to avoid. I want to create a step-out, a change in pace. I think people in San Francisco are quite different from people in New York. Here, many people ignore what you do in public, regardless how silly it is; in San Francisco, there is more attention paid to public performance. People in San Francisco seemed more responsive to what I was doing. Here, it’s almost hard to get people to look! When I was climbing on an electrical post, towering over people on the sidewalk, no one stopped to look and made it seem as though what I was doing on the post was normal. In San Francisco, there was an immediate interaction between my audience and me. I guess it’s like comparing Beijing and Guangzhou; the cities are quite different, with different vibes and different people. Guangzhou is more like San Francisco; more laid back than Beijing or New York. I think the pace of life is more easily altered in San Francisco and Guangzhou.
JD: So, when you go back to Guangzhou, what plans do you have?
ZT: There is discussion of me doing a solo exhibition in Guangzhou. I have never had a solo show before. I did a solo project for one of my works at the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, but it wasn’t a full on solo exhibition. I’m beginning to think about what I could put in my show.
JD: In some ways, 1,2,3,4 seems quite different from many of your other works.
ZT: Yes, but I think people can have ideas that sometimes don’t align with one’s normal stream of thoughts. Sometimes works have their own feet too and they carry you; at the time I felt I had to make 1,2,3,4, and it had a larger impact than I realized. I traveled to Shanghai and other places to capture footage for this piece and found the travels eye-opening too. Seeing 200-some people perform a daily ritual is so interesting. Even though I grew up with a similar routine and saw it happening around me all the time, it was different on film and became quite magical. This piece has been exhibited several times, and it seems to be quite successful with audiences. Everyone has a way of understanding the work. I like works that push me to think in a variety of ways.
JD: Other than 1,2,3,4, what work of yours do you personally consider most successful?
ZT: I think maybe Mutual Exercise is a piece I would consider my most successful. I like that we can all be performers in our daily lives. At the time, I didn’t think about the project too much. But that’s where ideas are born; you think about something briefly and if it excites you enough, you make it. Then afterwards, you analyze it. Usually you learn more than you expect; it extends the idea you briefly exercised at the beginning of the project.
JD: I also like that work, and think that it is visually compelling and conceptually intriguing. There’s a touching minimalism in it, and a sensitivity to space and object that enhance its depth.
ZT: It felt right to make at the time. We didn’t plan any of the positions before making the piece. Everything just came; our bodies and minds wanted to create certain scenarios and just did. We did set the route and practiced a couple movements, but really just let the accidents invade our performed reality.
ZT: When I was doing a similar project with the other foreign artist who left midway, it was something that just came about through a conversation we had. We used pedestrian paths as our location for play. These things all start from a conversation of sorts. Like Gong xi fa cai.
JD: In Mutual Exercise who was the other ‘performer’?
ZT: He is a friend of mine, and he and I are about the same size. His mind was open to the idea. It’s hard finding someone to participate with me. Everyone only wants to participate with Cao Fei! [Laughter]
JD: This is not related to my original question, but I’ll ask anyway. Where do you get your funding for your projects?
ZT: Right now, funding comes from the works I’ve sold. I make small paintings that I sell in Guangzhou to companies that my friends work at; the things I paint are suitable for the companies. Through their network I have been connected to other people, individuals and companies to make commissioned works.
JD: So, what are the greatest challenges and conflicts you’ve come across here in America?
ZT: Well, on the art front, I think I’m still not fully satisfied. I haven’t really concluded much and have not found a calm balance between the questions and issues on my mind. Soon I’ll be going back to Guangzhou; I wonder what that’s going to be like. Also, my girlfriend will be here studying and I will be there. She thinks that if I’m in Guangzhou, no one will respond to me as greatly as they will here…. Maybe I can find a way to be here and there. Or maybe I’ll want to be in Beijing after all…oh, I’m not sure either.
JD: If you go to Beijing, you may not have the desire to come back to America; Beijing is currently in a world of its own. There is so much going on there.
ZT: Yes, I think you’re right. I have some thinking to do. Beijing is really important right now. I used to think Guangzhou was the haven for artists. Sadly, most of the artists have left. I think Beijing is growing in a way that may not be the most healthy for artists. There are all kinds of possibilities though. As an artist, one must be ready for shock and surprise, as well as public expectation. Artists must be adventurous to work in Beijing. The world is changing so quickly.
JD: Yes, but there will be a lot of pressure and expectation, maybe more than in Guangzhou.
ZT: The pressure in New York is pretty great too, no?
JD: Yes, it’s quite hard here too.
ZT: But New York artists still seem happy. It’s quite enjoyable being around them. Americans are quite adorable, I think. It’s nice they get to speak their minds. In China, this is definitely not the way things work.
JD: Our societies are messy, but Beijing and New York both have their advantages. Well, Zhou Tao, it was wonderful talking with you today. Thank you so much for answering some questions about your time in New York and about your work. Let me know when you are back for another show, as I would love to see it.
ZT: Thank you!
Zhou Tao was born in 1976 in Changsha, China and now resides in Guangzhou, China. His work has been shown in several exhibitions, including: ‘Yes, But—‘-, Location One, New York (2010); ‘Non-Aligned’, Marina Abramovic Institute West, San Francisco (2010); ‘Dress Codes’, Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video, ICP, New York (2009); ‘Solo Project’, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA (2009); ‘The Big World: Recent Art from China’, Chicago Cultural Center (2009); ‘Louis Vuitton: A Passion for Creation’, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong (2009); ‘Trans-local Motion’, 7th Shanghai Biennale, Shanghai Art Museum (2008); ‘China Power Station Part III’, MUDAM: Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg (2008); ‘China Power Station part II’, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo (2007); ‘La Rivoluzione Siamo Noi’, Isola d’Arte, Milano (2006); ‘Accumulation-Canton Express’, Tang Contemporary Art Center, Beijing (2006); ‘Gambling’, Para Site Art Space, Hong Kong (2006); and ‘Archaeology of the Future’, The Second Triennial of Chinese Art, The Nanjing Museum, China (2005).
Click here for more examples of Tao’s video work.
Translated and transcribed by Ali Van.
Amended and approved by Zhou Tao.