Two Films by Zhou Tao: A Screening with Cosmin Costinas

On January 29, 2014 AAA in A screened two films by Zhou Tao: Collector (2012, 20’03” Color & Sound HD Video) and After Reality (2013, 14’21” Color & Sound HD Video). After the screening, curator Cosmin Costinas gave us his thoughts and answered questions.

Cosmin Costinas (CC): I will try to somehow make sense of what we’ve just seen and to share that. I think one very important concept and key to understanding Zhou Tao’s work is that of reality. I think that if we try to figure out what his entire practice as an artist is about, what his entire mode of not just working but also being in this world is about, then we should think about somebody tracing the world around him, of weighing and measuring the things that form his surrounding reality, and also collecting them. That’s why the name of the first film Collector is quite relevant, because in it he somehow tries to itemize the things surrounding him; sometimes he changes them, sometimes he perverts them, sometimes he gives them a sense. And he collects them by giving them value, by giving them meaning, and by giving them texture.

After Reality, drawing, 2013

Now reality is obviously always something qualified. Reality is in fact always made of different overlapping contexts. And Zhou Tao’s context is certainly informed by his experience of having been born, raised, and having lived in Mainland China for the vast majority of his life. It is a very important fact about his practice, but at the same time I think he would be the first one to reject a certain kind of over-identification of his ethnicity or his nationality with his practice. I don’t think he would want to see himself as part of some sort of continuum of Chinese art or Chinese culture in a long term sense.

Now, why I want to qualify this is that his Chinese experience is an important factor in understanding his navigation in reality, but it’s not the only reality that he addresses. There is a work Times in New York that I wanted to show.

Production shot of Times in New York, 2009

It’s a work that he did while he was in residency in New York City a few years ago. He was here for six months, and for one month he stayed almost entirely in his flat. It’s difficult to get the reason why that happened; he wasn’t afraid, he wasn’t isolated but I guess it was a little bit of everything. He decided to make this piece where he connected a thread to himself and every movement that he made through the apartment left a mark, which became this almost un-navigable web of threads. Why do I bring this piece into this context? Because this is another proof that reality can have in Zhou Tao’s work. Different layers. This work clearly traces the most immediate reality of his surroundings, the reality of one room basically. However, reality can also be much wider, and again in that sense reality doesn’t necessarily need to be the reality of Mainland China, even if it’s something that has been informed by that.

Still from After Reality, 2013

The second piece After Reality that we saw was partially filmed in France, so it’s a piece that again is not very easily placed into one single reality or into one cultural context. Now, what does this mean? In what way does his experience growing up in Mainland China inform his relationship with reality? Well, I think that probably the most striking characteristic of somebody growing up (he’s almost 40, so he has spent the last 30 years of conscious life in Mainland China) is that of an enormous historic process of dislocation, of rupture, of change, of ungraspable change and shifting reality. The floating island is a very good metaphor for that changing landscape and environment and the quite striking lack of individual agency in these processes. This lack of agency of even grasping the scale of change and the perimeters of change may be part of what he’s doing. You can even read it politically, but there’s definitely an attempt at projecting an individual in a subjective effort to grasp that reality and give it a sense and describe it and itemize it and collect it and put these items together. This is one thing that he is doing.

Part of 18 photo scripts for After Reality, 2013, inkjet print , 20×30 cm

You also see of ruptures appearing in films like the train passing by the landscape. The landscape is almost surreal, made out of different elements, but the moment the train appears, it is very clear that it is somehow out of place. This is similar to the first film, which again is almost surreal in its association of different elements, but the moment the buildings appear in the background, it’s also something that feels out of place. I guess this characteristic of the fast changing reality of an artist trying to make sense of it and to personalize and invest it with his own subjectivity — is almost a paroxysm of modernity, of a fast paced modernity.


Still from Collector, 2012

I think it’s very important to point this out, in the context of this exhibition that you have right now in New York City, the ‘Ink Art’ exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, which is striking in its incredible denial of the existence of modernity in China. I guess the biggest point of this exhibition is to create this strange idea of a continuous and uninterrupted Chinese culture for the past three thousand years that has managed to perpetuate the same forms and the same ultimately fixed reality, in which everything has a place, in which — people, individuals, landscapes, forms, communications, signs — everything is ultimately unchanged. It’s all about a grand culture that never changes. This rather racist fallacy is, I think, very interestingly critiqued by what Zhou Tao is doing as a representative of this generation. For Zhou Tao is ultimately a very contemporary artist navigating a very universal contemporary condition although one that is more obvious in the case of China because the processes are happening at a different pace. But again he is a very universal artist, very much an artist of his times. I guess I will stop here.

Xiaofei Mo (XM): Thank you, Cosmin.  Are there any questions or comments?

Audience Member: I would like to know why you were very specific about the racial relationship to his identity in the context of his work.

CC: Well, it’s definitely not about any kind of racial reality nor a question of identity as such, because that’s not a reading that would be interesting for him. It’s simply a question of experience and a certain kind of reality that is closer to him than other realities. I think the point is he’s simply somebody navigating the world in which he’s placed, be it a room that he never leaves, be it Paris. But it just happens that most often than not his reality is mainland China today.

Audience Member: So he specifically does not identify with his racial profile but rather addresses contemporary art in a broader sense.

CC: I guess you can say that, yes.

Audience Member: In the first video I don’t think he checked all the boxes. I don’t know why but it doesn’t feel complete to me. It seems like he only addressed a corner of his surroundings, a small part of his environment.

Audience Member: Isn’t that what you were saying, Cosmin? That it’s meant to be non-narrative, kind of disparate, and that it was never meant to be overarching picture of a sense of place. That’s actually what, for me at least, shows you the dislocation. That it’s not intended as a holistic film or an overall experience.

CC: You can look at it from that position, yes.

Audience Member: You mentioned this notion of trace and since he has this experience in France, I was wondering if Derrida is a reference for it? If that’s how we can see the origins of trace for him or for you?

CC: He’s somebody who reads quite a lot, so it could be possible but I don’t know. For me, yes, I did not particularly think of Derrida when I thought of Zhou Tao, but that’s someone I’ve read and I guess it partially informs my reading. I don’t know about Zhou Tao, though. He reads quite a lot of literature, maybe less philosophy. I saw him a few months ago in Bangkok where he’s doing a long residence, and he has read almost all the books in his library. He has studied them very diligently. It’s an important part of his experience as an artist to read and to be studious. But again, I don’t know.

Audience Member: What was the reference that you were picking up on in terms of Derrida?

Audience Member: Well, his notion of the trace. It’s a big part of his philosophy and I was just struck by that concept. I didn’t know about this piece in his apartment. It’s just wonderful how he traces his steps, his life.

Audience Member: I was just curious how we were supposed to watch his work? How does he usually present moving image?

XM: His work is usually projected in a dark room, but when he is filming he also makes sketches and photographs so those would be displayed in a hallway that leads to the projection.

Installation shot of Zhou Tao: The Training, Kadist Art Foundation, Paris, 2013

Audience Member: You were mentioning that he doesn’t go to his roots as being Chinese so what are the films and filmmakers that he may have seen or studied under?

CC: I think, in terms of cinema, it’s probably the same kind of international set of references that he definitely had access to when he was growing up so. Now regarding what I said about his influences, he’s also read a lot of Chinese history and also a lot of Chinese classical literature. He very often makes reference to the great novels of Chinese culture so that’s actually part of his education and references as well. But I think my point was that, when I was making the connection with the Ink Art exhibition, one should not regard him as this ‘sage man’, in this many thousand year old tradition of ‘sage men’. Many other people have read classical Chinese literature, and the majority of them happen to be Chinese as well, but that doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily more essential to his identity than the kind of cinematic references which I guess would be primarily Western or international.

XM: He’s not particularly influenced by the history of film, I think; he was trained in oil painting.

CC: So he definitely came from a formal education out of visual arts, and he had this self-taught cinematic background and love of film, but he never studied it formally.


Notes for Collector, 2012

XM: However I find his work very formal, and that really interests me, but at the same time I think it puts some sort of restraint on his practice. Do you have comments on the structure of his films?

CC: One can definitely see the influences of, maybe influences is not the right word, but there’s definitely connections with a certain language of video art and cinema that is quite contemporary. Maybe we would think of the filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Both employ the same kind of deception of surrealism which is in fact not really surrealism in either case because both of them are very much interested in a certain kind of reality or being in reality and having a certain kind of empathy with reality rather than escaping it. But I think in both cases, both in Zhou Tao and Apichatpong, the artists are primarily trying to figure out different keys and different positions from which one could reach reality. But Apichatpong is much more of a culturalist than Zhou Tao. You could say that most of Apichatpong’s films are attempts to describe reality and cinema from the mindset and worldview of a traditional Thai peasant. That’s actually a very political gesture in Thailand which is such a socially polarized country, having protests as we speak.

Audience Member: In the first film and the second film, there were two moments that caught my attention. In the first film there was one person embracing another and it was kind of erotic, which I found kind of out of context. It was the only instance of physical contact between people. And in the second film there was the scene where there was one person on top and three legs moving which to me was very interesting. Could you talk more about that? Is it something he’s interested in tracing in his work, some kind of eroticism?

Still from After Reality, 2013

CC: Yes, that’s there. But I don’t know if we’d get a lot from him but it’s obviously an important part. There is an almost homoerotic gaze on the bodies which wouldn’t be consistent with his biography, so to speak, but it’s there and we don’t know what it means. One can interpret and over-interpret things, but it’s obviously striking, because you don’t see something like that around it. However, it’s not out of context in the way in which he perverts reality and objects and in that case human bodies. So maybe at the end of the day, it’s just that rather than repressed sexuality, maybe it’s actually just a continuation of his inverted camera towards other objects, [which he is now just] turning it towards human bodies.

Still from Collector, 2012

Audience Member: In the first film were there any actors, and if there were actors, how much direction did they take?

CC: Well, it’s a combination of both. The people in the film who were there doing the work were just captured, but obviously that act of moving and touching was staged.

XM: Not the first one, with the couple kissing.

CC: The couple kissing no, but the embracing was staged.

XM: And also the man dressing up as a bird was staged. There’s a guy who’s like a cleaner, wearing a raincoat. He appears a couple of times. That was staged too. But the majority of the film is documentary style. Those are people in real life.

Audience Member: Did he grow up in a big city?

CC: He’s from Changsha, Hunan province.

XM: Then he went to Guangzhou Academy of Art and afterwards he [stayed] in Guangzhou.

CC: He lives in an urban village in Guangzhou. It’s within the delta so it’s a very particular environment. I don’t know exactly where it was filmed but it looks like it was filmed around his house.

XM: Collector was filmed in Baiyun Park in the northern part of Guangzhou; After Reality was filmed in both Panyu, Guangdong and Paris. There’s another film South Stone made in 2011, which was filmed in an urban village called South Stone where he lives.

Audience Member: Both films are very green. It seems he’s thinking about his childhood growing up among in places where there is lush vegetation. Was he educated in the West at any point?

XM: No, although in 2009 he did a residency at Location One in New York, and recently a residency at Kadist, Paris. I am afraid we have to stop now. We have viewing copies of these works in our reading room here. So please feel free to come back and watch them again. Thank you everybody for coming.


Image credit: all images courtesy of the artist

Zhou Tao (b. 1976, Changsha, China) lives and works in Guangzhou, China. Selected solo projects include: Zhou Tao: The Training, Kadist Art Foundation, Paris (2013); Open Studio: Seek for Geothermal Heat, Times Museum, Guangzhou (2012);  The Man Who Plants Scenarios, Queens Nails Projects, San Francisco (2011); and 1234-, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge (2009). His work has been shown widely at exhibitions such as The 5th Auckland Triennial: If you were to live here…, Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland (2013); ‘ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice,’ Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2013); Beyond the Crisis: 6th Curitiba Biennial, Curitiba (2011); ‘Support > System,’ Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Los Angeles (2011); ‘BodyTalks – Video Art & Cinedans in Public Space,’ Maastricht (2011); ‘Dress Codes: Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video,’ International Center of Photography, New York (2009); Trans local motion: 7th Shanghai Biennale, Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai (2008); and ‘China Power Station part II,’ Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo (2007). For more information please visit

Cosmin Costinas (b. 1982, Satu Mare, Romania) is the Executive Director/Curator of Para Site, Hong Kong. He was the Curator of BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, Netherlands (2008-2011), co-curator (with Ekaterina Degot and David Riff) of the 1st Ural Industrial Biennial: Shockworkers of the Mobile Image, Ekaterinburg, 2010, and Editor of documenta 12 Magazines, Kassel/Vienna (2005–2007). At Para Site, Costinas curated the exhibitions: ‘Great Crescent: Art and Agitation in the 1960s—Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan’ (with Doryun Chong and Lesley Ma, 2013-2014); ‘A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story’ (with Inti Guerrero, 2013); ‘It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve’ (2013); ‘About Films. Deimantas Narkevicius’ (2012); ‘Taiping Tianguo: A History of Possible Encounters: Ai Weiwei, Frog King Kwok, Tehching Hsieh, and Martin Wong in New York’ (with Doryun Chong, 2012, toured throughout 2013 and 2014 at SALT Beyoglu, Istanbul; NUS Museum, Singapore; e-flux space, New York); ‘rites, thoughts, notes, sparks, swings, strikes. a hong kong spring’ (with Venus Lau, 2012); ‘Two Thousand Eleven’ (2011). At BAK, he curated ‘Spacecraft Icarus 13. Narratives of Progress from Elsewhere’ (2011); ‘In the middle of things’ by Olga Chernysheva (2011); ‘I, the Undersigned’ by Rabih Mroue (2010, toured throughout 2011 at Iniva – Institute of International Visual Arts, London, Lunds konsthall, Lund; tranzit+display, Prague; and Wurttembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart); ‘Expo Zero’ by Boris Charmatz (2010); 1st Former West Congress (with Maria Hlavajova, 2009) and ‘Surplus Value’ by Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor (2009). He co-authored the novel Philip (2007) and has contributed his writing to numerous magazines, books, and exhibition catalogs across the world. Costinas has taught and lectured at different universities and art academies in Europe and Asia. Other curatorial projects include: ‘After the Final Simplification of Ruins. Forms of historiography in given places,’ Centro Cultural Montehermoso Kulturunea, Vitoria-Gasteiz (2009) and ‘Like an Attali Report, but different. On fiction and political imagination,’ Kadist Art Foundation, Paris (2008). Costinas lives and works in Hong Kong.


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