The artist Zhao Zhao has been out of jail for two days when I meet him for our interview. He sits behind a wooden table in his apartment outside Beijing’s fifth ring road. Thick black threads poke grotesquely from the tip of his forefinger – stitches from a recent traffic dispute that ended in blows. For refusing to agree to the police’s determination that the fight was “mutual combat”, the young artist spent ten days in detention.
Even though it’s the first question on everyone’s mind, Zhao says the incident had nothing to do with his mentor, Ai Weiwei, who was detained for 81 days by state security last year. Like Ai, Zhao says he’d like to make a work inspired by his experience of detention. He shows me a pink plastic cup, a toothbrush, a towel and a tube of toothpaste – the only possessions he was allowed in his cell. The toothbrush is comically short, its handle sawn off so it can’t be used to inflict harm, while the towel is barely larger than his hand.
Zhao, who worked for seven years as Ai’s assistant, has an obdurate, frank, yet calmly persistent quality to him. At times, his attitude seems to make him a magnet for violence but it has also served him well, not least at Ai’s studio. After graduating from the Xinjiang Institute of Fine Arts in 2004, Zhao sought out Ai, who persuaded him to set aside oil painting and instead assist him with conceptual and documentary projects.
Although of different generations, both men had grown up in Shihezi, a sub-prefectural city in western China’s Gobi Desert dominated by the paramilitary farming and development organisation known as the bingtuan. Ai’s parents were sent to labour camps at the bingtuan after his father was denounced in the 1958 antirightist movement, while Zhao and his parents were born there.
The first major assignment Ai gave to Zhao was Chang’an Boulevard (2004), a conceptual video piece completed over the course of a month in which Zhao walked the entire length of the 38-kilometre road, a Beijing thoroughfare that runs past Tiananmen Square. Every 50 metres, Zhao stopped to film his surroundings. The work was monotonous and required huge reserves of physical and mental stamina. Once the video was complete, Ai rewarded Zhao by asking him to film Beijing’s second and third ring roads in the same manner.
Zhao remembers the time with nostalgia. “Back then, Ai had nothing to do, not like now. I’d leave in the morning to film and when I came back at night, he’d review the footage. If there was still time in the evening, we’d watch a movie together, maybe one of Hou Hsiaohsien’s or a documentary.” Soon, Ai’s collaboration with the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron on the Bird’s Nest stadium and his angry denigration of the propaganda machine behind the Beijing Olympics catapulted him into the international spotlight and the artist’s career took a turn towards activism.
Zhao filmed many of Ai’s most politically sensitive documentary works from the time, again working on his own with a camera. He is the voice behind large parts of Ai’s studio’s documentaries such as Yi Ge Gupi De Ren (A Lonely Person), which centres on the hasty trial and execution of the infamous cop killer Yang Jia, and Lao Ma Ti Hua (Disturbing the Peace), which documents Ai’s assault by local police in Chengdu.
Yet even as he played a large role in Ai’s studio, Zhao was quietly building up a small body of his own work. He took the older artist’s advice to create works using the materials that surrounded him and began to appropriate small, portable objects around him into his pieces. Cobblestone (2007) documents a performance in which Zhao used strong adhesives to glue a rock to the surface of Tiananmen Square. For Toothpick (2007), Zhao took Ai’s advice even more literally: he pilfered a piece of Qing Dynasty wood from Ai’s installation Fragments (2005) and ground the now twice-salvaged wood into 32 toothpicks.
By 2008, Zhao had gathered enough pieces for his first solo show at the China Art Archives and Warehouse. The show sold out and he was invited to participate in group exhibitions increasingly often. During 2010, Zhao participated in more than 30 group shows, obliging every curator who called with a request.
Zhao’s second solo show was at the Alexander Ochs Gallery in Berlin in 2011 and featured dozens of scattered, unrelated oil paintings. “The whole thing was a mess. Some people left the gallery thinking they had just seen a group exhibition,” Zhao says. Yet the manic content of the exhibition matched the frenzy of the times and the gallery had no trouble selling the paintings. Beijing, in the throes of its post- Olympics success, was changing rapidly; Zhao compares the way in which he painted and discarded themes with the spirit of the times.
“Every day, everything changes all around us. It’s too fake to keep painting in one style for the sake of perfecting technique,” he says. “Once one thing is done, I have no interest in painting it again.”
On 3 April 2011, those times ended abruptly with Ai’s arrest at Beijing Capital International Airport and his subsequent detention. Zhao is characteristically impassive when discussing the incident: “I knew it was political. I knew it wasn’t about money or taxes.” Friends told him to prepare for the possibility that he might be detained as well. Despite the uncertainty, Zhao decided to treat the experience as a catalyst for his practice. After Ai was released, Zhao showed new works at Chambers Fine Art in Beijing, including a limestone statue of a Chinese police officer more than eight metres tall whose badge number corresponds to the date of Ai’s arrest. The statue is displayed toppled over, lying in pieces on the ground.
Now, Zhao has become a target of the same state security apparatus that plagues Ai. When Zhao’s dealer, Christophe Mao, packaged his statue Officer for shipment to New York, Chinese customs seized the work at the port in Tianjin. Not only did customs refuse to export the cargo, they issued a bill charging him 300,000 yuan for the favour. If Zhao pays, he will be allowed to see his sculpture one last time before it is destroyed. As it is, Zhao cannot afford the fine and his statue languishes in customs purgatory.
Zhao has also been called in by the police in connection with a photograph he took for Ai that online fans have christened One Tiger, Eight Breasts. The photo features a nude Ai seated against a wall with four naked women, including Ye Haiyan, a prominent advocate for sex workers’ rights. Zhao was told he was being investigated for disseminating pornography.
Despite the increasing scrutiny he faces, Zhao is energised by the injustices of the Chinese system. When I ask him if he’d like to live abroad, he says he’d be useless in a developed western country such as the US or Britain. Next, he wants to create narrative films, having put his authorial voice to one side over the past few years to make documentaries.
While many are attracted to China’s extraordinary growth, Zhao finds motivation in the problems that are ignored amid that success. It is these problems that give Zhao a sense of purpose and he looks forward to the resistance that will define him: “If, one day, I feel like things have gotten to the point where things just can’t go on, then that’s the time when it’s most important for someone to be there, bringing problems to everyone’s attention. This is the role of the artist. To agitate for change, to be at the forefront of revolution. It’s an exceptional experience, one you can’t repeat. You either have it or you don’t.”
Angie Baecker writes for Artforum and is editor of the magazine’s Chinese-language website.