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Zhao Zhao: The young pretender

Recently released from detention, the artist Zhao Zhao is channelling his experience into his work.

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.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis