Enter into the Second Space by Tang Contemporary Art in the Chaoyang district in Beijing, and be greeted by a camel. Yes, you heard that right. It is not a highly realistic animatronic replica of a camel, but a living breathing creature alongside it’s full time caretaker. Perhaps even for found object art, this could be seen as rather extreme, but “Camel” is an integral component of Chinese artist Zhao Zhao’s recent solo exhibition curated by Cui Cancan, ‘Desert and Camel’.
The exhibition itself follows from Zhao Zhao’s earlier - and, arguably, his most important - work “Project Taklamakan” (2015), in which the artist, together with a team of people, transported 100,000m of electric cable, a few dozen transformers, a refrigerator and a desert utility truck to the Taklamakan Desert. Zhao Zhao had attempted to carry out this feat using the ancient method of camel transportation, but due to its complex nature and difficulty in execution, the artist eventually resorted to using modern technology.
‘Desert and Camel’ is a reactivation of “Project Taklamakan” in that the artist brought a camel from the desert to the exhibition space in which it lives for ten days, being provided with food and water with troughs crafted in marble by the artist. It is here that the camel becomes an artefact to be viewed; it has ceased to be valued as a ubiquitous form of transportation, and is now merely seen as an exotic creature and spectacle - a record of its former purpose and a symbol of civilisations past.
In the next room, laid on the floor is a “Desert”, 3 metre by 5 metre rectangle comprised of steel and copper fragments, representing modern industry and historical civilisation. Despite how the fragments form a whole, their differences are highly contrasted when placed next to each other. The uneven ridges of each individual piece in “Desert” represents the uneven landscape of its namesake, and harks back to the electrical cable that Zhao Zhao transported through the Taklamakan Desert. Furthermore, fragments are a visual theme consistent with Zhao Zhao’s body of work, often appearing in his paintings and other floor-based sculptures.
Both “Camel” and “Desert” are richly multi-layered works. Standing in the exhibition space, these works inhabit spaces in our realities, but at the same time are representations of other lived realities that are far away both space and time. In doing so, the works in their aesthetic beauty, also point to worlds that we are far removed from, which lends a sense of loss.
Following immediately from ‘Desert and Camel’, Tang Contemporary Art focuses on Zhao Zhao’s iconic series “Sky” and “Constellations” in their exhibition ‘In the Desert Below a Constellation • In the Sky’. They follow the same as ‘Desert and Camel’ in the tension that exists within the works.
“Constellations” is a series of works that Zhao Zhao has continually developed, in which he paints panes of glass fragmented by bullets. Despite the fact that the subject matter of these paintings point to an act of violence, the works are visually arresting and much like their namesake, look like the beautiful constellations twinkling in the night sky. For the first time, Zhao Zhao shows this series in a embroidered version that he worked on with his mother.
Taken together with his paintings of the sky in his “Sky” series, in which he paints cloudscapes taken from his own memories of the sky, Zhao Zhao’s works are heavily conceptual despite their simplicity. They may seem very different in execution, but are all connected by being instruments that point to various elements of our lived realities that constantly penetrate our own human existence.
'In The Desert Below A Constellation • In The Sky' is on till 8 November 2017 at Tang Contemporary Art. For more information on opening hours, click here.