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ArtsArt Talk: Chinese Artist Zhu Tian On Being Her Own Guinea Pig

Art Talk: Chinese Artist Zhu Tian On Being Her Own Guinea Pig

Art Talk: Chinese Artist Zhu Tian On Being Her Own Guinea Pig
By Cherry Lai
October 25, 2017
Catlin Art Prize winner talks London, defying ‘bosses’ and being a guinea pig for her work

“If I don’t go to hell, who will?” laughs Zhu Tian, the Hangzhou-born, London-based artist as she speaks about Money, her daring ongoing performance piece in which she lays bare her bank balance report every month for the rest of her life.

To say the Royal College of Art MA graduate artist is a daredevil may be an understatement. Bold yet sincere in both her demeanor and her work, Zhu Tian has made a name for throwing herself into her artwork and using herself as a guinea pig, perhaps most famously in Cling To A Curator which saw her using cling film to bind herself to curators. It is this spitfire attitude that has made her one of the most enticing young artists to watch on the contemporary art scene.

See also: 5 Local Artists To Watch In Hong Kong

A collection of the artist’s newest and most iconic works spanning sculptures, site-specific installations and performances—including 2015 Catlin Art Prize-winning installation Dirty, neon-lighted Dear Boss, and Money—is on show at The Best of Everything, the inaugural exhibition at Galerie Huit’s new Kwun Tong address running from now until November 17.

We spoke to the artist about the inspiration behind each exhibited piece as well as her love affair with London, which interestingly, started right here in Hong Kong.

Black and white portrait of artist Zhu Tian. (Photo: Courtesy of Xie Shaojie)
Black and white portrait of artist Zhu Tian. (Photo: Courtesy of Xie Shaojie)

What inspired you to bring these particular pieces to Hong Kong?

It's the unique audience and art scene in Hong Kong [that we loved]. We wanted different types of my works in the show—installations, neon lights, living plants and kinetic work.

Actually, Hong Kong was the reason I moved to the UK 16 years ago. Visiting Hong Kong was my first time outside of China, and I got a taste of the Western culture and realised there was another whole big world outside of China. I’ve always been a person looking for more freedom, and I felt I was more comfortable in a freer Western culture where there was more acceptance to different types of people or choices. So I decided to move to the UK.

People in London are always talking about moving away but not many actually do so—you can’t really think of anywhere cooler than that. People talk about Berlin being the new art centre but there’s still a lack of other parts of the chain, such as collectors and local galleries. London’s got the longest history in contemporary arts that is all still there.

Zhu Tian, Dirty (2015), installation with polyester resume, fibreglass, pigment, metal, hose, size variable. Inspired by Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille. (Photo: Courtesy of Galerie Huit)
Zhu Tian, Dirty (2015), installation with polyester resume, fibreglass, pigment, metal, hose, size variable. Inspired by Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille. (Photo: Courtesy of Galerie Huit)

Can you walk us through some pieces on showcase here at The Best of Everything?

Dirty (Catlin Art Prize 2015 winner) was inspired by an erotic novel by French philosopher Georges Bataille; the three captives represent conflicting ways of dealing with human nature and sexual desires. Being a traditionalist, participant or observer, everyone’s got these different sides within them constantly fighting against each other.

Work 005 was specially made for this show. Cracked windscreens are full of stories; there was some sort of tragedy involved and mosses often grow in these cracks. The mosses actually grow out of tragedy and despair, even death. As they grow, the roots hold the cracks together, and in a way repairs the cracks which metaphorically bring new lives to the windscreens.

Dear Boss is a sarcastic, humorous look at authority and the possibility of escaping from it. Boss isn’t just the authority at your company but anything that is controlling or restricting your life: money, people, health, relationships, political environments, or God even.

Zhu Tian, Money (2015-), lifelong performance. (Photo: Courtesy of Galerie Huit)
Zhu Tian, Money (2015-), lifelong performance. (Photo: Courtesy of Galerie Huit)

Money is an especially daring piece where you make public your bank statement for your entire life. What inspired it?

Hong Kong people probably find this crazy (laughs). Money is always at the core of all the problems we have and we never talk about it in public. No one really studies the relationship between money and our lives. I want myself to be an experiment. As an artist, if I don’t go to hell, who will? A lot of my work I use myself as a part of the work. Such behaviour might not be supported in Chinese culture, but when I'm in my work, I don't feel like myself anymore.

What spurred your passion and career in the arts?

I’ve always been quite creative, learning singing and dancing since I was little. My parents wanted to raise me like a proper lady—they’re probably disappointed now (laughs). I studied economics at the University of Nottingham but was always creative on the side. After my first MA in sound design, I was commissioned by the V&A (Victoria & Albert) museum to do an installation in 2008. It was the first time I placed my sound artwork in an art environment.

I realised art had a lot more depth to it. Not only the result mattered but also the vast spaces of dimensions, research, background and possibilities. I decided to focus on creating art and eventually got carried away by contemporary art and even performance art.

Zhu Tian, Dear Boss (2014), neon light. (Photo: Courtesy of Galerie Huit)
Zhu Tian, Dear Boss (2014), neon light. (Photo: Courtesy of Galerie Huit)

Is there a particular medium you’re interested to explore more of?

All my works are very conceptual. Installation and performances give the idea a more complex visual language. Especially performance, which is more real and in your face. I can become a tool or medium in the work and find answers through the performances.

What are some of your favourite pastimes?

I enjoy time being alone. Also travelling—my favourite spot is Iceland. I caught the northern lights casually at a car park soon after I landed and it was epic. I don’t know why I didn’t go there earlier.

Zhu Tian, Work 005 (2017), windscreens, soil, sand, moss, wheels. (Photo: Courtesy of Galerie Huit)
Zhu Tian, Work 005 (2017), windscreens, soil, sand, moss, wheels. (Photo: Courtesy of Galerie Huit)

Any advice for aspiring artists?

Keep making more work and be persistent. For young artists nowadays, that is a success in itself as it is becoming harder for young artists to survive because of the economic enviornment and insufficient support from the institutions. It’s a goal for myself as well.

What can we look forward to from you next?

I will do a show in Athens, and I’ve been invited to do a biennale in Germany next year which will be a performance project. As an artist you can’t plan too far ahead, when you execute your ideas from your head to reality, it’s never the same as how you visualise it.


The Best of Everything will run at Galerie Huit from now until November 17. For more information, visit galeriehuit.com.hk and zhutian.co.uk

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ArtsArtsExhibitionCultureZhu Tian

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