Naked ambition and daily life

Updated: 2014-08-30 07:22

By Liu Zhihua(China Daily)

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Interview | Zhou Jie

Nude photos of a young Beijing-based artist provoked unwanted controversy as her new exhibition opened in the capital.

Every day, artist Zhou Jie fields all sorts of questions - some mundane, some unexpected, and some downright offensive - from visitors to her exhibition 36 Days at the Beijing Art Now Gallery.

 Naked ambition and daily life

The point of the exhibition is that Zhou Jie acts as she would in her regular daily life. She says she usually doesn't worry about what people say, or if they feel disturbed by her work. Jiang Dong / China Daily

 Naked ambition and daily life

'I'm confused as to why people only focus on the wire bed, and think the exhibition only starts when I lie on it.'

For the project, a mix of performance art and live sculpture which started on Aug 9, Zhou will live in the exhibition space for 36 consecutive days, accompanied by just a partially constructed single bed and a pile of half-finished toys made from wire, several sets of clothes, food and bottled water, and three transparent dustbins.

"I want to exhibit my everyday life here, including sleeping, eating and working, and I am open to interaction with the audience," Zhou explains. "But people often ask me when I'm going to lie on the bed, and some even want me to be naked. I didn't expect this when I planned the exhibition."

The 28-year-old earned a master's degree in sculpture from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of China's top art universities, in 2010.

When Zhou started planning the solo exhibition in June, she didn't think it would become a cause celebre on the Chinese Internet. That happened when photos of her lying naked on the wire bed were posted on the Internet on Aug 9, prompting a huge amount of online speculation and comment about the supposed 36-day "naked performance art". Some of the commentators even joked about how she would deal with the inconvenience of having her period.

Within a few days of the first piece appearing on the news site ifeng, the media, domestic and foreign, and the public, streamed into the exhibition hall in northeastern Beijing to take photos and film reports.

But to their surprise, the visitors discovered Zhou always wore a nightgown, or a cotton vest and shorts. Even more disappointing was the realization that she had no intention of disrobing in public again.

Naked ambition and daily life

During opening hours, she talks with the visitors, and is happy for them to touch the bed, and even lie on it. She also spends time finishing the wire bed and what she calls "the plush toys", which are shaped like bears, dogs, turtles and Hello Kitty dolls.

"They are sculptures - finishing them is my work, and thus also part of the exhibition. I'm confused as to why people only focus on the wire bed, and think the exhibition only starts when I lie on it," she says, adding that as an artist, she finds it amusing that the news of her lying naked on the bed has made headlines in the entertainment news sections.

Curator Hang Chunxiao says: "The point of the exhibition is that Zhou acts as she would in her regular daily life."

Prior to the exhibition, Zhou - who has the full support of her boyfriend, her mother, father and older sister - and Hang had many discussions about how to begin, including whether she should kick off by lying naked on the bed, because she often sleeps in the nude when the weather is uncomfortably humid.

But the fact of sleeping naked or not should never overshadow the rest of the exhibition, Hang says.

On the afternoon the exhibition opened, the hall was hot, and Zhou - exhausted by days of preparation, mainly weaving the bed and toys from wire - lay down naked without a second thought, she says.

However, things became complicated when the gallery owner, Huang Liaoyuan, posted photos on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social networking site.

The nude photos won praise and support, but also provoked criticism - something with which Zhou is all too familiar; at a graduation exhibition in 2010, she presented her porcelain work CBD, in which white buildings resembling organic growths expressed her impressions of the Central Business District, which she first encountered in 2005 when she left her hometown of Changde, Hunan province.

In 2012, she held a solo exhibition of porcelain sculptures - red, oddly shaped objects whose smooth surfaces are disturbed by thick layers of small dots resembling bacteria - at Huang's gallery. Although Zhou's sculptures have been criticized as "unbearable" and "sickening" by viewers and art critics, in 2010 they were collected by the White Rabbit Gallery, a Sydney-based gallery for Chinese contemporary art, and she is the youngest artist to have been given a contract by the Beijing Art Now Gallery.

Zhou says she usually doesn't worry about what people say, or if they feel disturbed by her work: "It's normal that some people will like a piece of art, while others don't. I just work in a way that I feel will create meaningful art. Once the exhibition opened, I had no control over future events or how people would react. That's all this exhibition is about; real life. Everything that happens just happens."

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(China Daily 08/30/2014 page16)