Nangqian temple in Yushu County
Nangqian temple in Yushu County

In his work , Zhao Yao has found a sound and sustainable mode of exhibition that he calls “serial performance.” Born out of his suspicion with regard to all of the formalized complacencies created by contemporary art, the method allows him to engage in ongoing strikes against mechanisms of the exhibition as well as of his own working process.

In “You Can’t See Me You Can’t See Me,” his 2012 solo exhibition at Beijing Commune, Zhao Yao was extreme, nearly exactly copying his 2011 “I Am Your Night.” Some of the same works were made with different material, or with enlarged mass or geometric proportions, while others were borrowed from collectors who had already purchased them, for the purpose of re-exhibition. The show even opened on the same day, one year later. The result of the 2012 exhibition made Zhao aware of the fact that even when an artist does nothing, the audience is still able to enjoy the same thrill that would come with seeing an entirely new exhibition. Worth noting is that Zhao still identifies himself as a member of the media. He is therefore both a creator for and a professional member of the contemporary art audience, and uses his own exhibitions to test out the significance and efficacy of exhibitions themselves, the traditional relationship between artist and audience—formed as it is by the same one-time-only exhibition dynamic. This way of thinking is also extended to his latest solo exhibition, “Spirit Above All.”

In February 2013, Zhao Yao was invited to do a solo exhibition at Pace London. Exhibited are seven eponymous monochrome patterns, taken from a jigsaw puzzle and painted in black, white, and gray in acrylic on denim cloth; 600 black-and-white photographs taken along a highway journey and placed into four different photo albums set down on straw mats in all four corners; and one photograph of a snowy mountain peak temple, also rendered in black and white, airbrushed and pasted together into a wallpaper that informs the tone of the entire exhibition. Other than the foreword’s concise introduction to the exhibition background, limited information is provided about the ins and outs of the events leading up to it, and the audience can only guess at the true story.

“Spirit Above All” exists within a dualistic narrative space: part of its story takes place in February 2013 at Pace London’s Soho Gallery, and the other takes place in another space and time, on the Mayan doomsday. On this day, Zhao Yao took the works to a temple on a snow-capped mountain in the Tibetan town of Yushu to ask the Living Buddha there to bless his work. Nangqian County, where the temple is located, is at the southernmost tip of Qinghai, and the intersection of Tibet and Sichuan. During Zhao’s first visit to this place five years ago, he had the chance to observe the enthronement ceremony of the 9th Chakme Rinpoche. Out on the plateau, in 5,000 meter-high altitudes and at temperatures dropping to twenty below below, the entire journey took 10 days to complete. With each jolt along the way, the paintings were subject to wear and tear. As for how the works were blessed or any other information relating to Buddhism, the artist has visualized none of it here. Zhao did take a full video recording of the 40-minute motorbike ride from the foot of the mountain to its snow-capped summit, but to prevent sounds and colors from interfering with the audience’s imagination, he ultimately decided not to show it.

So as to preserve a sense of mystery—and weaken, to as great an extent as possible, the audience’s romanticized versions of what happened—this is the only “evidence” available to prove that the event truly transpired.
So as to preserve a sense of mystery—and weaken, to as great an extent as possible, the audience’s romanticized versions of what happened—this is the only “evidence” available to prove that the event truly transpired.

The central work comes from Zhao Yao’s “Paintings of Some Thought,” a graphic geometric series on finished fabric (works with the same patterns have also appeared in his two previous exhibitions). Zhao once again engages in self-consumption here, nesting previous experiences in new ones and allowing past and present to influence one another. To a certain extent, “Spirit Above All” can be seen as a derivative copy of Zhao Yao’s last exhibition. He has designed it such that his own works are staged repeatedly, each time with a different “plot” around them, thereby contributing to the continuous growth of one overarching exhibition plan.

Zhao Yao’s creative methods in “Paintings of Some Thought,” defined by a rejection of theme, produce an obvious contrast with Pace Gallery’s typical Modernist bent (i.e. its historical proclivity for Western Abstraction). On the surface, the audience can easily see his abstract painting series as a kind of inevitable material result but this result is not his primary concern. For the most part, Zhao Yao’s creations are all focused on a kind of concept, or on the readymade reactions people have to art. This concept directly rejects the audience’s need for some kind of implicit meaning hidden within the picture plane and forces viewers into a new understanding of abstract art. When the denim of the painting canvas is placed in the context of Western capitalist society, its lasting quality—in addition to the fact that the material itself is wear-resistant—refers to the arduousness of a long trek, and vaguely hints at a tentative probing

of notions of class.

There is also the continued exploration of different levels of artistic creation: first, why do our audiences and collectors demand so much “significance” from art? The standard exhibition’s emphasis on the final product—on the layout of the show itself—restricts our experience to the boundaries of the venue, limiting the audience’s attention to the paintings themselves and not to the guiding concepts behind their forms; this is what made Zhao Yao tire of current exhibition mechanisms, and his repetition of the same series of images is a way of actively rejecting this production of meaning. Next, how is the audience, in its habitually ingrained understanding of contemporary art, influenced by background information, religious beliefs, and political attitudes? Zhao Yao hopes that through the untold stories that lie hidden within his exhibition and the traces and clues he leaves along the way, he can draw his audience into an open dialogue, encouraging them to join actively in discussion of and reflection on these questions.

Zhao Yao was motivated in his decision to use a journey of faith to complete the work, perhaps by a desire to parody the creative behavior of artists who tend to collect “folk artifact.” In his view, artists who take the trouble to go to Tibet, Xinjiang, or the Three Gorges in search of a colorful “destination,” creating with only this purpose in mind, are acting only for the sake of the story, of a topic. In contrast, Zhao uses a purely formalized action, and conducts a test to see whether after “arriving” at the holy place the works truly see any sort of change (non-physical in nature). He “didn’t do a thing, and just brought the paintings out for a walk,” adding more twists and turns to a typically straightforward journey in which works of art move from the studio right to the exhibition space. This group of works was already completed before Zhao set off; their completion had no dependence on their final destination. “Spirit Above All” as an exhibition just operates on a common, basic understanding of Buddhism (as of now the artist has not converted), and takes the Living Buddha’s blessing as its right to establish legitimacy for action. It does this in order to make the audience’s understanding of art in one sense much more rich, and in another sense, much more troublesome.

After taking great pains in his personal experience of pilgrimage, Zhao Yao also began to reflect from a new vantage point upon the meaning of action and upon his own cognizance of contemporary art. When reflective creative activity meets stable, unyielding faith, religion and art together become a parallel kind of faith all their own. Zhao is even willing to believe that these empty patterns, now filled with Buddhist faith, have indeed acquired spiritual power.