Culture Whisper Interview: Zhu Tian
The 2015 Catlin Art Prize winner talks clingfilming herself to curators, art as a great excuse for being bonkers and breaking the money taboo
In the wake of Marina Abramovic's iconic The Artist is Present at MoMA and Shia LaBeouf jumping on the performance band wagon with #IAMNOTSORRY, we sat down with Zhu Tian to discover her tricks of the trade and why she's decided to reveal her bank account for the rest of her life...
You describe your work as a ‘hiccup’, what do you mean by that?
A hiccup is an unexpected interruption and inappropriateness. It can instantaneously undress you of all your social garments. It's ephemeral but can be powerful. I want my work to be like a hiccup: something to rupture the automated behaviour and ideological habits of robotic individuals; to strip them back to the basics. But I think my work describes me rather than the other way around, and I don’t know so much about myself. I’m patiently waiting to find out more.
Cling To A Curator (2015), Photograph
Your work really pushes the boundaries, how do you resolve that with your traditional background at the Royal College of Art?
The most traditional factor about the RCA is probably the name. What we do there nowadays is very much contemporary. The fact that they let me in is a good example. I didn’t come from a traditional arts education background – my undergraduate degree was in Economics.
Recently we've spotted you clingfilming yourself to curators...
With Cling To A Curator the plan is to use cling film to bind myself to all the curators I will have worked with in 2015 – the first year after graduating from art college. In January I made the first with Zavier Ellis (curator of Young Gods at Charlie Smith London), and soon I'll be doing the second one with Laura Tori Petrillo (Art Brussels). The third will be with Justin Hammond at the Catlin Art Prize show in May! It's all about the desperate state of being a young artist and their codependent relationship with curators. Plus, it’s fun to do bonkers things like that in a very serious work context, especially when you’re not drunk - art is a great excuse. Try it for yourself next time!
Trust Me (2013, Performance
What about a work like 'Trust Me'? Was there an element of Marina Abramovic and Ulay's collaboration?
The decision to have a male and female player was the most neutral set up I could possibly arrange, although it might still have certain implications...It’s about two individuals testing and engaging with ideas of trust and social politeness. I was intrigued to find out how the basic sensation of a human being - pain - could overthrow these conventions. As for Marina Abramovic and Ulay...I really admire some of their collaborative work like The Great Wall Walk, in particular. I’m very jealous of the kind of relationship they had between them.
You’ve received perhaps the most attention for 'Babe', the silica gel shoes woven with human hair
Yes, ELLE China invited me to create a work using a pair of Dior’s stilettos. But, instead of celebrating them, I thought - are they sexy? Or are we ‘told' they are sexy? By creating this stiletto-shaped sculpture with skin-like texture and human hair, I was deconstructing the femininity and sexual appeal of high heels and hopefully reminding people that there is an alternative reading of them!
Babe (2013), Rubber, Human Hair, Pigment
Do you see yourself as a feminist artist?
I’m not sure if I can call myself a feminist. In fact, having grown up as part of a patriarchal culture that favours male offspring over female, my gender sensitivity is quite ambiguous and messed up.
Your recent work Money is going to last your entire life, what do you hope the response from the public will be?
Money is a lifetime performance piece where, on the first of every month until the day I die, I’ll be publishing on my website a report of all the money I possess at that time. And anyone can contact me to request a copy of my bank statement.
When I decided to do it, I was simply curious to see what relationship money has with our lives. Obviously, I’m an artist, but artists are just like anyone else: we need money to survive; we struggle without it and enjoy its power when we have it. Money is such a taboo subject - but money matters. So let’s talk about it! Let me be the first idiot to break the rule. Let’s find out what kind of disaster will happen to the moron who tells everyone how much money she has.
I feel I will live to regret it and I’m prepared for that.
Hiccup (2014), Polystyrene, Fibreglass, Paint, Vinyl
A lot of your work is very visceral and physical - what interests you about art and the body?
Ultimately, I am seeking freedom. Art is the one thing I can think of that has the fewest dos and don’ts, and I’m naturally attracted to art for that. The body is just one of the tools that everyone has, it’s easily accessible and free. But secretly, I hate my body: I think it’s a cage that limits me and represents me falsely.
Which artists influence you?
I don’t have any particular role models, but I do have artists that I’m crazy about. I’m definitely a groupie of Francis Alÿs, and I love Bruce Nauman, Martin Creed and Tehching Hsieh. I wish Michael Landy’s work Break Down was mine (Landy famously made an inventory of everything he owned and then destroyed it). And I wish I could draw like Tracy Emin and talk like Grayson Perry (and look like Tilda Swinton)!
Scan (2014), Screen Print on Vinyl
Is the relationship between artist and audience crucial in your work?
In 2014, I was involved in a group exhibition in Vienna. With no prior warning, 30 minutes before the opening I placed a tall black plinth in the centre of the exhibition space and tied myself to a chair on top of it. I invited the audience to interact with me in any way they wished, but my genuine intention, which I didn’t reveal, was to test out how other artists would react.
In the end, an anonymous artist or artists made complaints to the organizers about the intrusion and they had to tell me not to do the performance on opening night. So, I came back the next day and performed in an empty space, outside the exhibition venue, with no audience.
Of all the other Catlin Art Prize nominees, whose work are you most intrigued by?
All of them, I’d say. I have learnt to be diplomatic from being around the British…
What are your plans for the future?
To keep myself alive and making art.
You'll find Zhu Tian at the Catlin Art Prize exhibition at Londonewcastle Project Space, 8th - 30th May 2015. Click here for the Culture Whisper preview for the Catlin Art Prize 2015.