Between 2013 and 2016, Zhao Zhao collected a number of colonial-era safes from Tianjin and Shanghai. He was intensely interested in their production. Why were they needed? What caused such insecurity? Zhao Zhao recreated these safes in solid marble of similar size and scale. He had stripped the safes of their functionality, retaining only their solemn and dignified appearance. In a similar approach, he reconstructed a cheap, disposable lighter as a work of ornamental jade, spending a tremendous amount of time and resources in order to detach the spirit from the object, thus elevating it to a new dimension beyond its practical, basic purpose. From that point on, everything it represented entered into a new realm.
In August 2015, a major explosion rocked the city of Tianjin. Zhao Zhao, a born documentarian, was one of the first to arrive at the scene. He returned with a piece of broken glass from the impact of the explosion, taken from a residence not far from the epicenter, where now only scattered piles of broken glass remain as evidence of this tragic failure of public safety and institutional governance. The artist recreated the fragments of glass in copper plates. A technically difficult process, the making of Fragments required an entire year of cutting and polishing. For Zhao Zhao, the transformation of the original glass from the explosion site into an everyday industrial object, combined with its aesthetic similarity to Chinese bronze, with its green patina, was symbolic of historical and temporal impermanence. Perhaps the act of erecting this monument from afar can stand in for the painful suffering of reality.
Zhao Zhao did not stop there. He went on to create several works on canvas using classical brush techniques. Fragments of broken glass were recreated as strokes of clear and realistic lines with exacting precision. He then erased the details of these fragments, leaving only a rough silhouette against a deep blue or pure white background, like weeds in a wilderness, a mysterious trace of what was once there. When the visual image fails to fall into place, it triggers anxiety and uncertainty, which then quickly disperses. Zhao Zhao named this work Untitled.
The Fragments series has its origins in a traffic accident Zhao Zhao experienced in 2007. In the accident, the artist hit the windshield with his head, leaving a permanent mark. The accident was a revelation for him on the art of living. Zhao Zhao saved a piece of the broken windshield, and inspired by its form, began a technically transformative process, a commemoration in stainless steel. Soon afterwards, Zhao Zhao exhibited the series Constellations in New York and Beijing. For this series, he shot various forms of glass with a rifle, looking to create fragments within the glass while maintaining its whole. In China, where guns are strictly banned, his artistic approach was both sensitive and violent. Under his deliberate control, the bullet paths resembled moments of tender aching, like the twinkling of stars or the blooming of flowers.
The dissipation of meaning and the transformation of materials to create the possibility of new states of existence are the threads that run throughout Zhao Zhao’s exploratory thinking. The fragmented glass from various circumstances in Fragments, the paintings that arose from them in Untitled, the production and employment of Safes, and the unique functions of Lighters, all point to issues of safety and the sense of security. Today, these four series appear together in the same exhibition space, complementing each other in a discourse on the systemic sources of our “sense of security”: the accidental encounters of the individual, the provocative intervention of the artist, and the remnants of a public disaster all come together to form a chain of evidence forged from the state of one object to the next. This chain of evidence illuminates the predicament of existence we experience in past and present—the turmoil and restlessness of the people, the individual sense of powerlessness in response to danger, the universal absence of security produced by a nation’s system, history and awareness.
Born in 1982 in Xinjiang, China, Zhao Zhao graduated from the Xinjiang Institute of the Arts in 2003 and later attended the Beijing Film Academy. The former assistant to Ai Weiwei and now regarded a significant figure among the young Post-80s generation of contemporary Chinese artists – Zhao Zhao’s work is often associated with anti-authoritarian or non-conformist tendencies, renowned for confronting existing ideological structures and exercising the power of individual free will in his work. His provocative, multidisciplinary artistic practice has garnered him international attention in recent years with critically-acclaimed exhibitions across China, North America and Europe as an ‘artist to watch’.