"Because it's good to be reminded that people are children too." (Tang Zhigang, 2004)
As a contemporary artist, Tang Zhigang has thus far experienced a great deal in his unique life. Through an analysis of his works, one may conclude that Tang is a person who can tell rather cold jokes, someone who sees life as amusement and may, at times, behave in a manner akin to his subjects - like an old naughty child. From a very young age, Tang was enclosed within an environment of extreme political bureaucracy. His father was an officer in the Red Army and his childhood spent at the Kunyang Labour farm, where his mother was a prison warden, bestowed upon him a unique introduction to the highly institutionalized world that was to become a prevalent part of his later life. As a solider, art teacher and painter of propaganda for the Political Department of the Army, Tang was exposed to a diverse and often incongruous set of daily activities, yet in his mind the connection between teaching children and political adult meetings is clear.
"Apart from preparing the setting for all kinds of meetings, writing slogans and taking pictures, I was also responsible for the Art Education of the children in the army. So while the adults were "in meeting", their children were raising their hands to answer my questions. It is easy to associate the two scenes."
Throughout his impressively diverse oeuvre, Tang has pondered the general state of mind of modern people, as he blatantly addressed the anxiety and mental pressure overspreading in the contemporary era. Yet through his traditional figures of lively and jolly children, Tang successfully eliminates such melancholy to create a heart-warming scene of ostensible child's play.
In Chinese Fairytale (lot 507), a disturbing yet enthralling sight unfolds. Five children gather in a shrouded room, the innocence of child's play is emphasized by the scattered toys across the floor, yet the scene itself is imbued with a cruel air. As three children look on, one clearly dominant child - his arms flayed and mouth open in aggression - is about to kick a struggling child on the floor in the head, with apparent brutal force. A clear schism is thus visible between the dominator and the dominated, yet the remaining children do not partake in this beating, but rather look on in fear, with detached perplexity and a passive response to do nothing against the brutality they witness.
Tang further emphasizes the strong juxtaposition between the innocence of childhood and the aggressive tendencies of adulthood in his subtle rendition of the children's features and pose. The two outer figures retain their childlike assimilation and innocence, one standing forlornly with his finger in his mouth whilst the other recedes on a chair, sucking at a milk bottle. Both figures appear to hold a desire to be elsewhere, to be away from the terrible scene they witness. The child to the closest right - perhaps the clearest and most facially intriguing character - displays an adult wisdom in his expression and gait, as he gazes with disapproving concern, his shirt confidently hung open and his hands resting in his pockets in a very adult pose. The overly aggressive protagonist displays the childhood symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. His physical appearance is also subtly different from the remaining children with their fine baby hair, as this character's hairline is distinctively adult, aging and receding, thus giving him an unusually and unnaturally mature appearance.
The violent prologue of the scene is further enhanced by the blood-red curtain that dominates the background, whilst the seemingly floating ceiling lamp adds to the iniquitous scene; a pinpoint as our eyes initially overlook this quirky feature as we are drawn to the childhood violence beneath.
This brusque rendition of children and adult themes is most unusual for Tang, who generally plays on humorous subtleties. Tang's extensive experience working as a children's art teacher at the Yunan Art Academy has offered him a unique insight into the social interactions and behavior of children, whereby the artist has been able to draw parallels with the conduct of adults in the numerous meetings he attended throughout his life.
In further consideration of adopting children to present adult themes of politics and hostility, Tang explains:
"[In] reflecting on the general quality of present day politicians, one can hardly relate them to the immaturity and irrationality that is typical of most children. The difference is that children's immaturity is balanced with innocence, while in the adult's case the game is full of deliberations and calculations. Therefore, in the analogy I hope I am not tarnishing the children's images while eulogizing the adult's ones."
Tang's Never Grow Up (lot 508) is a continuation from his depictions of children in meetings. Having spent years observing his student's behavior under a semi-authoritarian setting, it is understandable that Tang drew parallels between their behavior and that of adults in the numerous meetings within the Chinese bureaucratic system that he had attended throughout his life. Is what we see a manifestation of the artist's social inquisition; whereby his work provokes viewers to notice the elements of childish behavior habitually masked in etiquette and seen in adult interaction today?
The overall visual cues presented by the painting are an amalgamation of those questions. The technique in which Never Grow Up is painted brings forth associations with a child's painting in itself whereby paint, too eagerly applied, splashes onto spaces which should not be of a different color; reds mix into greens and the white background is dribbled with red streaks. The patchwork army green curtain looks as though it has sustained damage from wild, overly energized children who may have pulled onto the curtains as they played in the room yet at the same time, it is reminiscent of the frugal living quarters of communist communities. Even though the gleefully singing children themselves are impeccably dressed in their uniforms and presented as if they are members of a professional choir, their faces lack a seriousness of attention and direction. Toys which and the child's chair, a repeated motif throughout Tang's works, scatter this practice room thus indicative of both the children's immaturity and small stature and equally of a commentary on adults of that bureaucratic system who attended meetings in half seriousness.
Straddling a child and adult world, the children of this choir are likely singing a propagandistic Chinese song of sorts, propelling them to grow even fonder and prouder to be a Chinese communist as they spring into pre-adolescence. The expression on their faces however suggests mere reiteration of lyrics, a chance to bellow at a level that would not otherwise be acceptable. It is complimentary to the small toys and a normal childhood experience yet contradictory to their stern uniforms but an otherwise fanciful scene.
The cheerfulness in which Tang paints the young children, casualness presented in the dismissal of strict academic technique and overly precise rendition is exemplary of Tang's own light heartedness and an unruffled approach to his subjects. Over the past decade, one may readily discern that Tang Zhigang has been improving himself, both in painting techniques and in mental thoughts. From the early Child Meetings to the recent Chinese Fairy Tales, the painting techniques he employs are getting increasingly simplified in accordance to traditional Chinese brushwork, but in color composition and arrangement, he is using increasingly more vivid colors combined with an evolution of his skills for watching and understanding people. As Tang Zhigang encroaches into his fifties, he continues to set a cheerful yet thought-provoking example for the establishment and improvement of Chinese contemporary art in this evolving era.