Tang Zhigang was exposed to an environment of political bureaucracy from a very tender age. His father was an officer in the Red Army and his childhood spent at the Kunyang Labor 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. Unquestionably, such unique experiences have profoundly developed and influenced his artistic expression. In such settings, Tang has evolved an acute understanding of the authoritarian system from the bi-perspective of both the ones who discipline and those being disciplined.
In 'Meeting - Shanghai No.2' (Lot 165), executed in 1999, the artist plays heavily on eastern connotations of the colour red, which is here symbolic of power and authority. The overall, uncluttered setting highlights the highly symbolic image of the 4 figures evidently in a seminar or dictation to an unseen audience, instantly recognizable as one of the numerous meetings previously ingrained in the everyday life of Chinese cadres in the bureaucratic system. The incongruity of white teacups is questionable yet adds a touch of pompous civility to the scene. The long rectangular table and microphone further add to the official, authoritarian vista. Bright red banners hanging in the backgrounds are strangely devoid of slogans. One child stands at the front in traditional Chinese costume, the microphones that flank him are awkwardly too high yet he seems unperturbed, as he clutches his speaking notes and presumably recites a speech, with his other arm emotionally raised in heightened expression. The remaining three children sit behind the table and appear extremely composed and musing, clutching their hands in thought as they listen attentively. All of the children emulate very adult-like poises. On closer inspection of their faces, we see that the boys have been given individual characteristics. The use of a cloth curtain in the background has become a strong motif, spanning Tang's progression as an artist into his Meeting Room series. As a child growing up in communist China, Tang's life was recorded by a series of staged family and official group photographs, most of which were taken against a simple cloth-curtain backdrop. The theatrical-like setting of these photos with it's suggestiveness of forced pretense has been used by various other artists of Tang's generation, including Zhang Xiaogang, as a means to portray important cultural commentary of that epoch.
1998 was the time of Tang Zhigang's first important transformation, as the frankness and exposure of Adult Meeting was replaced by the humor and innuendo of Children's Meeting. Yet one is left to ponder why Tang has chosen to replace the adults with children? Is this simply a clever device used to satirize an era? Tang has retorted that the children he depicts are the "successors of socialism". Certainly, with children as the subject matter and the added element of humour, the artist is permitted to broach certain topics that would otherwise be considered taboo. Such scenes would lack the now present humour if the children had been grown up; it would have been less amusing if the bureaucratic structure depicted was the one we agreed with. The innocence of the joke is in children playing up to be serious, but yet the darker aspect of the satire is in the fact that evidently serious affairs are being handled like child's play. This is perhaps the strongest covert message that Tang's works offer, and a factor that certainly adds an undercurrent of sadness at the fun-poking scenes;
"Compared with the works of other painters, my series of "Children in Meeting" is more likely to arouse sympathy simply because of its tinge of realism. No matter how I simplify my pictures to get rid of unnecessary details, my ideas will still be there." (Tang Zhigang)
Perhaps, as Tang has also stated, the children are used to represent "a certain stage in life, where they either have stopped growing or are waiting to do so." Undoubtedly, 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 behaviour 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. The similarity he draws between child and adult behaviour he highlights by expressing that, while the adults were sitting in meetings, the children would attend the art classes and 'raise their hands to answer [his] questions' (fig.1). We may perhaps conclude that Tang has found in his interactions with children many of the shortcomings which grow more evident when one becomes adult; his works seems to express his revelation that whilst some infantile anti-social traits have been disguised in the grownups behind a diplomatic curtain of polite decourum, they are otherwise still prevalent, if only latently so.
It is perhaps Tang's past military experiences that compelled him, as a painter of propaganda for the Political Department of the Army whilst serving in Vietnam, to eschew the much encouraged Socialist Realist style with social cause and egalitarianism, thus offering more humanistic depictions of soldiers performing menial every day tasks, as seen in his earlier works. Tang's many years of serving in the PLA have given him more than adequate license to use his aesthetic vocabulary as commentary on the scenes that he knows all to well.
"My earlier painting activities in the military may be compared to growing flowers and plants. I was actually cultivating myself. Today, my "Children in Meeting" is based more on "strategy" or "pre-meditated plans". Variety is created for the sake of variety; hence art history is being made outside of economic and cultural development. My earlier works are sincere or "good", and my present ones are "successful". My earlier works have served their purpose; they are healing, soothing and down-to-earth. My present works are worrisome, unconfident and unsure as to where they may lead. Every day I think about further expansion." (Tang Zhigang)