Near and far, countries guard against the image of their military, always ready to hold in their grip the profile of military armament and discipline that registers their international status. China sees no exception; and since 1942 when Mao Zedong designated "soldiers, workers and peasants" as the major theme of art, the public image of military men was molded more or less in the same way - some "tall, imposing and red" proletariat heroes. What people saw in paintings, then, are only the beams of victory amidst bloodshed and war. Since 1980s a military image "at odds" emerged under the paintbrush of Tang Zhigang, an artist dwelled in the military tank for more than 20 years. In his paintings soldiers linger in teahouse, drinking, smoking, and reading newspapers. They go to the infirmary; they wash faces, brush teeth and fetch water. These images, though "at odds", are but a close shot of the private, hidden lives of the soldiers, or say the suppressed, forbidden descriptions of these men in art.
Tang got ahead with his Adults in Meeting series in 1996, which features the marathon meetings in the army and the inattentive attendants who apparently feel bored and aimless. In 1999 the Adults in Meeting evolves into the Children in Meeting series, and the artist, in response to the remodeling, remarked: "When asked about the motive behind the working of 'Children in Meeting', my normal reply is to avoid someone fitting himself into the criticism, if there is any, or even worse, hassling me for this cause." Even though Tang accounts for the birth of Children in Meeting by such simple note of avoiding trouble, it is evident that the "Children" series fleshes out what the "Adults" conveys, and expresses more trenchantly the embedded spiritual tenor through a humorous, ironical discourse.
Children in Meeting (Lot 1377), a work of Tang featured in this spring sale, portrays the scene where three children in dark green military uniform sit behind a workbench with red cloth. In front of the two or three-year-olds are the microphone and the white porcelain cups that, echoing the setting of the "Adults" series, remind us of the Chinese society of the time. Still more noteworthy, the large white cloth hanging behind the children has its presence in Tang's earlier works: in Ar (1992) and Horse (1996) it separates the "internal" and "external", "private" and "public" spaces; later in Adults in Meeting series it separates the official attendants and the civilians in outdoor meeting. The cloth is a visual partition of spaces - it is, indeed, a partition of human souls. Hardly soundproof, it signifies a pageant of power disguised as a discussion on the People's welfare. In Children in Meeting the white cloth assumes yet another implication: it backs the centerpiece just like the backdrop of a stage or a studio, adding a tint of theatricality to the picture and hence an innuendo on China's political meeting: however real the setting seems, the meeting is no more than a performance - a collective one in China's case, which stages endless showings.
Looking genuinely innocent and na?ve, the facial expressions of the children seem out of place in the theme of political meeting; the military uniform worn by these little ones becomes, for its solemnity, a soundless satire. Scattering on the ground, the ball and toy car reveal the infantile love of fun, and the empty bleacher makes plain the lack of partisan for the meeting. A child prepared his speech to no avail, except perhaps the two wandering minds on his sides.
"My earlier works are sincere and "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." - Children in Meeting, Tang Zhigang (2004)
The Children in Meeting series certainly provokes laughter, but as Johnson Chang, the renowned curator and art critic, comments, "it will not elicit hearty laughter if the bureaucracy under farce is well received." The series expresses Tang's anxiety over political and social reality, an anxiety that stretches from the societal realm to that about life and existence, which are highlighted in the Chinese Fairytale series. In Chinese Fairytale (Lot 1377) the artist leaves a toddler roaming in a dangerous environment, the seaside. The curious boy, naked and unattended, casts aside his toy car and stumbles to the sea, seemingly in search for something new and more interesting. Through Chinese Fairytale the bond between youth and fearlessness is substantiated. Fairytale is all together fictional and everlasting in human culture. The name of this series demonstrates how the bravery revealed is inherited and yet doubtful. If human never grows, then perhaps our innate courage can sustain. Passing from the solemn backdrop of political meetings to the bright and simple outdoor scene in Chinese Fairytale, Tang lays his archetypal motif on the line: to scrutinize the profound philosophical questions against a supposedly humorous and lovely background.