Tang was born into a military family and he himself spent several years as a career soldier, working mainly as a painter in the propaganda division of the military in the mid-1990s. Despite this training, Tang is best known for his profoundly un-heroic paintings featuring the more quotidian and banal routines of military life. Like many of his contemporaries, Tang's work addresses the tension between ideology and reality, but his unique personal background allows him added insight into the manners and formalities of institutional life.
He is best known for his stagy and Pop-influenced images of children holding absurdly formal military meetings. The charm of thee scenes is coupled with their insights into the folly of human behavior. "Meetings" moreover are more than incidental or arbitrary settings. Beginning in the Communist era and continuing into contemporary life, the activity of holding meetings has become an unassailable institution consuming bureaucratic life. Tang Zhigang first began to investigate the taken-for-granted formalities of these meetings in an earlier, more realistic series.
Don't Shoot is an exceptional work from this earlier series, wherein the artist himself appears in a strategy meeting with Chairman Mao. For an artist steeped in propaganda training, the work is far from idealized or transcendent. The colors are dark and nearly monochromatic; the handling of the paint is frequently rough and unfinished; the space is ill-defined and chaotic. The Chairman stands beside an advisor, his rifle raised to an unknown target. Tang Zhigang himself is seated beside Mao, somewhat laconically protesting the event.
As with other members of the Chinese avant-garde, one underlying theme of Tang's practice as a painter has been to redefine the traditional relationship between the artist and society. He adopts familiar visual genres, in this case history painting, only to radically re-work and subvert it, producing unidealized representations reflecting their views of contemporary Chinese society. Ironically for Tang, the career soldier, the place of the artist is not one he seems to grant any undue level of heroism.