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Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: Chen Tianzhuo

Talking to Beijing's Tianzhuo, who just did London Fashion Week with GQ then quit fashion to work on a seriously fucked hip hop and voguing opera.
2014-07-29 13:11:30
A few weekends ago, a new exhibition called "PICNIC/PARADI$E BITCH" opened at the Bank Gallery, a charming, dilapidated building on Xianggang Lu – not far from The Rockbund Museum but a world away. The opening night performance featured a man crawling around on the floor with a butt-plug/My Little Pony tail hanging out of his ass and people in heavy makeup pulling apart racks of meat on the floor. The videos projected onto the screens showed two battling, midget rappers tattooed with pot leaves and Buddhist symbols. Another video showed someone going on a "picnic" by taking rips off a bong attached to a space helmet and meeting a Christ-like figure.

The artist is Chen Tianzhuo, better known as Tianzhuo, who at 28 years old just came back from doing a show at London Fashion Week sponsored by GQ and then quit fashion. Before that, he did an "acid party" at a warehouse in Beijing, which attracted 500 people, and then left the trash and everything else at the space completely untouched for a month after the party. What's the point of all this? To find out, I sat down and had a street beer with Tianzhuo at the gallery where his new work is on display until the end of the summer.


SmSh: For people out there who don’t know who you are, can you give a brief introduction?

Tianzhuo: My name is Tianzhuo. I do installation, video, and a little bit of drawing and painting and performance as well. Performance is pretty new, but it’s a nice try for this show. I did my BA in Saint Martins and my MA in Chelsea. I also stayed in London for seven years.

SmSh: Cool, did that have a big influence on your work?

Tianzhuo: Actually I did graphic design in my BA and fine art in my MA. It was pretty free in London you know, like all the artists doing different things. I think that’s a pretty big influence, like finding my [individuality]. I got lots of influence from the rave culture.

SmSh: I was looking back at a lot of your stuff before and it seems to be more like drawings and more visual, but now you’re doing more video. Why the change?

Tianzhuo: I’m getting bored and I just want to try something different. I'm just that kind of person [that] can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. I’m quite easy to get bored.

SmSh: So this newest work, there's PICNIC and PARADI$E BITCH. What’s the difference?

Tianzhuo: I think it’s quite [obvious] from the name, cuz like, the guy who is like tripping, by smoking, it’s like a picnic you know. It’s like go out for like a summer break, do a picnic thing. And that one is quite hip hop you know, there’s lots of "bitch" in hip hop so like, PARADI$E BITCH.

SmSh: Do you listen to a lot of hip hop? Who do you really like?

Tianzhuo: Mykki Blanco, LE1F, Zebra Katz. [They are] really different, they're like gay or transsexual then they do that in hip hop. Between a kind of gangster style and [in other ways] they're pretty sexy. And the girl and the guy from South Africa [Die Antwoord].

SmSh: I can definitely see some of that in your work.

Tianzhuo: Actually those guys have like lots of influence to my work. My work's nows like really related to contemporary things, like sub culture. It’s not pop culture.

SmSh: So this performance...this shit’s pretty crazy. Are you doing this because you want to fuck up the scene and you think that China needs something really crazy and weird like this, or is this just you being you?

Tianzhuo: I never thought about that. I just think that's really cool actually. It's pretty much about the performance itself, it’s about the body, the performance, and the spiritual side of my work. My work is kind of like related to religious ideas. I never thought about that was really shocking for the audience, actually.

SmSh: I think it’s pretty shocking for right now, in Shanghai, yea. I don’t think it would be super shocking for like, New York. What was the audience's reaction to this performance?

Tianzhuo: It’s actually pretty funny I guess. Most people thought that was great but some people felt like, a bit sick. There’s actually two girls crying in the show, they’ve been touched. Some thought it was a bit disgusting. I think it’s cool though. It’s controversial.

SmSh: Yea, definitely. There’s not enough controversial stuff in Shanghai, in music and art. It’s too friendly and marketable.

Tianzhuo: I think we just try to bring something new to the audience. The dancing part at the end, it's voguing. Not many people know about voguing and Butoh dancing. It's still a contemporary Japanese dance, but not many people know about it. Most people never heard about voguing cause it’s only popular in Paris and New York.

SmSh: Okay, so next year there’s gonna be a full opera?

Tianzhuo: Yea, a bit like an opera, like people singing and dancing. Just pure performance.

SmSh: Will that be hard to do in China? I imagine that gonna be a bigger audience and if it’s as controversial as this...

Tianzhuo: Yea yea, it’s pretty hard. I don’t know how to do it, cause I need the money for this as well, to pay for the rehearsal and all the actors and actresses. I think I’m gonna do it in Beijing first, then go for a tour.

SmSh: You’re from Beijing, right? Is Beijing still ahead of Shanghai for art?

Tianzhuo: I don’t know, like Beijing got like more artists, but Shanghai has more museums. I don’t know cause I’m born there so I prefer [Beijing].

SmSh: So I heard that before, you were giving tattoos to people for free? Can you tell us about that?

Tianzhuo: [I'm not doing it anymore] cause I felt annoyed. That actually drive me crazy cuz I’m not that kind of guy replying short messages or email. There were more than 200 people asking for the tattoo. Some of them got my tattoos. About 20.

SmSh: Okay, and they can choose?

Tianzhuo: Yea, I send them a pack, like a 50 or 60 tattoo in the pack, they pick. They can actually change it, it’s more like doing open source.

SmSh: Yea, but it’s a real tattoo? With ink and needles, and you did it yourself? For free? Why?

Tianzhuo: Yea yea yea. I think it’s pretty good you know, like make a circle, like your symbol, your image, actually print to a wider audience. I’m not that kind of like artist letting everything for sale. And also my work is pretty much about religion and those people that got my tattoo is pretty much like a member, a part of the religion. It’s like all the people got the symbol from me, actually, I think that’s [more] effective than [selling] the work to a collector. I give that symbol free. So, they [have that] tattoo on themselves and they part of the crew.

SmSh: Okay, isn’t that kind of like a cult? Like a gang?

Tianzhuo: Yeah yeah, kind of like that, like a cult or a gang [laughs]. It’s almost like worship to a fictional thing.

SmSh: Are you religious?

Tianzhuo: Yea, I’m Buddhist.

SmSh: Cool, definitely a a chill religion. So can you explain how religion fits into this PICNIC work?

Tianzhuo: It’s more about hallucination, about illusion, about like meditation. They smoke for meditation/medication. So that was the point – how to put the religion to the picnic, it’s kind of like meditation stuff, it’s almost like a ceremony, you know, like a cult ceremony. So yea, the dancer was actually dancing in the middle of a halo. The light is like Buddhism or Jesus Christ. It’s got a really strong reference to Christianity, it’s like a crucifixion and the last scene, it’s more like a lamentation, you know, the Virgin Mary holding Jesus' dead body.

SmSh: So in PARADI$E BITCH, the two rappers having the battle, they are kind of representing good and evil?

Tianzhuo: Actually that’s more related to the drama. They actually [rap] battle, they present two different characters from the main character. Evil side/good side. They're more like two guardian angels you know, in the drama. I think it’s pretty twisted to meet a guardian angel [that's an angel] and a gangster at the same time.

SmSh: You said you’re really interested in like, your audiences’ reactions, That’s part of the art, part of the work. Can you talk about that?

Tianzhuo: The last show I did [was] the Acid Club. The most important work is the party itself, the party itself is the work, so like gathering people to the place, the gathering is in the middle of nowhere, it’s really far away from the city.

SmSh: How is that different from just a rave though, how is that actually a work of art?

Tianzhuo: I think that the event's actually a work of art. It’s also [a] kind of religion, you know. You can gather 500 people to come in, so they're all kind of like a fictional member of some kind of fictional religion. They're fanatics.

SmSh: So for these people then, their idea that they’re worshipping is what, the party?

Tianzhuo: Yea worshiping to the party. So after that party also like, the trash from the party. It’s part of the work, so I leave it there for two months, stinking. But after one month, the manager comes in and is like, "you can’t leave it".

SmSh: So no problems with the police doing this kind of party?

Tianzhuo: Uh it’s definitely a problem, but they don’t know that. They just don’t know that, cause it’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s only one gallery in the area, so yeah, they just don’t know it. I was pretty worried about that, on the night, cuz if I got caught, it’s gonna be pretty fucking serious.

SmSh: And so VICE was there also, filming this?

Tianzhuo: Yea VICE was also there. I work with Vice quite a lot, actually

SmSh: So art is all you do, right?

Tianzhuo: Yea, but I still do some commercial jobs. Actually, I’m not really selling good cause my work doesn't really fit with Chinese client types. They want something nice and fancy.

SmSh: Are you into any of that kind of art that’s popular in Shanghai? Like the stuff that’s at the Long Museum?

Tianzhuo: [Laughs]. No no. I just don’t wanna do something that’s really art kind of art, or kind of boring, like abstractive or really conceptual, never connecting with the audience. I wanna do something that’s more sensational or emotional.

SmSh: So you want stuff that’s really gonna connect with the audience?

Tianzhuo: Yea yea I wanna see that. I wanna see [that] kind of emotion. They hate it or they like it, it’s all good. I just don’t wanna like, [make a painting or sculpture] and people see that and just stand in front of it for like two seconds and then walk away. They don't feel anything, they just walk away.

SmSh: But they who went to this performance will remember this performance, for sure [laughs].

Tianzhuo: They maybe hate it, they feel like that was sick, that was disgusting – but I think that’s cool. They actually feel something, it’s better than [feeling] nothing.

SmSh: So most people know you from your fashion work with Shanghai and London Fashion week right?

Tianzhuo: Yea I did, we released our first collection last year in Shanghai Fashion Week. Then GQ magazine asked us to the London Fashion Week so we did that this June.

SmSh: What’s the brand that you worked with?

Tianzhuo: Sankuanz. I collaborated with other fashion designer in London, and I quit after London fashion week.

SmSh: Really, why?

Tianzhuo: Cuz I think I did my best, cause London fashion week is like…you’ve done it. We’ve also done Paris at the beginning of this year. So yeah I think that’s the end of it. Fashion is like consuming. If I keep doing the fashion shit, I think that people are gonna get bored one day so now’s the time to quit, cuz I got London fashion week and I just quit.

SmSh: Are we talking T-shirts or clothing or what?

Tianzhuo: It’s a little like high fashion shit. [laughs]. It’s all about high fashion shit. Most of the audience in Beijing knows about me because of the fashion.

SmSh: So I guess the last question is what’s next for you, you got the opera?

Tianzhuo: Yeah the opera. I quit fashion [because] I don’t wanna spend more time on that. [I'd] rather spend more time on more special things cause fashion is still more commercial. Commercial is okay. Still, when you do that, you have to consider [who's wearing that]. If anyone can wear that, it’s not really interesting to me.

SmSh: Okay, cool, so the opera. Are there gonna be any more performances [for your current exhibition] here?

Tianzhuo: No no. That’s it. Maybe I’m gonna do another in Beijing, beginning of next year.


Tianzhuo's "PICNIC/PARADI$E BITCH" exhibition is running until the end of the summer at the Bank Gallery. You can check out more of his work on his website, and read about his girlfriend Lu Yang's work in another piece we did right here.