In the early 1990s, when Chinese contemporary art was just beginning to take off, a young painter here named Zhou Tiehai (
He would succeed by beating the art market at its own game, exposing its commercialism while exploiting it to the hilt. He would produce paintings that he hoped would be acclaimed by the same Western collectors and journalists who, in his mind, had advanced the careers of too many mediocre Chinese artists.
And he would do all this without lifting a brush: He would delegate that work to hirelings.
Somehow, he pulled it off. Zhou is now one of China's hottest artists. His meteoric rise from marginalized rebel to mainstream superstar culminated in a solo exhibition of his works at the Shanghai Art Museum in March.
Many of the biggest names in Chinese contemporary art were on hand for the opening. Zhou choked up with tears, seemingly awed by the lofty stage he had ascended.
For more than a decade, his work has mocked the art scene. In an era when every leading Chinese artist seems to have a recognizable brand, a series of obvious signature pieces, Zhou slyly appropriated Joe Camel from the American cigarette ads and transformed it into his own improbable brand. (Many people here refer to Zhou -- pronounced Joe -- as the Joe Camel guy.) Now important collectors boast of owning his paintings. His works, which command prices as high as US$100,000, have been shown in New York, London and at the Venice Biennale.
That he doesn't paint them himself seems to make little difference, even, or perhaps especially, to those clued in to his game. Karen Smith, a Beijing-based art critic, calls him "the child who dares to suggest the emperor is indeed naked." Others hail him as a marketing genius.
"The fact that he doesn't paint much doesn't bother me," said Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China and a major collector of Chinese contemporary art. "Jeff Koons doesn't touch anything. Bridget Riley has workers. It's accepted today. It doesn't have to have traces of your own hand."
In an interview in his studio here, Zhou, 39, said that what was most important was the concept behind the work.
"You need to get someone's attention," he said, sipping tea as three of his workers busily sketched and painted (sometimes with air brushes) a variety of portraits he had first drafted on computer. Typically Zhou comes up with an idea -- for example, transposing the head of Joe Camel onto a classical European painting, which he then executes on his computer using Photoshop. After that, staff members take over, using a printout of the image as a guide.
When Zhou recounts the story of his own improbable rise, he can't help chuckling, as if the joke were on the foreign collectors and journalists now flocking to his studio.
"From the beginning I knew I'd be successful," he said. "It's really not that hard to create art."
Although he doesn't paint anymore, Zhou says that he can. He grew up in Shanghai and in 1989 earned an arts degree from the School of Fine Arts at Shanghai University.
While in college, he painted and created collages on discarded newspapers. As Beijing's avant-garde movement got under way in the late 1980s, he formed his own circle of artists here and even experimented with performance art.