Born into a military family in 1959, Tang Zhigang experienced an unusual childhood—he grew up at the Kunyang Labor Farm, run by his mother who was a prison warden there. As a result, Tang sees the human condition with open eyes, incorporating into his funny, provocative paintings the sense of both those who are punished and those doing the punishing. Much of his work stems from actual experience; as part of his military duties—Tang spent twenty years in the army, from 1976 to 1996—the artist painted pictures of the soldiers close to the front of hostilities between China and Vietnam. His highly recognizable treatment of public scenes, populated by children in adult uniforms and positions of power, is also the result of experience; one of his jobs was to teach art to the children of military families. It makes sense, then, that Tang would use children as a form of satire, undermining the military's penchant for pomp and endless meetings. Tang's pictures are that much more striking for their inclusion of small children taken up with very adult activities, some of which must stem from Tang's own involvement in the army's propaganda division. The little children, barely older than toddlers, drink tea and sit importantly behind cloth-covered tables. Beyond the patent humor of these renditions of military life, there is something a little dark or troubling.
But one might ask, with some degree of justification, why Tang populates his canvases with the images of children at meetings so clearly derived from the experience of adult activities. Does his conceit effectively render a criticism of institutionalized life, or is it an attempt at a comic vision, not without its sharp insights but basically a tribute to the absurdity of life? Somehow there is something deeply serious about Tang's renditions of infants at work; we look upon the incongruities of their actions with a jaundiced eye of our own. The relations, then, between the image-maker and the image, report on the common tendency of people to see not only from an adult point of view but also from a childlike perspective, which allows us to infantilize to some extent the activities Tang registers in his art. Yet, from an institutional point of view, we see Tang's tableaus as serious necessities. The tension between the two outlooks is key to Tang's outlook; indeed, his achievement rests on the gap between the toddler's age and the functions they are portrayed as performing.
Given Tang's involvement in the military, a span of two decades, it becomes clear that the particulars of his children's activities ring true as nearly ritualized symbols of adult responsibility. It doesn't matter so much what is being discussed in Tang's paintings, only that the meeting itself is held in proper military style. Tang often populates his pictures with the playthings of children: toy trucks and trains, balls and dogs. This imagery has its origins in earlier work from the mid to later 1990s, when Tang engaged in a series entitled "Adults in Meeting." While the arrangements of adults in the previous group of works often mimics what happens in Tang's later works of art, he sets some distance between his intentions and the use of children—he denies that the use of children allows him to make satirical points without offending authorities. Clearly, Tang's experiences are central to his art, yet his implicit plea for the autonomy of the imagination seems true to our experience of his art. In addition to all the political meaning we load the paintings with, it looks like Tang is given over to whimsy—an attitude that sees play as a natural element of art. Of course, because we tend to see the child as possessed of an innately whimsical imagination, we tend to view paintings incorporating children as inherently light-hearted and good humored. Yet the meetings themselves take on an absurd light because of the children participating in them; there is a tension between the actors and their activities.
Tang's Horse, an oil on paper dating to 1998, offers a simplified treatment of the animal, which exists as an image on a hanging cloth and is framed by bright red curtains. The horse is painted in black, with the exception of its erect organ, which extends outward and is painted a hot pink. This provocative picture presents an image from childhood: Tang remembers seeing horses with erections on the rural prison grounds he was familiar with. By portraying the horse as a painting on cloth, the artist introduces a degree of distance; we are looking at a representation of a representation. Like his portraits of baby bureaucrats, the meaning of Horse is a bit obscure, especially because the red curtains painted as framing the painting remind us of official auditorium halls. By staging an early memory in a bureaucratic setting, Tang engages in a playful mixture of eros and sobriety. The two kinds of existence aren't exactly meant to mix; yet they do in this oblique, idiosyncratic picture.
In Tang's other painting, an image from 2000 in the Children in Meeting, we see eight small boys, each dressed in an identical uniform, black shoes, and white socks. The similarity of what they wear is undercut by the very different faces of the children, four of whom sit on covered chairs in the front row and four of whom stand behind them. The boys' heads are much too large for their small bodies, adding a bit of absurdity to the picture's general deviance from the usual. A stick, a ball, and two toy cars litter the red carpet that extends to the painting's foreground. As a practical exercise in illogic, this painting communicates some of the irrational order that prevails in photographic images taken of groups, particularly when the members of the group are representative of the military or other governmental bureaucracy. These small boys wear the clothes of adults, yet their world, as seen in the objects Tang has chosen to portray them with, is resolutely childlike. The social commentary is more than clear: these are boys doing a man's job. Or, conversely, a bureaucracy is only fit for children. In either case, a sense of incongruity prevails, resulting in an entertaining disconnect between the official and the actual.
No matter his disavowals, Tang's sly methods enable him to document the world as he has known it, with the risible subverting heavy authorizations of power.
Children in Meeting (Lot 25), on the face of it a droll study of children sitting behind banquet tables, manages to express the absurdity of a state meeting or celebration by populating the image with pictures of very young boys in uniform, each with the requisite glass of tea. Toys litter the landscape; the viewer looks upon miniature versions of a car, a truck, even a dog. Tang insists on the integrity of the children's world, even as they present themselves as being in thrall to an adult's life. Five children sit behind three tables covered in red cloth, an image repeated three times, one table above the other. Somehow the environment is believable, probably because Tang pays close attention to the children's faces, each of which differ markedly from the others. The semblance of realism is seductive; we almost believe the magic realism of the painting. But Tang is using his imagery to undermine the seriousness and self-importance of those attending adult meetings in a bureaucracy, the military included. In a parody of the truism "boys will be boys," Tang makes it clear that our childishness cannot be chased away by a uniform or grand furnishings. It is a lesson, sadly, that each generation fails to learn.
Oil on canvas
Duisburg, Museum Küppersmühle Sammlung Grothe
Rome, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea
Budapest, Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art
Palma de Mallorca, La Longa, ChinArt, 2002-04
220 by 299cm. 86 5/8 by 117 3/4 in.
Hanart TZ Gallery & Galerie Enrico Navarra, Eds., Meeting in Painting: Tang Zhigang, Hong Kong & Paris 2004, p. 91, illustrated in colour
Schoeni Gallery, Hong Kong.
Sotheby's London, 14 October 2006, lot 38.