Identity crisis

On November 7, 2015, a solo exhibition titled “Death is Going Home”, featuring the works of late Chinese artist, Tao Hongjing, opened at the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. On display was a decade of the Jiangsu-native’s work, with particular attention to and tongue-in-cheek critique of modern Chinese consumerism.

As was announced in the exhibition press releases, Tao had passed away under mysterious circumstances in April earlier that year. At the opening of the aptly titled, “Death is Going Home”, an even more intriguing – and, indeed, even scandalizing – announcement was made.

Tao Hongjing was, in fact, neither Chinese nor dead. The artist who had been working under the Chinese pseudonym and persona of Tao Hongjing was a Nantes-born, French émigré by the name of Alexandre Ouairy.

Ouairy, who assumed the role of Tao Hongjing’s curator and occasional co-exhibitioner, reportedly adopted this Chinese name (borrowed from a fifth century Daoist scholar), Chinese face (that of Ouairy’s Shanghai gallerist), and even Chinese back story (Tao’s exhibit biography details his upbringing under Communist rule) in the early 2000s when the art market in Shanghai proved inhospitable and unprofitable for the non-Chinese artist. The “Tao Hongjing Project” has subsequently been described as an artistic project in and of itself – a meditation on authenticity in the country of fake Prada and knock-off Louis Vuitton.

To call bullshit* on Ouairy’s decade-long performance piece from the outset is perhaps premature. To do so would be a gross under-estimation of not only the highly cosmopolitan nature of China’s urban centres, but also the increasingly international and globalized art market (as evidenced by the massive international demand for Chinese art which initially plagued Ouairy). Moreover, the notion of an ethnically or culturally homogenous “China” that would entirely preclude the white and French Ouairy now or at any point in history must first be thoroughly debunked to appreciate the nuances of Ouairy/Tao’s place in China’s cultural and artistic history.

Nevertheless, there is certainly tension between the undeniable monetary motivations and the purported artistic ones behind the Tao persona. As a white, French artist, Ouairy’s claims to represent so unique a generation’s perspective vis-à-vis Tao is disingenuous at best.

Acknowledging the artist’s right to express their reasoning and process, we have conducted the following double-interview with both Alexandre Ouairy and the not-so-deceased Tao Hongjing, to parse through these ethical grey areas with the artist(s) themselves.

*read: cultural appropriation, yellow face, etc.

THE FINE PRINT: How do your respective backgrounds in Nantes and Jiangsu influence the subject matter or themes of your art? More specifically, how has moving across a vast geographical and cultural distance (Ouairy) as opposed to staying in the region in which you grew up (Tao) affected your work?

ALEXANDRE OUARY: I moved all the time since I was little. So I cannot say that it has a deep influence on my work. I had the chance to live in several countries, and I think I carry the experience I gained every where. The visual explorations I am currently undertaking is the resultant of all of that travelling.

TAO HONGJING: What affected me most were the changes happening in my city and then later on to Shanghai after I moved there. The intensity of which duplicate with the years, the constant state of transformation. This is translated to my work, where more and more a feeling of evanescence grows.

TFP: Both of you often meditate on Chinese society and culture in your work; what are your opinions on how clearly either foreign or local artists can perceive and portray contemporary China?

TH: China is a big country. There are differences between Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Nanjing and so on. They are all a bit unique. To fully portray China would be quite a challenge.

AO: Sometimes being a foreigner allows you to have distance with the country you lived in and somehow makes it easier to understand it. Though, I do think that learning and understanding local language make the perception deeper and more accurate.

TFP: Of course, large metropolitan cities in China such as Shanghai have internationalized significantly over the past few decades; as artists, how much do either of you notice this globalizing trend in the Shanghai art scene?

AO: When I arrived things were different. There were very few public museums, actually only one or two in Shanghai. And most of the galleries were private, so it influenced the type of work that was displayed. Now museums pop up every day. It went from communist-pop with strong cultural characteristics to conceptual work referencing global art history, and you also have more and more shows from international artists.

TH: It’s somehow similar to how it affects society in general. International brands, access to travelling, TV reality shows. We are all getting a bit more similar, consuming the same thing, reading the same news, changing dietary habits to more protein, and so on.

TFP: Could you explain briefly how the themes of consumerism and authenticity in China play into your works?

TH: My work is a look at how consumerism has changed China, from Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform to the real estate bubble. Showing along the way, the things that are not in focus anymore. Or at least for the moment; it might change.

AO: “Tao” was directly influenced by consumerism in the art market, to simply show how it follows trends. It is less about authenticity, because each work is genuine. It is more about image and how we perceive reality.

“Sometimes being a foreigner allows you to have distance with the country you lived in and somehow makes it easier to understand it.”

TFP: Tao, I notice you often utilize neon lights and colours in your works, such as in “To get rich is glorious”, evocative of urban electric advertisements and storefronts. Do you feel that technology and urbanity intersect with artistic production or creative authenticity?

TH: Artists are always influenced by their immediate context; living in a large urban area is an impulse. Some of my works embrace that impulse, and some resist it, like the series “Safety First”, where I use traditional technicals and materials. It all depends on the subject.

TFP: As artists and individuals, how distinct is Tao Hongjing from Alexandre Ouairy? On the flip side, how closely do you identify with Tao?

AO: Tao is a more “pop” than I used to be. Taking that name allowed me to try new things. And it is also a look at my direct environment, living in China and how I react to it. Taking a Chinese name is a common practice for foreigners living here for a while – you are actually given one – and so it became a part of my identity.

TFP: Alexandre, there has been quite a lot of media attention on you/Tao since Tao’s official “death” and the public reveal of his true identity via the “Death is Coming Home” exhibition last November. How accurate or sensationalized do you feel these media depictions of the so-called “Tao Hongjing project” have been? Is there anything that has been left unsaid on this topic that you would like to say now?

AO: Many articles focused on the monetary aspect of the work. First, if it was for the money, it would have been stupid of me to reveal the honey pot.

Secondly, collectors are also acquiring artwork because they find an interest in it. Though it is true that using the name was a trigger, as at that time collectors were focusing on Chinese artists.

The same focus was with media. When doing shows back in Europe, I always managed to bring myself and my nickname, as curators were in the confidence, and most of the media focused on Tao.

I exposed the trend, and my friends, fellow artists, galleries, curators, we were surprised by how it worked. Because it is not something you can do alone, you have to have support and people that understand the full concept to do such a project.

TFP: Tao, it’s rather a rare opportunity to be able to interview a deceased artist. I would, therefore, like to ask, what do you think of your legacy? How would you like your past decade’s worth of work to be remembered?

TH: I hope that people will see its place in contemporary art history. I think it’s in good hands, I see more and more interest from Chinese curators. A the end of last year, Chang Fangyuan curated a retrospective. And currently, some of my work is on display at the Nanjing Contemporary Art Museum, for Silk Road, a great show curating by Wang Yamin.

TFP: Finally, to both Alexandre and Tao: What words of farewell or well-wishes would you like to share?

AO/TH: “再见小子!”


Photography and artwork ALEXANDRE OUAIRY and TAO HONGJING