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This past summer, Zhao Yao first exhibited his ongoing project The Spirit Above All, 2015-. This piece, spanning 21,500 square feet and assembled from colored cloth, was placed for six months out in the sun on a snowy mountainside in Nangqian, Qinghai, before being shipped back to Beijing, where it was ceremonially installed on the field in Beijing's Workers' Stadium for a day from sunrise to sunset. The work demonstrated Zhao's interest in the spirituality of contemporary life. The same fascination was also evident in "Signals from Heaven, Signals from Heaven," an exhibition composed of nine hutlike sculptures scattered on a salmon-pink office carpet.

Nyingma monks and Tibetan Buddhists in Ganzi and Nangqian use similar wooden huts as private spaces when they go into the mountains in late autumn for spiritual contemplation and self-cultivation. After being exposed to wind and snow, the structures' highly personal and improvised exterior coverings of cloth and plastic have an unaffected beauty, and their simple rectangular box shapes stand for unambiguous individual existences. Inside each of these monuments to contemplation and personal evolution, the artist installed a monitor playing a looped video. The screens show texts transcribed from TED Talks, with stories of the Egyptian revolution, female refugees, or radical jihadists scrolling against a monochrome background whose color is either the red, yellow, blue, or green used in the Google logo, suggesting the subliminal cognition of contemporary life. The talks, with their didactic motivational spirit and emotional wording, are a sort of balm for the contemporary middle-class ache for spirituality, and the huts' narrow spaces--each fits only one person--intensify the talks' effect, so that they somehow become incomplete and listless, losing their original seductive charm. At the same time, what was an extremely private, almost inviolable sacred space has been transformed into a place for contemporary viewership, relaying emotional campaigns promising personal revelations through a connection to the journeys of discovery made by the various speakers. Inside the huts, it was almost impossible to engage in the contemplative activity for which they were built. If collective modes of understanding today can be represented by TED Talks and the trademark colors of Google's logo, what are the chances that the tools of a spiritual practice originating in a very distant time and place and dependent on a spirit of austerity and self-abnegation can renew our cognitive experience? Zhao's juxtaposition of these two distinct realities presents the contradictions involved in pursuing personal value in today's society, where cultural production and regulation act as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action, and where we are unavoidably mired in self-absorption, awkwardly unable to imagine the alternative forms of spirituality we think we're seeking.

Caption: View of "Zhao Yao," 2018. Foreground: Signals from Heaven--Why I love a country that once betrayed me, 2018. Background: Signals from Heaven--How my mind came back to life and no one knew, 2018. Photo: Yang Chao Studio.

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Author:Fuca, Yuan
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Feb 1, 2019
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