Artist Tu Hongtao debuts in New York.

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Born in 1976, the year of the Dragon according to the Chinese zodiac, artist Tu Hongtao welcomed the fifth Dragon Year of his life with an exhibition at Levi Gurvi Dayan, marking his New York debut.

Known for his visual depictions of dense cityscapes full of bodies, Tu Hongtao developed his distinctive style in the early 2000s after a brief stint in the textile business in Guangdong province, where he himself He witnessed the madness and immorality of a society. Urbanization and globalization.

For the next decade, Tu maintained a studio on the outskirts of his hometown of Chengdu, and sought solace in nature, poetry, and classical Chinese art. His earlier critique of consumerism and unbridled desire turned into introspective, psychologically charged scenes that became increasingly abstract.

The covid years marked the latest evolution of the style, which is shown in Tu’s current show, “Beyond Babel.”A general reference to the Bible story, as well as a literary reference to George Steiner’s linguistic treatise After Babylon: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975), the mythical tower stands as a symbol of a new language in an age of technological progress.

Installation view of Tu Hong Tao’s exhibition “Beyond Babylon” at Levy Gurvi Dayan

“I feel that the new Tower of Babel is artificial intelligence,” Tu said in an interview with gallery co-founder Brett Gorvey. “Man has advanced technology and restored world unity and global communication. But how long can the world system and our current social ecology last?”

This is reflected in Tu’s experiences during the Covid lockdown in China, which prompted him to question the use of technology in social control. While such technology emphasizes the accuracy of transforming individuals into digital data, just as AI aims to achieve a high degree of simulation accuracy, Tu Hongtao seeks the opposite—of ambiguity and uncertainty. Definition that is distinctly human.

For the artist, this poetic uncertainty is where creative freedom lies, and it is also part of the reason why Tu has turned to abstraction.

“Tu Hongtao is a highly trained artist who combines a deep understanding of traditional imagery with a powerful gestural expression. Commenting on Tu’s painting “Language”, Gurvi said, “I am proud to be Chinese in my identity. However, they strive for an international language that can be understood globally.

To Hong Tao, The Perverted Garden of Eden2020-23. Photo courtesy of Tu Hongtao Studio and Lévy Gorvy Dayan.

A highlight of the exhibition, the monumental, three-panel composition The Perverted Garden of Eden (2020-23) shows the artist’s process, in which he covers an initially figurative composition with suggestive lines and layers of color. The piece, three years in the making, also chronicles Tu’s emotional turmoil and creative challenges throughout the pandemic. He almost gave up painting twice. The many sheep that appear are a playful reminder of the era, playing on the homophonic nature of the Chinese word for “sheep” (Yang) and “positive testing.”

On the eve of his inaugural exhibition in New York, we chatted with Tu Hongtao about his latest creations, his reflections on the Covid years, and his outlook on the world.

Installation view of Tu Hong Tao’s exhibition “Beyond Babylon” at Levy Gurvi Dayan.

How was your experience during the pandemic years?

My city, Chengdu, had intermittent lockdowns. We had to vaccinate because without the vaccine, my child could not go to school and then after a few days of school, classes would be closed again. In the first two years, people’s values, as well as their emotions, were all battered. Starting from the third year, especially in the final stages of preparation for the exhibition, I felt that people’s immunity was slowly recovering. Last October, I had a conversation with some artists from Nanjing and Beijing, and it seemed that everyone was more or less the same. Our values ​​were confused.

During that time, were you able to go to your studio? Are you inspired and inspired to paint?

For almost two months I was locked in my studio by myself. Creation came in stages. This was especially evident with the large painting. [The Corrupted Garden of Eden] It took three years to complete. In the beginning, I was very emotional and painted for two or three months, then suddenly I lost the desire to paint and left it there for half a year before I felt the desire to continue painting. It was like adjusting to a new time zone, sometimes my eyes couldn’t focus. In the second year I got so angry at one point that I tore the canvas with a stretcher. Later, I made a new frame and stretched the canvas over it before finally finishing the painting. It was a process that happened in stages.

Installation view of Tu Hong Tao’s exhibition “Beyond Babylon” at Levy Gurvi Dayan.

Can you tell us more about Babylon and how it became the theme that tied the show together?

The Tower of Babel has stirred many thoughts in me. On the one hand, it represents universality, as if everyone has a common dream. But today that dream seems to have been shattered or, rather, shattered. The reality is going in the exact opposite direction. On the other hand, the Tower of Babel comes from a book by George Steiner. After BabylonIn which he questioned the language of technology and consumerism. In the book, Steiner argues that language has become like advertising, losing many of its original implications and experiences about humanity. Today, technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and Scientism has become a collective Tower of Babel. Steiner felt that language could protect humanity’s collective unconscious from the tumult of reality. And I agree with that.

You mentioned that consumerism, including the commercialization of language, has been an important theme of your work. Is that still the case?

Before 2010, I would have directly criticized or ridiculed consumerism. Later, I moved on from it. At the time, consumerism was indeed a dilemma, and today I feel that this dilemma may have arisen rather than from technology and technocracy. I want to find a more personal visual logic. Influenced by poetry and philosophy, I feel that unstructured forms are more pure, so I have gradually moved towards abstraction.

Abstraction is an attitude. AI can do a better job of reflecting things. Abstraction, like poetry, is inherently indeterminate. Technologies like AI are moving towards certainty. The larger the data set, the more accurate it becomes, whereas human thought and language are uncertain and infinite. On the surface, abstraction seems vague, but in reality, it is more accurate. Like poetry, the mood they create is more apt, though not definitive or quantitative. In this sense, abstraction is actually more accurate.

To Hong Tao, Melancholic Neuschwanstein2023. Photo courtesy of Tu Hongtao Studio and Lévy Gorvy Dayan.

Is this attitude rooted in an understanding of classical Chinese culture?

I have spent a long time studying and understanding classical Chinese culture, as well as being familiar with Western and post-war culture, trying to blend the two. However, overall, I lean more towards the classical and spiritual. I’m not really interested in the materialism that the West often focuses on. Chinese classical culture has its own problems. It later hardened and closed. When the classical spirit faces today’s realities, after learning and understanding a lot about Western art, can Chinese art release a new kind of feeling and perspective, this is my concern and practice.

Are you worried that doing more abstract work will make your work less recognizable?

I’ve been quite confident lately because I’ve found the sense of abstraction of rhythm and lines to be very unique. Western artists may have more experience with lighting, so they are good at colors and layers. If I move in the direction of color blocks, it will be difficult to break out of a really contemporary context. I have come to value lines more and more. Especially the paintings above, they are representative of my latest developments. They are powerful and energetic, and I believe that painting as a language can surpass other human languages.

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