Many faces of Facebook founder

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 29, 2013

Artist Zhu Jia, a pioneer of video art in China, is unabashed about calling his recent work, The Face Of Facebook (2011-2012), a one-of-a-kind piece of art. And his claim does not ring hollow.

The work, on show as part of his first solo exhibition in Singapore, comprises 67 portraits of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, rendered in mediums ranging from oil painting to photographic print.

The scale of the work, with the portraits assembled like puzzle pieces, is enthralling; they occupy almost half of the wall space at ShanghART gallery at Gillman Barracks.

The repeated image also raises a curious observation: Each portrait is distinct in style and seems to be from the hands of different makers.

Indeed, Zhu requested more than 50 acquaintances and friends, including art auction darlings such as Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang, to each make works of art based on a picture of Zuckerberg published in a 2010 New Yorker magazine.

Zhu, 50, says in Mandarin: "I did not invite them to participate in my work. This is my work, I am the artist, and I asked them to each make something."

He adds half-jokingly: "It was like assigning primary school pupils homework and getting them to hand it in."

He further exerts his right as the artist by keeping the maker of each portrait anonymous, and he pushes things to the limit by selling the 67 portraits as a single work for $700,000. There are four other works in the show, priced from $10,000.

In his straight-talking manner, he says: "I am in no way challenging collectors, but I am challenging the rules of the game in art and politics."

By spurning conventions of production, authorship and the art market, he turns the innocuous genre of portraiture into a conceptual realm for rethinking networks of power and social relations.

He has no interest, though, for his work to be a comment on the ban of the online networking platform in China. He dismisses it, saying: "You can leap over the Great Firewall to use Facebook in China, it's not a big issue."

What compelled him to use Zuckerberg's visage was the ingenious title of the New Yorker feature on the Internet billionaire, which the artwork shares, and the striking photograph of the Web entrepreneur's head in profile that accompanied the article.

Zhu says: "It reminded me of images of high-powered figures, men like Mao Zedong or the face of Caesar on a coin."

Just as powerful visuals inspire the conceptual artist, he also creates them. An example is his monochrome photographic series, Did They Have Sexual Relation? (1995).

The seminal work, which is exhibited here, comprises eight pictures where a signboard asking the touchy question in Chinese is posed next to random couples on a street in China.

This forceful confrontation of a sensitive subject in public is all the more shocking because it was raised at a time when privacy was repressed in Chinese society.

As with The Face Of Facebook, however, he is not motivated by a critique of the larger social-politics of this work. For him, it was simply an opportunity to push the limits of subjectivity to the extreme and reconsider how accusations can impose truth.

He says: "Artists cannot change the world. I only do what I can, which is respond to situations in life through art."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 29, 2013

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