Zhao Kai: The Symbiotic, Semiotic and Satirical of the Representation

The future doesn't exist. The only thing that exists is now and our memory of what happened in the past. But because we invented the idea of a future, we're the only animal that realized we can affect the future through what we do today.

~ David Suzuki

Buddhist mythology is replete with tales that portray animals as compassionate beings with higher consciousness. These narratives are known as Jataka tales, which are stories on Bodhisattvas, the previous lives of Gautam Buddha. From being a human to various animals, the bodhisattva displayed characteristics of compassion, kindness and nobility. One of the Jatakas, called Chhadanta Jataka, portrays the bodhisattva as a white elephant, named Chhadanta, that has six tusks. Due to some natural occurrence, one of his two wives had a grudge towards him and later she died. After being reborn and married to a ruling king, she commanded to cut off the elephant’s tusks. Obeying the command, the leaders of the dynasty left to find the elephant. After finding the elephant, and hearing the reason, he willingly agreed to give away his tusks. The tale represents the intention of the elephant, being a noble soul with patience and perseverance.

Chaddanta Jataka, Cave 17 of Ajanta Caves

The bodhisattvas worked towards building their noble qualities in many lives before the main life of Buddha, where he attains enlightenment. The narrative highlights the significance of animals and their sacred relation to cognitive ability. Although social animals with high cognitive and motor capabilities, humans need regular reminders of the same. The series of sculptures by the Chinese artist, Zhao Kai, reflect and embody the innate human-animal connection creatively. But what concerns are they reflecting?

Floating Cloud - Joy by Zhao Kai
Zhao Kai, Floating Cloud-Joy, 2022, Bronze, Painted - view work

Zhao Kai’s Visual Lexicon

“What I am interested in is the inner connections between living things. We humans, being on top of the food chain, seem to be powerful and in control of the fate of other creatures … Step by step, we are encroaching on the living space of animals.”

- Zhao Kai

A crane on the head, hands caressing the cheeks of an ox,  a stork on a brooding bust, a bird on the back of a stretched tiger, a human figure with hands placed on the back of a shark, and among others, are a few of many gestural visuals fabricated by Zhao.  Narrating the bond of warmth, interdependence and spiritual exchange, the human figures emit radiant expressions–as if the smooth and still surface runs deeper than it appears. Are these precise and neat human beings a disguise for their agitated and selfish demeanour? According to concept of Zhao, despite being at the top of the food chain, we have encroached upon the spaces of other animals.

Freedom - Ox by Zhao Kai
Zhao Kai, Freedom- Ox, 2017, Bronze, Painted - view work

Born in China, in 1986, Zhao has completed a Bachelor's degree in Sculpture from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. He has exhibited his works at major museums and galleries. At the same time, his works are in several national and international prestigious collections. The sculptures are made in bronze and then painted with respect to the conceptual leaning.

The concise anatomy, colour, and smooth surface are the foremost appealing aspects of Zhao's artworks. While the beguiling physical bond between humans and animals as well as animals and animals in his representations are a peaceful invite to look within, they highlight the shallow behaviour of humans. Are these presentations glimpses of an alternative world that Zhao believes in or conceives?

The Symbiotic, Semiotic and Satirical of the Representation

Zhao’s practice reminds us of our interconnectedness and belongingness to the same source of creation. We, humans and animals, have evolved through a similar mechanism. Encoded by the connecting thread of DNA, the genesis has been symbiotic. While scientific analysis is capable of developing several theories of evolution and the shared social as well as biological spaces, Zhao’s artworks comment on the ecological imbalance. How has the food chain hurt the ecosystem over time? What human psychological advances have encroached over other forms of life, affecting the bio-diverse sustenance! The concern has been triggering and eventually became a centre of discussion for the many concerned. Could we then term Zhao’s creations or representation as semiological and activist interventions? Or is precision a method of satire?

Flouting Cloud - Encounter by Zhao Kai
Floating Cloud- Encounter, 2022, Bronze, Painted - view work

Nature has been one of the most common sources of inspiration for artists. From romantic rendering to questioning the existence to revoking the pseudo sensibility, the representation of nature by artists has observed several formats of visual languages. The semiotics of the visual language has been beneficial in narrating essence with vigour and conviction. Zhao’s works are evidence of this vigorous belief in the reference to the present conflicted human-animal relationship. Putting an impending thought in front of everybody, the artworks, through the playful attribute of compositions, develop into an independent entity that is not what they appear. They are the agents of subtle activism- a connecting bridge to the collective psyche of humanity. Weaved through the thinking process that desires to reverse and balance the chain, the sculptures are in the process of becoming.

Concluding with a quote by Gautam Buddha: “What we think, we become.”