Zhou Brothers: 40 Years of Collaboration Pt. II

Collaborating since 1973, ShanZuo and DaHuang work together on their paintings, performances, sculptures, and prints, often communicating without words in a so-called dream dialogue. The Zhou Brothers reflect on their journey from China to the United States and ultimately the world. Their life is a journey to art.

Interviewing the Zhou Brothers for Chicago Gallery News a few weeks ago in the garden of their Bridgeport home and studio was a breeze. They were everything a writer wants in a profile subject—affable, articulate, open, funny—but for a moment I thought I might be in trouble. After some introductory questions about their early years in China, I turned to the subject that to me seemed central to any discussion of their art: their remarkable collaborative process, which has produced a vast and varied body of work created together as a team. It was then that ShanZuo, the senior brother, heaved a polite but unmistakable sigh. Couldn’t I consult written sources on the subject, which after four decades they had understandably grown weary of explaining? Did they really need to repeat themselves yet again?

Of course, I’d read everything I could find on the Zhous, but no journalist wants to rely on the reporting of others, particularly on matters of primary importance. If I could interview Pablo Picasso, I’d be certain to put him on the spot regarding the possible relation of traditional African masks to his conceiving of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; he would roll his eyes, just as ShanZuo was doing now, and direct me to the biographies. I would persist in my impertinence and then, very likely, Picasso would toss me out on my ear.

The Zhou Brothers, instead, chose to indulge me. Perhaps it was question of pity. Perhaps they simply have good manners. Or perhaps they understood that, all these years later, the nature of their collaboration remains both critical and, at its core, enigmatic, even to them. We think of art-making in most of its most forms—cinema, the medium of the Coen Brothers, is a rare exception—as an intensely personal and therefore solitary activity. How could it be that any two human beings, even those with shared genes and histories, could combine to produce a single cohesive painting or sculpture, much less hundreds?

It’s a tantalizing question, all the more so because the Zhou Brothers’ collaboration is more or less unprecedented. The young Alberto Giacometti worked on a few pieces with his brothers, Diego and Bruno, then moved on, alone, into art history. Much later, the installation artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a married couple, perhaps came the closest to matching the Zhous in the annals of sustained artistic teamwork within families. But their output was fundamentally conceptual and largely executed by teams of assistants. ShenZuo and DaHuang are essentially tactile, DIY artists, working in close proximity, sometimes literally shoulder to shoulder, mano a mano.

To my surprise, and maybe to theirs, the Zhou Brothers seemed to warm to the topic. The point they most wanted me to understand was that their process of working together is focused not on the pursuit of harmony, as some might expect, but on the creative possibilities of conflict. As DaHuang told me, “You’re working very smoothly, developing something, feeling very comfortable with it, and then he comes in and goes pah-pah-pah-pah-pah! And everything is destroyed. It’s hard to take sometimes. You respect his talent, but it doesn’t mean you don’t get angry.”

But far from allowing that dissonance—that destruction—to block the collaborative process, the Zhous harness and exploit it, using it to mine a rich, dark vein of creativity that neither brother could access on his own. “The value of the collaboration is that it opens up things that couldn’t happen any other way,” DaHuang said. “When you paint by yourself, no matter how great a painter you are—Picasso, whatever—you won’t have the courage to destroy your own painting. You think you are always right. But two people together, they don’t care. You paint something amazing, but he destroys it, because he sees it differently. And with this kind of fighting, something comes out in the painting that’s never happened before. It’s a mystery, and it creates a new magic.”

The mystery deepens—and so does the magic—when you learn, as I did, that the brothers barely discuss their creative process in the moment. In the very early years of their collaboration, the process was more cerebral and verbal. Now, as seasoned artists with forty years of effectively living in each other’s heads, they are largely silent in the studio; their communication is intuitive, bordering on telepathic. “Our work is not about thinking, it’s about feeling,” ShanZuo said. “The painting itself is the conversation.”

Sometimes that conversation takes the form of an argument. For all their native and practiced simpatico, the Zhou Brothers remain individuals with different and sometimes opposing points of view. Their identities are distinct, in life and on the canvas, and the work reflects this. Some of their best paintings feel like war zones in which two evenly matched forces continually advance and retreat, thrust and parry, battling each other to a standstill. In their work from the 1990s, representational elements, including figures, engage in a Sisyphean struggle against creeping abstraction. More recently, abstraction has mostly taken over, but dissonance still reigns. Jagged shards of red reach out over fields of brown and black. Dark defines light, weight gives shape to weightlessness. Shifting forms jockey with each other for position in the foreground, only to be pushed back, obscured, erased.

Gradually, a bruised but miraculous balance is achieved. And in that fragile equilibrium we feel the Zhou Brothers’ heroic struggle to visualize what’s inside them: a collision of East and West, the ancient and the modern, affection and antagonism, self and selflessness. We sense their sibling love and their sibling rivalry, their humility and their ambition. We’re enthralled by this visual document of two brothers who’ve yoked their creative lives together in a still-evolving project as singular as any in the history of art. And we wait, almost holding our collective breath, for what happens next.