Born in 1987 in Yunyang, Chongqing, Tao Hui graduated from the Oil Painting Department of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2010 and now lives and works in Beijing. For over a decade, Tao Hui has created a series of highly affecting artworks, drawing extensively on personal memory, visual experience, and popular cultural imagery, and is recognised internationally for films and video installations that combine touching narratives with poetic images. Closely studying and representing movements that transcend geographical, cultural and identity boundaries, Tao Hui in recent years began tackling subjects such as the confrontational relationship between society and the individual, as well as the disavowed reality of marginalized communities.
Early single-channel video Mongolism (2010) combines Tao Hui’s interest in the aesthetic of Chinese television with his exploration of identity politics. Appropriating elements from traditional art and culture, the work presents a nomadic dilemma, a double bind between the impossibility of returning to a magical, pre-secular world, and the reluctance to go further into a modern one. At over 31 minutes in length — one of Tao Hui’s longest works to date — the work evokes 1990s Chinese television melodramas with its unusual characters narrating stories of transmutation, disguise, and arrested personal developments. Chapters within the work are named after Mongolian philosophical concepts, such as “wuhagan” (enlightenment), “yos” (reason) and “itgel” (trust); and one of the crucial figures of Tao Hui’s oeuvre, the goddess-wanderer, also makes its first appearance in Mongolism, setting the stage for major works to come.
In Talking about Body (2013), Tao Hui himself plays a major role — the urgency of playing or becoming someone else begins to emerge — as a young Islamic woman facing an eager, suspicious crowd, analysing her own body from a purely genetic perspective: “I give up all of my prejudice and create my body by natural facts. I just belong to the soil.” The cramped, confrontational scene; the long take that lasts for almost 4 minutes; and the uninterrupted monologue all reflect the experimental nature of Tao Hui’s art at this stage. Acting Lesson (2014) is a filming session structured as a metadrama, or a play within a play: the subjects are at once the actors in training, the director who embodies didacticism, as well as the filming crew that represents a complex, invisible behind-the-scenes organisation. Revealing the chaos and order of behind-the-scenes operations, the structure of this film is later expanded in immersive environments such as The Night of Peacemaking (2022).
In 2014, Tao Hui completes the video work that marks his maturation in style: The Dusk of Tehran. Filmed in Iran, this concise work lasts just four minutes. It is once again a monologue, but this time by a local actress; she re-enacts an on-stage conversation the legendary Hong Kong singer Anita Mui had with her audience in a farewell concert a month before her death. The video takes place entirely in a moving taxi; the elegant, glamorous and lonely actress, enveloped in a white wedding gown, is well aware that she is dying, talking calmly to the driver about love, marriage and life, manifesting in the seemingly casual exchange intense, struggling emotions. In a strange yet truthful way, the artist, Anita Mui, and the Iranian actress become one in the figure of the goddess-wanderer, making the short video remarkably mesmerising, telling in an unforgettable way the conundrums shared by people across different cultures, regions — Tehran, Hong Kong, or Yunyang — and identities.
The major exhibition New Directions: Tao Hui held at UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2015 further established Tao Hui’s eminent position in the post-1980 generation. Debuting One Figure and Seven Materials (2015) and Superfluous (2015), the exhibition demonstrated comprehensively the artist’s interest in configuring complex video installations. Incorporating multi-channel videos as well as sculptural, interactive, and atmospheric sound elements, the two pieces testify to the remarkable development of Tao Hui’s art over a short period of time, and underscore the artist’s response to key questions in the history of video art.
After participating in the 11th Shanghai Biennale in 2016 with Joint Images (2016), a video that positively confuses performance and reality, television history and social norms, Tao Hui created the nine-channel video installation Hello, Finale! (2017) for the finalist exhibition of the 2017 HUGO BOSS Asia Art Award for Emerging Artist. Filmed in Kyoto, Hello, Finale! is a matrix of nine independent short films orderly installed within the exhibition space, weaving an intertextual relationship between the scenarios. The artist’s scripts make space for the characters to, over the phone, express themselves in partial conversations that cancel reciprocity. The video installation appropriates the aesthetic of popular Japanese television dramas (which is largely different from its Chinese counterpart), but the stories are all derived from Chinese social news and the artist’s personal experiences. Through this spectacular large-scale work, Tao Hui developed the web-like narrative structure attempted in One Figure and Seven Materials, questioning the meaning of presence and absence in life.
Tao Hui’s subsequent creations such as the hologram piece The Tangible Ones (2018); the project of The History of Southern Drama, Scene A (2018) that focuses on the fictional personal history of author Leng Shuihua; and the two-channel video Double Talk (2018) that traces the posthumous life of a Korean pop star, all actively explore multicultural differences, introducing various elements from French, Taiwanese, and Korean cultures. In distinct, thought-provoking ways, these works are tied together through their exploration of history in relation to an individual’s death. The age-old conundrum, of “how not to be forgotten” is a consistent, underlying theme for works of this period. It is also through these works that Tao Hui mapped the broad aesthetic spectrum in which his art operates — from the succinctly minimal to the modern baroque — demonstrating his ability to adapt and appropriate, to nurture distinct immersive experiences while dealing with different literary themes.
The major solo exhibition Rhythm and Senses at Kiang Malingue in 2019 marked the beginning of another chapter with four new works, emphasising the significance of, instead of literary and textual elements, the visual and the haptic. Screen as Display Body (2019) is a cart with four LED screens that simply display red, blue, green, and white colors. The work decisively eliminates literary narrative in favour of an abstract language that refers both to the four-chapters of the exhibition, and to the artist’s new focus on seemingly apolitical and atemporal objects. Together with the video installation White Building (2019) and a series of new hologram pieces, this work highlights the physical dimension of vision, underscoring the experience of being alienated in spatial and social relationships while cancelling immersion. The video installation Pulsating Atom (2019), which is exemplary of Tao Hui’s art around 2020, makes direct use of the form, rhythm, and aesthetic of Tik Tok videos, positively fragmenting the monologue structure that Tao Hui had always valued — it is effectively a medley of short videos and an attempt to build poetic bridges between videos governed by algorithms. At the beginning of his career, Tao Hui examined literature-cum-television, the form of mass media par excellence at the time; today, Tao Hui acknowledges the significant impact of Tik Tok videos, revealing and contributing to its mechanism. Tao Hui reiterated in Pulsating Atom the idea he had been exploring since Talking about Body: “We should stop thinking about being ourselves…We should be anyone but ourselves.”
After Rhythm and Senses, Tao Hui continued exploring the potential of Tik Tok videos with Similar Disguise (2020) and Being Wild (2021): the former is a series of five independent, short vertical videos that reconsider the subversive injunction of being someone else, while the latter portrays another goddess-wanderer, crystallising the poetic dimension of Pulsating Atom. Tao Hui’s recent solo exhibitions include the major survey Searing Pain at the Aranya Art Center in 2022, which revisited various trajectories of his practice in the last decade. The commissioned video installation Night of Peacemaking reconsiders the aesthetic of television shows. Set up like a television production studio, the installation asks the viewer to experience the recording of a family mediation program in a behind-the-scenes environment. Daniel Merritt, curator of the Swiss Institute in New York, analyses the work in the exhibition catalogue: “[t]hese moments, Tao Hui’s joint images, are like pills. Despite the complex, intense innerworkings of these scenes, they are easy to contain, ingest and allow to seep into our bodies, our brains. Doubled by presentations on both screens and real space, the recent cultural artifacts selected by Tao Hui register as pop templates for emotional response, a semiotics of main character syndrome.” In ways that are either intense, passionate or detached, Tao Hui develops his art on forms and subjects such as television, film, literature, short video, self-determination, emotion, and identity, questioning the meaning of life and love in a contemporary world.