With the school year drawing to a close, most students begin to anticipate the unique sounds, sights and smells filling the city as summer kicks off. A less reflected upon subject, however, is the excess amount of waste cluttering each and every Madison gutter around this time. Artist Hongtao Zhou bases his current exhibit at the Porter Butts gallery in the Memorial Union upon this very idea.
“About a year ago when students [were] moving out, I saw a lot of chairs, furniture, the overflowed dumpsters,” he said. “I found a lot of waste. Some of them were broken, but most of them good so I started thinking I should save them … I just didn’t want them to sit there loose on the street.”
For the past seven months, Zhou has been amassing his collection of discarded furniture from the city’s streets, as well as leather belts from second-hand stores. He chose to use solely these materials to construct bull heads, works reflective of Americana, to emote an environmentalist message to viewers of the gallery.
“It’s reflecting the material culture in this country,” he said. “We have so many materials to use, but afterwards a lot of it will be wasted. I want to address the country using these bull head [sculptures]. I also found a lot of belts in thrift stores that I started binding some these together to make bull heads because to me cowboys are an American symbolic image, and I wanted to make this image big to come to people.”
Currently Zhou has made 23 bull heads – the vastness of his project is done purposefully, in order to have the greatest impact on the American people. He also wants them to relate to the materials, so the issue can be brought closer to home and made personally applicable to each viewer.
“I’m going to continue this project into the summer because it’s going to be a lot. You’d be shocked how much people throw away,” he said. “And not just Madison; that’s what I’m thinking; it’s everywhere in this country … The chairs and the belts each have a history attached to them. Three or four hundred belts, some of them actually have ties to local people. I want people to come here and look at them and think about their own stories and lifestyle here. So we could change the future with this.”
Most of Zhou’s works in the past have centered upon environmentalist themes, and he hopes to continue this in plans for upcoming artwork.
“In winter I made ice chairs out on the lake addressing the life cycle: coming out of nowhere and going back into the lake. The [ice sculptures] have no environmental impact,” he said. “I’m also making a few tree sculptures out of chair parts this summer because they’re made out of wood, so it’s like I’m making them back into trees. I’m probably going to do it in a wooded area so it will be a big tree in the real forest; it will look ironic and interesting.”
For the bull heads in Porter Butts, Zhou said he wants people to feel somewhat scared when they first enter the gallery. He finds that a strong reaction such as fear can lead to more thought, in this case about their overconsumption.
“If they’re scared they will think about it,” he said. “‘Why is all this stuff here?’ Maybe they even contributed to something here. Everybody makes it. If you think about it we can change things for the future; there are too many things… Most of these objects actually would go into the environment. We use a lot of space right now; we will run out quickly.”
Hongtao Zhou’s art exhibit, constructed entirely of recycled materials, opens tonight at the Porter Butts gallery in the Memorial Union as part of Madison gallery night.