Footage courtesy of Director Xin Fang
Zhang Hongtu’s artworks caught my attention the first time I saw them in the group exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World 'at the Guggenheim Museum in 2017. Darkly amusing, and often associated with “Political Pop”, his early works examine the freedom of criticism as a survivor of the Cultural Revolution and as a Muslim Chinese immigrant in the United States. However, it was only after I started filming Hongtu that I came to see a simple fact amidst the politics and art complexities – what drives you in the first place to create something you genuinely believe in.
Before He Starts (2018), a concise documentary profiling of Zhang Hongtu, reveals his initial impulse in making art after a bittersweet, decades-long journey. Looking at his past but more importantly his present, the film features how Hongtu coped with painful memories and how he chose to stay true to himself in a world where fame values more than anything else. What does it cost to create, and what kind of world will we create now that we are starting to see the cost of our actions? What can we learn from history, and yet what should we do to continue moving forward? These are the questions that led me to produce this film.
Equally arresting is his personal story as a Chinese American, an experience I’m sharing with him living between America and China as a resident alien. What is our position in the world and how we can contribute more as a human being? The film follows Hongtu from New York to Kansas, using Kansas landscape and bison as his new subjects to challenge stereotypical identity politics and to approach the East/West connection from his perspective.
The eyes of the world are opening, and I believe history is giving us this moment to choose a better path. We can only progress when we hear voices outside the mainstream. It’s time for all of us to step back, think thoroughly about what we have done in the past, and the cost of exploiting others. I hope with all my heart that this film serves as a part of that progress.
— Director Xin Fang