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My first encounter with Zhang Ding’s work was The Great Era (2007), a video that looks like a Fellini film but feels more like a Bruce Springsteen song. In a series of dream-like scenes lit in sick hues, the work’s protagonist, dressed in a white tuxedo, pedals hard on a stationary bike fitted with a horse’s head above the handle bars. Despite his exertion, the cyclist never makes any progress—a metaphor for the millions of Chinese born in the PRC but not on its wealthy East Coast.
While huge numbers of Chinese have migrated to coastal cities for work, they are marginalized by the hukou system, which ties access to schools, home ownership, marriage, medical and other social services to one’s regional ID certificate. Zhang has experienced the system firsthand: though he now lives and works in Shanghai, he was born in 1980 in Gansu Province, located in China’s poor northwest region.
Another early video, Boxing No 1&2 (2007), expresses his angst and frustration, as Zhang punches cacti until his fists are bloody. Both the politics and pain of these early experiments echo works by another prominent Shanghai-based artist, Xu Zhen, who mocked China’s nationalist military propaganda by piloting remote controlled boats and helicopters across the country’s remote, poorly policed borders and creating a mockumentary about removing the top of Mount Everest and relocating it to an unexceptional altitude in Shanghai.
But like Xu Zhen, Zhang’s work has developed away from even implicit political criticism, and has pursued more formal experimentations. For instance, Game With Unclear Direction (2009), currently being exhibited at Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum, Shanghai, is an 8x8m wooden stage in which Zhang embedded a row boat, Taihu stone sculpture, chairs, vases, a waterfall and a taxidermy peacock. It’s like an ancient Chinese garden created using the detritus recovered from demolished Shanghai lane houses.
Popular culture is employed to convey Chinese philosophies to a Western audience.
In recent years Zhang has produced not only videos and installations but also happenings, including the launch of Buddha Jumps Over the Wall (2012), which took place in Taopu, a northern suburb of Shanghai where the artist had his studio. The work takes its name from an apocryphal story about a dish—made from the leftovers of several other dishes—that smelled so delicious it led a vegetarian Buddhist monk to leap over a monastery wall and ask for a taste. Zhang’s version of the dish included slow motion footage of plaster of Paris models of the animals who contribute their meat to the dish—pig, chicken, duck, goat, fish and soft-shelled turtle—exploding with special effects, gunfire and fake blood, plus cellists, ballroom dancers and chefs preparing the food. The work alludes, perhaps, to China’s banquet culture, one of the conspicuous abuses of privilege by corrupt government employees.
Zhang has also incorporated musical performances in works such as Orbit of Rock (2014), in which he had Chinese rock bands cover songs by Pantera, the Black Crows, Metallica and AC/DC.
In “Enter the Dragon,” his upcoming show at the ICA in London, Zhang will again employ popular culture, referencing the final scene of the great martial arts flick in a way that parallels Bruce Lee’s own attempts to convey Chinese traditions and philosophies to a Western audience.
As his career takes off, it seems, Zhang increasingly finds himself no longer communicating with an audience who might see him merely as a waidiren (a person from outside a given Chinese city) from Gansu.
Zhang Ding (Chinese, 1980) is an artist who lives and works in Shanghai. He is represented by ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai, and Galerie Krinzinger, Wien. His solo exhibition “Enter the Dragon” will be on view at the ICA, London, from 12 October–15 November. His work is also currently featured in a group exhibition of new acquisitions at the Daimler Art Collection, Berlin, through 17 January.
Sam Gaskin is an arts and culture writer who lives in Shanghai. A contributor to Timeout Shanghai, LEAP, Randian and Artsy and previously the Editor-in-Chief of Artinfo China, Gaskin is now the Cultural Content Editor at Flamingo Shanghai.
Image: Zhang Ding, Analgesic, 2013, Courtesy of the artist and ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai