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A Conversation with Zhang Ding

Interviewer: Paul Gladston 2012

Zhang Ding is a video and installation artist. He was born in Gansu, a province in the north-west of China, in 1980 and graduated from the Oil Painting Department of the North West Minority University in 1998. He also studied at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, graduating from there in 2003. Since graduating from the China Academy, Zhang has lived and worked in Shanghai. In this conversation Zhang discusses the background to the making and intended significance of a number of his installation and video works including one whose showing at a group show in Shanghai lead to him being detained briefly by the local authorities. The text presented here is an edited transcript of a conversation recorded at the Bandu Music Café at 50 Moganshan Road in Shanghai on November 11, 2007.

Paul Gladston: I would like to begin this conversation by asking you to say something about your solo exhibition Tools, which was staged at the ShanghArt gallery and H-Space in Shanghai during September this year [see figure 19]. What was your intention in making the work for this exhibition?

Zhang Ding: The work in this exhibition was different from that in my previous exhibitions. In the past I was quite rational. But in this exhibition I just followed my own feelings, rather than being rational. Unlike my previous works, I didn't think too much about what I was doing, it just came out spontaneously. For a long time, I was having a discussion with my friends about how to reveal one's true feelings. I wanted to find a way to express these feelings. Then I found it was feasible. Before I made the work for this exhibition, I went travelling. Just before I arrived at Tibet, I had a strong feeling that called me back to Shanghai to make the work for this exhibition. This feeling came over me suddenly when I was on the bus.

Paul Gladston: Could you say more about the feelings that you were trying to express?

Zhang Ding: It's difficult to say exactly. I was trying to build up my own kind of system, but I'm not sure whether it was a system or not. Most Chinese artists have a rational approach toward the making of artworks. I thought that if I just followed my feelings then my work would be different; or at least more real.

Paul Gladston: The work in the exhibition that affected me the most was the video of  a man repeatedly punching three large spherical cactus plants, suspended like a punch bag in a boxing gym, with his bare fists [see figure 20]. I think it's probably one of the most disturbing videos I've ever had to watch. The spikes on the cactus were very large and the act of repeatedly punching the cactus appeared to cause a great deal of damage to the hands of the person involved. What were you trying to achieve by showing that particular video?

Zhang Ding: Actually, I'm not willing to explain too much. The juxtaposition of the two materials, the person and the cacti, is very powerful. It's basic art language. I combined those two materials to give the viewer strong feelings. I just followed the usual artistic way of choosing and combining materials. The combination of materials can be thought of as the language of the piece. The art language part of the work I did deliberately. Contradiction and opposition are characteristic features of that exhibition. In the video showing the punching of the cactus, both sides get hurt. In another piece involving the cutting of a cactus with a knife, it's just one side that gets hurt.

Paul Gladston: Was the punching of the cacti real or simulated?

Zhang Ding: It was real.

Paul Gladston: Who is the person in the video?

Zhang Ding: That's me.

Paul Gladston: The exhibition also included an assemblage in which cactus plants were gradually destroyed through contact with water [see figure 21].

Zhang Ding: Susceptibility to water damage is the plant's Achilles' heel. It can do deeper damage to the plant than fists or knives. It actually destroys the plant slowly, just like chronic poisoning. As for the punching and the knife, they are relatively direct and violent ways of doing damage. In the case of the water, it's soft damage.

Paul Gladston: Was your intention simply to instill feelings in the viewer, or is there also some sort of symbolic meaning involved in the work?

Zhang Ding: Actually, I was trying to explore the relationship between the individual and the group. It's a contradictory relationship. It seems to me that the identity of the individual is diminished by the group. The value of the group is stronger than that of the individual. The contradictions and oppositions in the exhibition are a way of exploring these issues.

Paul Gladston: The question of the relationship individualism and collectivism comes up again and again in relation to contemporary Chinese art. There is a strong desire for freedom of self expression among contemporary Chinese artists, but also a constant recourse to the group or collective as a focus for the development and protection of that freedom. Within contemporary China, the will of the individual is always subordinated to the wider interests of society, partly because of cultural tradition and partly because of the prevailing political situation.

Zhang Ding: Yes. Maybe it's something to do with the system in China. But my generation is different from the previous generation. My parents' generation shares the same collective ideology. The education they received was mostly about communism. They share similar lifestyles. But nowadays, for my generation, it's a bit different; there is more emphasis on individualism. However, I don't think contradictions between the individual and the group can be resolved completely by the artwork.

Paul Gladston: Why?

Zhang Ding: I feel that my personal abilities as an artist are limited. So I don't think I can resolve these contradictions. It's just like a game.

Paul Gladston: Is there also an interest on your part in the relationship between human-beings and nature, and the capacity of nature to resist to human violence―the actions that have led towards global warming, for example?

Zhang Ding: I don't think that the cactus is actually resisting human violence. It's just a passive act of self protection. And I never thought about the relationship between people and nature.

Paul Gladston: I would see your work as involving certain ways of thinking and acting that are characteristic of traditional Chinese culture. For example, the traditional Chinese philosophical view that oppositions and contradictions can never be fully resolved―which differs strongly from the rationalist Western philosophical idea that dialectical opposition can be resolved through synthesis. The notion that water is ultimately more powerful than physically harder substances, which you alluded to earlier, is also a notable aspect of Daoist philosophy. In the Daoist classic the Dao Dejing, Laozi can be quoted as saying "Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water. But no force can compare with it in attacking the hard and strong"

Zhang Ding: Yes, I agree with what you said about the differences between Western and Chinese dialectical thinking. I also agree that my work is influenced by traditional Chinese thought. But I didn't really think about it when I was doing the work. It came out spontaneously, because, you know, I was born with this kind of culture.

Paul Gladston: I would like to continue our conversation by discussing events surrounding another of your artworks. In 2006 you took part in group exhibition at the Shanghai Garden playfully entitled Solo Exhibition. The exhibition opened in the evening with a press conference and was closed down by local government officials after only a couple of hours. The officials simply switched out the lights forcing everyone there to leave the exhibition spaces. One of the reasons the show was closed was because of photographic images exhibited under your name that were considered pornographic: images of young women in their underwear.

Zhang Ding: The photos that were shown were not actually taken by me. They came from the Internet. Along with the photos, there was a written interview, including questions raised by journalists and my replies. Because of that artwork, I was arrested for 15 days. The reason given for the arrest was that I showed pornographic images in public. It may have been because of the political situation in Shanghai two years ago. The mayor of Shanghai at the time was Chen Liangyu. He was embroiled in a kind of political fight between himself and other groups. Unluckily, I just got caught up in it. I didn't actually break the law, it's kind of rules.

Paul Gladston: So you weren't actually charged with anything, because you hadn't broken the law.

Zhang Ding: That's right. It's not like breaking the law. As I said, it's just like you break very serious rules.

Paul Gladston: Nevertheless, you were detained by the authorities?

Zhang Ding: Yes. But I wasn't afraid of it. I thought it was quite a good experience for me. I got to know a lot of people during my detention, and I made some good friends as well. I made a video recently, and one of the friends I made while I was in detention was an actor in this video.

Paul Gladston: Were you held in a prison, or some sort of detention centre?

Zhang Ding: It was a political detention centre.

Paul Gladston: What were the conditions in the detention centre like?

Zhang Ding: The dimensions of the space I was held in were just like this room; about four metres long with no dividing walls. There were sort of steps made of soil in the space. The inmates sleep on the steps. There are no desks or chairs. At full capacity, the number of people reaches thirty in such a space.

Paul Gladston: How were you treated?

Zhang Ding: Actually I became a kind of leader because I stayed for a relatively long time. And those who came later did a lot of things for me. This is an unspoken rule in the centre. Those people who come earlier become leaders.

Paul Gladston: Has the experience influenced your work?

Zhang Ding: It hasn't had much of an influence on my work. I just consider it as an experience.

Paul Gladston: So, would that experience make you think twice about using pornographic images in your work again?

Zhang Ding: Yes, I'll think twice about it. Because I have already had this experience once, if I do it again the consequences will be different. It's not just something like fifteen days detention, maybe next time I will be put into prison. In China, maybe it's the same in foreign countries too, the first time you break the rules you will be arrested. After you are released, they will investigate you. There is a special investigation department in the detention centre, which is a branch of the justice department. The justice department will determine the nature of your behaviour according to your previous records. After determining the nature of your behaviour, it doesn't have to condemn you through the court; it can determine directly that you be put into a labour camp.

Paul Gladston: Let's talk about another of your artworks which was shown in the group exhibition A Lot of Dust 2 at the ShanghArt gallery in 2006. It's a video installation that combines images of an old amusement park shot at night cut together with what looked to me like archive footage of political groups marching during the Cultural Revolution [see figure 22]. The images of the park included rather unsettling close-ups of plants and cartoon animal figures.  

Zhang Ding: Actually it's in the west of China; the park I mean. It's in a very small city. This city is part of a 'Hui' ethnic group autonomous region. It's like an Islamic park.

Paul Gladston: The park depicted in the video looked to me as though it was derelict. Is it still being used?

Zhang Ding: Not many people go there. But it is still being used. And it's quite far away from the city centre. There were not many people there. These people were the local people and they were breeding sheep in the park. The sheep were eating the grass, and the people just stood by.

Paul Gladston: You filmed there at night…when it was closed?

Zhang Ding: I went there at night as well as during the daytime many times. Personally, I like that place.

Paul Gladston: So, who were the people marching?

Zhang Ding: These people were holding a celebration for the city's 50th anniversary. Initially I was thinking about doing a documentary in that place, so I stayed there for two months. Actually this documentary is still on the way. I'm doing research on marginalized politics. It's a bit ironic. This city has an autonomous political system, but actually its cultural life has been neglected by mainstream politics. Although the city enjoys an autonomous political system, the main purpose of this policy is to make the city stable in terms of its politics and the economy. Other things are not seen as so important. So, it's a bit ironic in that way. The background to the making of this installation is that I had just been released from the detention centre, so I was thinking of what else I could do. At that time, I felt like travelling to a remote place like that. The environment there gave me a lot of feelings. Actually, my way of work creation was not mature at that time; even now it's not mature. When I went to that place I really liked it, so I stayed there for two months. And I was interested in the relationship between the people there. I also found out about the conflicts between the Han people and the Hui people.  That's why I thought of making this video.

Paul Gladston: So what's the precise relationship between the images of the amusement park and those of the celebration of the 50th anniversary?

Zhang Ding: The park has a special meaning there. The park is the only place that the Han people and the Hui people get along together; where they play together. Also in this park there are symbols of Western culture like Mickey Mouse. It's interesting to find that the two ethnic groups are willing to accept Western things in that place. Actually I took a lot of photos of the cartoon animal figures. Some of those figures looked very frightening.

Paul Gladston: It seems to me that there's critical relationship between the images of the park and those of the 50th anniversary march. By association, the former makes the latter seem threatening and artificial. Perhaps we can read your work here as a critical commentary on the Chinese government's neo-Confucian notion of a harmonious society where people of different ethnic groups and differing social classes are all meant to get along happily under Han domination. You seem to be saying that social harmony can only be achieved under artificial circumstances and that the whole situation is darkly comical and threatening.

Zhang Ding: I wasn't thinking about the government policy of creating a harmonious society. What I was trying to do with this work was to find the contradictions or conflicts between the two ethnic groups. I wanted to find the root cause of these contradictions. The Han people there are prejudiced about the Hui people, and vice versa. The city is divided into two parts; one part for the Han people and the other one for the Hui people. Actually, they are separated by one street.

Paul Gladston: Do you think your work as an artist has a specific function in relation to Chinese society and politics? For example, can it have an impact on the social divisions that you have been describing?

Zhang Ding: I don't think it has any influence on society. Society does not need me to change it, society is changing me.

About the Author

Paul Gladston is Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Visual Culture in the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. Between 2005 and 2010, he was seconded to the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China as the inaugural head of the Department of International Communications and director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies. He has written extensively on the subject of contemporary Chinese art and contemporary Chinese art criticism for numerous magazines and journals including Yishu, Leap, Art Review, Contemporary Art and Investment, Artworld and Eyeline. His book length publications include the monograph Art History after Deconstruction (Magnolia, 2005) and an edited collection of essays, China and Other Spaces (CCCP, 2009). He is currently preparing a monograph on the theory and practice of contemporary Chinese art for Reaktion and, in collaboration with Katie Hill and Chris Smith, a guest edited edition of the journal Contemporary Art Practice for Intellect with the theme 'Contemporary Chinese Art and Criticality'.

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