Zhang Ding’s Electric Pure Land

Special performance on the opening night
Special performance on the opening night
Asia Society Hong Kong

Zhang Ding is on a roll. Having received the Artist of the Year Award from The Art Newspaper China and staged a successful show at London’s ICA, he recently hosted a delirious performance at Shanghai’s chi K11 art museum.

TEXT: Jacob Dreyer
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and K11 Art Foundation

Building in many ways on 2011’s “Opening,” in which he simulated a nightclub complete with strippers for attendees, he repeated the success of his London performance by creating an atmosphere of flashing mirrors and strobe, noise musicians and chaos — a performance so extreme that some guests had seizures (luckily Shanghai gallery owner Mathieu Borysevicz was on hand to haul out the victim, who emerged unscathed).

Zhang Ding, Enter the Dragon II-1
Special performance on the opening night

Like Chen Tianzhuo, who performed on the same night, Zhang’s work has consistently displayed impatience with conventional mediums of art, and the exhibition spaces that accompany them. In an art world driven by “white cube” style receptacles of art objects, Zhang insists on entirely reconfiguring spaces, as well as refusing the commodity driven production of objects; his works in recent years span video, set design, and performance, always veering towards the ritual, the extreme, the powerful. “Music can get to more people than conventional art, and as such offers more possibilities than art objects often do… The work I do isn’t meant to engage with others on a purely intellectual, but on an emotional or even physical level,” the artist told us. Rather than objects, Zhang designs open-ended platforms that are accessible to all, and that can lead to unintended and unexpected experiences.

Zhang’s right: it doesn’t make much sense to think about art history at a noise show. Nonetheless, the history of extremism in art nevertheless came to mind at the reception; from the work of Iannis Xenakis or Diamanda Galas, the No Wave performers of 1980s New York, or closer to home, noise musicians such as Japan’s legendary Les Rallizes Desnudes came to mind. The latter group, mysterious and shrouded in legends (the member who hijacked a plane to North Korea, the endless droning performances, the impossible to find discography) seem much closer to Zhang’s work than, for example, the Chinese performance artists of the 1990s; it would be hard to term what Zhang has done here performance art, just because the artist is absent from the center of the work. Whereas the artists of 2000’s Fuck Off seemed intent on finding a voice for themselves, no matter how extreme, Zhang seems much more interest in enabling collissions, encounters, in opening portals to unknown pleasures. He commented:

My work isn’t an expression of myself as such. Rather, I seek to orchestrate spaces or situations for interactions: between myself and other artists, between artists and those who attend the performances, between easterners and westerners… the space of art as such offers a zone of freedom, of interaction, a platform of openness… Materials/substance is not as important; these art objects are merely a vehicle for the sort of interactions that I wish to help enable.

Special performance on the opening night

K11’s support of Chinese artists such as Zhang and Chen in their exhibitions in Europe — at the ICA, Palais de Tokyo, and elsewhere, as well as analogous exhibitions, such as  Cao Fei’s recent show at MoMa PS1 — is bringing a new generation of Chinese artists to the West, ones less concerned with defining their identities in relationship with tradition. If for artists like Ai Weiwei, the Olympic-era mascot of Chinese art abroad, the first referent is Chinese art history, the second the headlines of the daily newspaper, and the third Art Forum, the younger generation, grounded in experience of the chaotic and mobile Chinese metropolis of today, expresses and explores a Chinese identity which is utterly contemporary — in wild imaginings, flights of fancy — in looking forward, seeking discover doors to new realities, rather than meditating on the past.

In Zhang’s macho works, whether punching a cactus, hiring strippers for an art show, or playing music so loud it causes the audience to faint, lies submerged a desire to strip experience to pure feeling —to discover what Mizutani of LRD called an “electric pure land.” Every member of the audience found a different meaning in the performance, in Zhang’s platform of sound.

Zhang Ding: Enter the Dragon 2

21 May 2016 – 30 June 2016
chi K11 art museum, Shanghai

* For performance details, please refer to the KAF website

Jacob Dreyer is a Shanghai-based writer and editor. Recently, he has edited a special issue of LEAP magazine, and contributed to The Atlantic City Lab, the Architectural Review, and Domus. His book The Nocturnal Wandererhas recently been published by Eros Press; he is researching a second book about urban space and the creative economy in China.

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