Mixing installation and video-art, Zhang Ding (born 1980) is quickly emerging as one of the most provocative and intriguing of China's new generation of artists. He came to wide attention with his show last year at ShangART gallery in Shanghai, which played on the theme of fragility and violence, using cactuses as his leitmotif. There was a huge scalpel machine for slicing them (Tools 3) and another machine for watering/torturing them to death (Tools 2). Most confronting was a dual-channel video of the artist hitting a boxing bag of cactuses, covered in sweat and with bloodied fists (Boxing No. 1 & 2). To bring you back from this shocking scene was another shock: a 'mountain' of fridge-amplifiers which you could very loudly detonate (Tools 1).
Now his film, 'Great Era' (2007), recently shown at Art Basel, can be seen again at the entrance to ShangART. This film has a different approach and tone to his boxing videos but it is just as rigorous. Over 12 minutes Zhang Ding pays a Chinese homage to the film style of Fellini, using it to compare the dreams with the realities of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who come to Shanghai in search of wealth and opportunity, often leaving their children at home in the provinces to be cared for by grandparents.
Red velvet theatrical curtains open to reveal the mis-en-scène of Pudong, Shanghai's vast new district built on former rice fields. Pudong's gawky space-age Oriental Pearl TV Tower stands in the background. Stage-down, the dirt ground appears to be awaiting its own Cinderella transformation. A man in a white satin tuxedo, our hero-knight walks on stage. He picks up a bicycle with a stuffed horses' head mounted on the toolbar and a horse's saddle and rides off into the night. The circus has begun.
The film progresses in a series of tableaux, with the man/knight always returning to an empty intersection, no cars, just dilapidated shacks with only an air conditioner and a couple of street lamps showing any signs of modernity. Our hero, with shiny white Chinese fighter-jet helmet, red star included, looks both splendid and lost. He rides off. In the first tableau he joins a group of people waltzing underneath an indistinct modern structure such as are commonly found throughout modernizing China. The music is old-fashioned, creaky. He joins in, peddling his stationary bike-horse. He has a fixed look of opiated contentment, lost in a reverie but ever so slightly strained. In the second tableau he is in an old marble-bath house. Clothes neatly folded at the edge. His steed stands in the bath as he, naked, pours the greenish water over its head with a new silvery-bucket he has found at the intersection. He climbs back on his bike and starts cycling, the rear wheel spraying water out of the bath. We return to this scene again and again, the knight vigorously peddling even as he stays still. Each time the water is lower and eventually the bath empties. In the next scene he comes across a food stand on a deserted road. The building behind is unlit and again the only signs of modernity are a couple of air conditioners and a watery light bulb hanging over the stand. Our hero leans his horse-bike on the wall, orders some noodles and sits down at a bench, whereupon he methodically enjoys them, alone and silent but for the film-music.
The film ends with him returning to the Pudong stage, leaving his horse-bike and walking away. The curtains fall. Mis-en-scène was often used by Fellini to criticize the strictures of Italy as it modernized after the Second World War. Sometimes it was employed in the context of a theatre, sometimes as a film set - 'La Strada' (1954) and 'La Dolce Vita' (1960). Its purpose was always to make the audience aware of their own relation to the stage/set and thereby also to what was being criticized, whether corruption, violence, or middle-class pretensions. As with much contemporary Chinese art, including works of hyper-realism and kitsch, Zhang Ding is examining and criticizing China's many 'realities'. But there is also tremendous feeling for the plight of migrant works, who come to the cities in search of a better life. Shanghai's slogan for its 2010 Expo is 'Better City. Better Life'. It carries with it a great deal of swagger as well as hope. As Zhang Ding points out, the invocation is founded on the dreams of the migrant works, people who don't have smart suits but do share his dreams. They are Zhang Ding's brave knights.
Young Artists Group Show
Until 31 July
ShangART, Moganshan 50, Building 16 & 18, Shanghai
Chris Moore is a writer and a partner in the contemporary art investment firm, mooreandmooreart.co.uk. He lives in Shanghai and specialises in contemporary Chinese art.