How are we to read the career of an artist who has been around for some time, but whom we may have, for whatever reason, overlooked until now? That is the question implicit for anyone familiar with China's contemporary scene in looking at Zhang Qing's portfolio a decade into his career. In a sprawling scene that has been too often reduced to a few signal images, a sustained glance at the output of an artist who has been present, if overlooked, throughout the entire recent wave, can prove revelatory. As a body of work, Zhang Qing's output offers an alternate universe, running parallel to the wide range of themes and trends that have swept through art in China in recent years and yet presenting a distinct sensibility that has largely gone undiscovered.
That is the deep background for Zhang Qing's present project. Ten years ago, an exhibition called "Home" opened in a furniture store on Moganshan Road in Shanghai. The exhibition, curated by Qiu Zhijie, is a lesser-known riposte to the Post-Sense Sensibility he had curated earlier in 1999. Zhang Qing's first work, an installation entitled _Mode Dialogue_ in which pairs of viewers could chat through a glass window using electric devices like those found in prison visitation rooms, was created for that exhibition. It evoked, conceptually if not visually, the phonebooth installation Xiao Lu created and (at Tang Song's request) shot at the opening of the China/Avant-Garde exhibition ten years earlier. In the ensuing years he would bounce among motifs and styles, dabbling in gender-bending photography, endurance-performance, and Shanghai-school snarkiness before developing the sophisticated videographic language of which the present show marks the most developed instantiation yet. Zhang Qing's long path to today actually sheds light on contemporary art as it is and was practiced during the long '00s. By looking at these works, a picture emerges of an artist emerging in synch with a system that is constantly changing.
Take for example Zhang Qing's second work, titled "A List of Art Activities in Shanghai in November 2000." In this piece, Zhang did exactly what the title suggests (not unlike Huang Yong Ping's "A History of Modern art and A Concise History of Chinese Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes." He mailed this list to the Shanghai Propaganda Department and the Shanghai Television Station, evoking the anonymous sequel to Xiao Lu's gunshot, where an artist mailed a bomb threat to the Beijing Daily, the National Art Museum, and the Beijing Public Security Bureau. The piece also reflects interestingly on Yan Lei and Hong Hao's "Invitation Letter" (1997) in which a fake invitation to Documenta X was sent to 100 leading artists. Where that piece involved a counterfeit offer from a foreign institution made to too-eager artists, Zhang Qing's list is an grassroots consolidation of an already-existing set of events that is passed on to an apathetic government. November 2000 marked the first internationalized edition of the Shanghai Biennale and Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi's "Fuck Off." Today the piece exists aesthetically as a little-known consolidation of these various trends, and archivally as the only comprehensive documentation of what happened during the month that changed contemporary art in China.
In December 2001, as performance art of the endurance/masochist variety was about to find itself first outlawed and then made irrelevant, Zhang Qing realized a work in a cold apartment building in Chengdu. Called "Blablabla!," the piece involved asking a technician to pierce his ears in twelve places and attach helium balloons to the rings. Zhang stood naked and bloody through the long process, then jumped into the air again and again attempting to pop the balloons with a needle. They floated atop strings that kept them just out of his natural grasp, so Zhang Qing could only resort to quickly bouncing up and down as a way of exploiting the time lag between his movements and the balloons, creating a narrow window in which he could reach the balloons but also intensely pressuring the newly pierced holes in his face. A few weeks later, he stripped down again, painted himself red, and provoked a chained-up bull to attack him, bound only by a ring in its nose.
The fall of 2003 in Beijing marked another turning point for the city's art scene. Factory 798 was established as a public gallery district, having reached a degree of exposure unthinkable a few years earlier when Zhang Qing collated his list of activities in Shanghai. The first "Beijing Biennale" was staged and led to a great wave of satellite shows timed to court its visitors. At a now abolished art center, Zhang Qing realized his project "To Tie," in which eighteen performers are placed inside a 31-meter long cloth tube and are asked to tie a human knot. A few months later, in Nanjing, he hired a dozen taxis to careen toward each other in pairs, then slam on the brakes, shift into reverse, and back up to do it again. A tight channel was carved out between the cabs, and viewers were encouraged to walk the gauntlet between the crazed cabs in an extreme act of faith.
Like many artists, Zhang Qing began in 2005 to work with digital photography, producing a highly memorable image of a high-rise cluster in Shanghai, not far from the furniture store where "Home" was held, as the lights in every window twinkle on.
the Bund and Pudong skylines in which the lights are all on but no one seems to be at home. It was a short leap from here to "Football Field No. 603" (2006), a video installation depicting a soccer match taking place inside the artist's own cramped apartment, number 603. The strange combination of absurdity, playfulness, and potential violence speaks to an energy in the air in those fraught pre-Olympic years. Soon he began to incorporate found imagery into his work, beginning with the installation "108," an assemblage of appropriated images dead heroes. A video installation titled "It's Too Late" (2007) continued that trend, a cycle of six short loops of suspended, unconsummated action.
This expansive photographic and video project presented here continues a turn toward the filmic and a bending of the line between fiction and reality that first emerged last year in Zhang Qing's video installation Don't be Cruel. For that piece, Zhang tracked down individuals he remembered for having given him dirty looks during his childhood, and subsequently layered his intricately crafted moving portraits of these individuals flashing their "mean" expressions over his own voiced recollections of the incidents that led to such displeasure, or perceived displeasure. In this exhibition, Zhang pushes this investigation further, choreographing the movements of a team of actors in a spectacle that courts realism even as it defies reality.
Entitled "Don't Go So Fast," the current exhibition presents a cycle of photographic and video works set in the mud cave-homes of Shaanxi province, one of China's poorest provinces. These images depict a group of attractive young professionals, wearing the signature name-brand uniform of the urban upwardly mobile, as they inhabit the signature ramshackle spaces of China's far interior. Despite their incongruous surroundings, Zhang's subjects carry themselves as if they had never left Shanghai's Xujiahui or Beijing's CBD, frenetically pacing in and out of humble homes as if these buildings were the gleaming office towers of the coastal cities. Their actions play out not only against the backdrop of these rural surroundings, but also against a series of outlined images of developed splendor which the artist has scrupulously chalked onto the interior and exterior walls of the village dwellings. Here, a young woman applies lipstick, sitting on a fire-heated kang with an image of a canopy bed from Dubai's most luxurious hotel behind her; there, the assembled group stands between a pile of corn stalks and a peasant home across which runs a drawing of the Pudong skyline.
"Don't Go So Fast" weaves images still and moving into an extended reflection on the disparities of China's development and the technologies of control which make that development possible. At the heart of the project lies a nine-screen television wall, showing a rolling loop of footage shot by static surveillance cameras placed around the village. Unlike in his posed still photographs, here Zhang Qing abandons control over his lens in favor of an omniscient, "neutral" perspective identical to the one taken by the thousands of security cameras that audit life in cities around the world each day. The cameras' grainy remove from their subjects, along with the resolute stillness of their angles, belies the intricacy with which the artist has scripted the actions which they record. Installed in configurations that mirror the architectural layouts of the spaces in which it was shot, the works manage to drive home to the gallery-going audience the disparity between these two basic poles of contemporary China. For Zhang Qing, the present project represents not so much a departure as a fulfillment of basic tendencies that are present throughout his ten-year career. The place of this work among Zhang's other work, and of Zhang's oeuvre among other Chinese artists, is becoming increasingly and delightfully clear.