In a culinary metaphor, Gansu-born artist Zhang Ding shoots and explodes five animals in his latest show at TOP Contemporary Art Centre, 'Buddha Jumps Over the Wall'. He tells Time Out that it doesn't matter why.
The name of the dish 'Buddha Jumps Over the Wall' (fo tiao qiang), from which Zhang Ding's new solo show takes its title, comes from an apocryphal story. Journeying around Fujian, a Qing dynasty scholar kept the leftovers of his previous meals in a jar, adding new dishes to the mix each day. One evening, as he reheated the food, the combination of meats and seafood smelled so good that a Buddhist monk forgot his vegetarianism, leapt over a temple wall and demanded some.
In restaurants, the dish typically includes shark's fin, abalone, sea cucumber, chicken and many more ingredients. Zhang's rendition has just five, each cast in plaster: a fish, an oversized soft shell turtle, a chicken, a duck, a goat and a pig. Zhang hired a special effects team to plant small explosives, along with bags containing fake blood (in liquid and powder forms) inside the animals. At his Taopu studio, he shows us video of the bright white animals, being riddled with bullets in slow motion, synthetic hemoglobin spilling out. When all five creatures are thoroughly killed, the entire scene explodes.
Born in Gansu in 1980, Zhang Ding established himself as one of the country's top new media artists years ago. In 2007 he created two memorable video works – 'Boxing No 1&2', in which he punched cacti until his fists were bloody, and 'The Great Era', where he wears a white tuxedo and rides a horse-headed exer-cycle – a nod to migrant workers, getting nowhere – in a series of surreal scenes.
When we meet Zhang, he's plainly dressed in Chuck Taylors, jeans and a blue shirt, as if to illustrate one of his artistic preoccupations. 'My works combine reality and fantasy,' he says. 'I dress like this, but I can have an ideal or fantasy life.'
Zhang says that despite the macabre mess in his studio, 'my goal is to create an atmosphere, but not something frightening. These things, like action movies and the destruction of the world, please everyone.'
When the exhibition opens on Saturday 2, a sculpture of a butcher will aim a handgun at the video screen. Another butcher, wielding a knife, will stand over a table of hacked up meats. Elsewhere, large tropical plants and white and red life rings are set on a raised table.
Why these seemingly unrelated elements? 'I began this show two years ago, and I've forgotten what the motivation for it was, though there must have been one. The motivation is not important.'
'We all have our own reference systems. All of my works are connected to my reality, my reference set. Everything is included in it. To me these elements have quite real connections, but maybe they exist in another universe.'That sounds a little evasive, we say, to which Zhang replies: 'I can't even catch myself.' He does concede that he began by 'thinking about producers and consumers of goods and services, and emotion.'
No doubt Zhang would resist the interpretation, but if cooks need to kill everything that walks, swims and flies to whet a monk's appetite, maybe it takes an equally aggressive attitude to elicit a reaction from emotionally unavailable audiences – sending the scent of gunpowder drifting out the gallery doors.