Thursday morning, 10:30 am. Precisely. I arrive at my studio to find Zhao Bandi. He is, surprisingly, even more precise. It's hard to miss his egg-yolk yellow Alfa Romeo Spider gleaming in the sun. Or him, leaning against it, cloaked from head to toe in his habitual black from baseball cap to funky shoes with grossly extended toes that he's favoured for the past year or so.
Head thrown back, mobile clamped to his ear: this is a scene from a Pepsi commercial. A Perfect parallel for an artist who deliberately bucks the elitism of the avant-garde., preferring to address himself to the mainstream masses.
Ten minutes later, we're seated on my couch watching a DVD: his latest work titled A Tale of Love Gone Wrong for Pandaman.
As we watch, the Pandaman-a self-styled moniker adopted of late-sips tea and provides a running commentary. He likes this work: sees it as a triumph, not just for himself, but as demonstrable evidence of real reform in China.
I wonder what the panda thinks:
Zhao Bandi (ZBD): He decided to wait in the car [strapped responsibly into the passenger seat of ZB's Spider].
In style and treatment, the film parodies a silent movie being black and white, set to a lyrical score and evincing all the dramatic gesture of wordless mime.
Karen Smith (KS): What prompted your choice of "Butterfly Lovers" for the soundtrack?
ZBD: For love! This is a tale of love as you see at the end. I stand up to read a letter that my girlfriend wrote to me from abroad telling me why she left me…
This portion is accorded particular focus in the film, and can be viewed as a subversion of the entire court proceedings, a satire on evidence presented by the defendants, or the artist revealing a deep emotional engagement with the case…
ZBD: You know it's all make believe. It doesn't matter if the letter was real or not, or even what she said. The point was all about the fiction of the courtroom. I initiated proceedings, not because I cared overtly about my work being violated but because I had an impulse to test the system:
I didn't believe it was really about justice, that ordinary people could triumph over large companies [in this case two large media corporations].
KS: So, you began as a painter… is that relevant to where you are now?
ZBD: No, there's absolutely no connection between my painting and what I am doing now-at least I hope not! But it is a question that many people ask. Each time they ask, I can only say what I think in that moment .People change and their ideas change with them… I can say this though, my dream of being a painter came to an end. And when it did, I threw away my brushes. I had become uncomfortable working with-and now even talking about-paint.
KS: Is it fair to say that your original desire to be an artist was, due to the socio-political circumstance, limited to being a painter: therefore when you discovered the "artist" encapsulated so much more, you became open to other possibilities?
ZBD: Something like that. But I also had this idea that being a "persona" [personality] was more important than being an artist per se.
KS: What do you mean by being a "persona"?
ZBD: Taking on a role. There came a point in my life where I chose to adopt a role. Fortunately for me, society seems to have accepted and encouraged that role.
KS: How would you describe that role?
ZBD: To be a ray of light in society, a prism: like a stroke of genius, [he laughs]. Seriously, I am very egalitarian. I don't presume myself to be any different form anyone else, equal to all, not greater and certainly not lesser.
KS: So when you abandoned painting, did you have an idea of the direction in which you were heading?
ZBD: I began experimenting with materials and forms. Objects too. In 1994, I produced a series of performances. Every act was part of the process by which I departed from painting. I had no idea where this was heading at the time. It was a pretty grey era. But I always gave 100% for each project, even where I sensed the were not going as planned. I did realise that it was not possible for me alone to decide if a word was any good or not. The only way to test it out was to insert it into society in some way. Friends encouraged me, but they were friends: to be told you're good is apt to make you complacent. Eventually though I decided that this particular role was a failure.
KS: What turned it, or you around?
ZBD: I discovered I really didn't need to be such a perfectionist. I needed to get a distance from the work. And to try another tack. Which is when I decided to produce a calendar for the mass market.
KS: Yes, I recall…but that was something of a grand production too?
ZBD: Mmmm. Yet, it was a complete failure in terms of what I intended it to be: a commercially successful visual product with mass audience appeal. I spent a fortune getting a distribution number, and hawking it round book stands [in China, calendars art big business, linked with prosperity and ritually distributed between friends and the workforce of State and private enterprise. These art sold in bookstores but also on the news stands that are a fixture of every street corner] only to have the sellers raise their eyebrows at the artiness of the image. I lost count of how many tried to give me advice about how to do it better next year.
KS: Did it sell at all?
ZBD: You know it did, 'cos you bought one, but only to people like yourself; members of the art community.
KS: That was in 1996…
ZBD: Yup, and I didn't do anything after that until 1998 when I was invited to participate in the Sydney Biennial which decided to commission a new version of the calendar.
KS: That was when you did Am I Dreaming?, the one on the boat?
ZBD: Not exactly, It was the one with the boat, but had yet to add words to the image. That only came to me afterwards when people started asking me about the panda, the general idea… I decided that my approach would have more impact if I was in dialogue with the panda. So that's how I came to the first series of images in 1999.
KS: Just to humour me again, where did you get the idea for using the panda? I mean he's not just a tongue-in-cheek symbol for your patriotism…you use him to point to entirely current social issues. You both seem to have a strong social conscience. Does he get that from you ? Or vice versa?
ZBD: A bit of both really…I had a sense of needing to identify an image, anicon, but not exactly an icon, something that represented something about china. It occurred to me that one of the greatest formative influences on my life were the propaganda paintings [largely paintings, posters and book illustrations-and sculptures-in the style of Socialist Realism promulgating the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology] I grew up with. When I was trying to sell the calendar. I realised his potential as a didn't get his relation to me in the picture. I realized his potential as a spokesperson, that through him I could talk about culture and society in a soft, humorous way.
KS: So, that when you became Zhao Bandi and the Little Panda?
ZBD: Yes. My friend [the girl] who appeared in the second image with the boat was quite offended. She's a singer and accused me of choosing the panda over her because I thought she wasn't famous enough! The panda thought it was funny too…
KS: But it was about a partnership between the two of you, after all you didn't let him perform alone.
ZBD: Well, I couldn't not be in the works, Having decided we were a team, I began working on our approach.
KS: How did the process unfold? You first decided the issues, the captions?
ZBD: It was like conceiving and ad campaign. Friends suggested topics, and then I'd come up with a visual and a slogan. The photographs were orchestrated to reflect the message or concept. We produced nine pieces in fairly quick succession/
KS: These were the ones shown at the Venice Biennale in 1999? They got a great reception, but when you came back, you not produce another piece until 2003 in response to the SARS epidemic. What happened?
ZBD: Well, I don't like to think of myself as a professional artist. I've never been one to churn out works or to give myself pressure.
KS: So what were you doing?
ZBD: Just hanging out, wasting time…I waste a lot of time . It's good when people push me to do work.
KS: But you did get motivated to produce the SARS work.
ZBD: Yeah, that was special. It is the only work in the panda series that I produced entirely myself, during that time, no one wanted to go too near anyone else.
KS: It was a moment, too , when there was a resurgence of State rhetoric about "defending the Motherland", about eradicating a social ill…
ZBD: Yes, and that made me feel I had to do something. Propaganda is always telling people what to do. It doesn't encourage you to make your own mark. It is different from the experience of western artists who are taught to expect to be autonomous and have an individual vice as a birthright. In China, we are taught about the type of works we should create as being suitable for the public arena, and the accent is on educating the people in some way. I felt the role of educator was one I ought to take on.
KS: In this sense, as a contemporary artist, your approach to educating is almost a seditious act.
ZBD: Yes, it is more than the superficial sense of the sentiment expressed in the works.
KS: Is that the conclusion you hope your audience draws?
ZBD: I don't hope, I know that's what they see. But each individual reads the works in different way, in the light of their own experience.
KS: In 2003, you were invited to spend a month in Britain. The project you realised there was called Oho Ask London. Was exploring the differences in audience response and individual experience an aspect that shaped the project?
ZBD: As an educator, I decided I could help Chinese people understand certain contemporary issues. Often the easiest way for them to grasp this without being overtly offended is to take a non-Chinese example and let them draw the parallels. My goal was to ask the same questions of as many British people as I could, from all walks of life, and then show the results back in China.
KS: As posters?
ZBD: No, on TV, but I'm still working on the final cut.
KS: And your questions?
ZBD: Name a famous Chinese person; Have your heard of SARS; What is your stance on Iraq; Do you believe everything that appears in the media… That was one of the most interesting ones; about 50% of the people said no. Chinese people would be very surprised about that.
KS: You had the majority of interviews arranged for you. Did you not think you could achieve the results you wanted by interviewing people on the street?
ZBD: Not really. I wanted a real cross-section of the populace. But there were two spontaneous ones. One with a homeless person on the street. I asked him what he thought about brands. He said he didn't care but if he had money he would buy an Alfa Romeo Spider.
KS: What did he say when you told him you bad one?
ZBD: I decided it was best not to mention it.
KS: While you and the panda were away enjoying life in London, your lawyers were drawing up your case against the two media publications.
ZBD: It took some time. The first copyright infringement took place on April 21st , just a few days after I completed it. I had posted it on Sina [the largest Chinese internet server] and it was downloaded from there. As soon as I started proceedings, representatives of the publication approached me to settle out of court. They said their offer was far more than I was likely to be awarded if I won, and that they'd run a feature in their publication to promote me. I told them I didn't need promoting, and in any case, the panda was dead against it.
KS: What was the general reaction of the trial judge and the staff to the whole proceedings?
ZBD: I think everyone enjoyed it. My lawyers were furious when I read out the letter, but at least I gave them all a new experience. It was funny, too., a number of artists came to listen in the public gallery. Over lunch they were all criticising my lawyers for not explaining art properly or being up to speed with the terminology. The case is now famous as The Panda Case.
KS: So, what's next. You would appear to enjoy being in the limelight, yet you say you're lazy…
ZBD: Well. I don't have great aspirations if that's what you mean. I enjoy the fact that I am increasingly able to be myself. I never thought in terms of becoming "a great artist", of gaining fame abroad, promoting China, or influencing society in China. All hope to do is to provide a little illumination. I'm thrilled that my film is going to be screened in Shanghai as part of the Shanghai Film Festival-it is my best work- not for myself, but because it reflects real change brought about by reform and China's entry to the World Trade Organisation. There will be a big party to celebrate the fact that China is changing for the better. I'd like to spend some time hanging out and pondering what that means.
He glances at his watch.
ZBD: I hope you'll excuse me now, but it's feeding time for the panda. He hates being shut in the car too long: we've another interview to do this afternoon and I want him to be on form...
KAREN SMITH HAS BEEN RESIDENT IN CHINA SINCE 1993 BESEARCHING CHINA'S CONTEMPORARY ART SCENE. SHE HAS CONTRIBUTED NUMEROUS ARTICLES TO PUBLICATIONS IN CHINA ABROAD, AND WRITTEN FOR A NUMVER OF EXHIBITION CATALOGUES, SHE HAS RECENTLY COMPLETED A BOOK PROFILING CHINA'S LEADING CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS.