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The Image of the Postproduction Era

Author: Huang Du 2004

The picture of Zhao Bandi accompanied by his fluffy panda has become a well-known, fashionable image in China. Not only has it earned him the nickname of Pandaman,he was also described as "A radical social worker with a lust for life." Zhao Bandi and his panda appear right across the media (TV, newspapers and magazines) and in public spaces (on the underground, in airports and on the streets) all over cosmopolitan cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. His work adopts the format of advertisements and yet differs from the usual, expected commercial language. He has translated the language of art. His art enters into and integrates freely with the rich and complex social space of daily life.

Zhao differs from most domestic artists who favour using politics as a form of expression, and overseas artists who explore the richness of traditional Chinese culture. His work closely follows changes in Chinese society. Using a self-styled 'filtering' process, he collects and selects current issues from television, newspapers and magazines. He then subjectively creates and arranges an environment that incorporates those issues with the panda and the artist's personal space. From the artist's point of view, the boundary between art and life becomes blurred and he is able to soak up, utilize and develop freely within this newly defined environment. Terry Eagleton describes postmodernism in The Illusions of Postmodernism as "a style of culture which reflects something of this epochal change, in a depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art which blurs the boundaries between 'high' and 'popular' culture, as well as between art and everyday experience" If we observe the current cultural and artistic conditions, we can easily see that Zhao's motivation and modus operandi derive from a postmodernist point of view in the way he handles data through selection and postproduction process. He follows the whole spectrum of the media-from personal sentiments to global subjects. He reflects upon Chinese events and world issues. He translater text into descriptive images and transforms fashionable images into a new form of artistic language. Through analyzing and reconstructing the data, his work reflect the relationship between self and others. His work is conceptual art deeply rooted in social context, conveying the morality of the daily life.

In 1996, using the format of fashionable scroll calendars (during that time the scroll calendars were chic items in Chinese households), Zhao created Zhao Bandi and Zhang Qianqian in which he attempts to find a form of expression which combines elements of high art and pop culture. Zhao's work played a distinctive role during the transformation of Chinese society. Applying the ideas of "pleasure to the ears and joy to the eyes" and the image of an auspicious and big happy family from the traditional Chinese Nianhua (new year painting), Zhao used a female model embracing the panda, symbolically depicting a traditional family in his art. In this series, the panda symbolises the only son. A sense of illusion and disquiet is created by the over-elaborate wreath, the beautiful pastoral landscape and the exaggerated expressions of the couple. Zhao and the finely adorned female posed and performed in front of the photofrapher. The work contains the ideologies and symbolism of everyday life, yet ant the same time a sense of surrealism permeates the air.

Zhao transforms pictorial messages into scenes from daily life. His works are closely connected with our everyday association, behaviour and judgement. His works focus on social issues (Pain doesn't scare me, AIDS does!, 1999), public welfare (Would you mind my smoking? and Please use the pedestrian crossing,1999) and new events (Fight Against SARS, 2003). He inserts elements of performance art, creating new scenarios and conveying multi-layered meanings. The works contain theatrical humour, satire and social critiques.

They exist within the public sphere and the stimulate the viewer's visual experience, inviting interaction from the general public. For example, when the Zhao Bandi and Panda billboards were placed on the Beijing underground, he enabled a concept to be expanded within the public sphere. In this sense, his works bear the trait of public art. From Zhao's point of view, displaying in the public sphere strengthens the connection between the messages accompanying his works and the outer world, because "space takes for us the form of relations among "sites" (sic). At these well known sites people can face, debate and discuss the works freely. However, Zhao's works do not intend to convey messages themselves, rather they aim to define new events, to subjectively express personal points of view, to spread individual opinions and to integrate them into society. This is reconstructed art. Since current affairs are constantly changing, artists can endlessly create and transform their works in accordance with the changing of events. In the world of media, image remains the instrument of emotional expression. Due to the fact that pictorial imagery contains economic and political interests, the boundary and speed of media distribution in contemporary society differs greatly from the past. We should therefore face the problems coherently. Pictorial messages are easier to create and re –produce. Fashionable images are elevated into a style, powerful messages can be freely picked and used by artists. One may say that Zhao's works derive from this devoted in the ideology of daily life and the words and images from newspapers, magazines, television, films and the internet. He freely utilizes all possible objects. As Rosalind Krauss Wrote "within the situation of postmodernism, practice is not definde in relation to a given mediun-sculpture-but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium-photography, books, lines on walls. mirrors, or sculpture itself-might be used." No work in any kind of media can exist in isolation, because it always formulates new meanings within the cultural space. In this circumstance, unconnected spaces and events are subjectively altered, pasted, magnified and exaggerated. The artist fully explores the potential of different kinds of media and objects. Combining different elements, he then inserts carefully selected and mixed messages, using a billboard format to create a critical image.

His work retains the humour of language adopts the approach of realism. Some of the images are truthful to life, some are intentionally exaggerated. He performas spray painting in front of the camera, to re-create image production. He has borrowed cinematic elements and combined 'pop' syntax, and re-materialised the visual characteristics of new events. From a social point of view, between imitating and being imitated, speaking and being told, he has created an order of symbols and social discourse. Zhao Bandi's video and photo composition A Tale of Love Gone Wrong for Pandaman represents a typical example. Zhao's idea derives directly from an event relating to the lawsuit concerning the intellectual property of his work. The case happened between April and May in 2003 when China was facing the SARS outbreak. Using this subject Zhao created Fight Against SARA, a piece of contextual propaganda. However, without his permission and obliterating his name, two media organizations The Beijing Evening News and World Knowledge magazine published his work. Zhao sued the two media companies. On 11 November 2003 both parties were summoned to court in Beijing. Using black and white video and photography to record the process of the case, Zhao sits in the prosecution seat holding the panda. Similar to the old silent films, the video uses the score from the famous Chinese musical drama The Butterfly Lovers (the love story of a young couple) to accompany the debates between the two parties. The only audible, spoken moment in the video is when the artist spends four minutes reading out a letter fromhis girlfriend to the court. A letter sent from abroad, in which his girlfriend expresses her intention to terminate their relationship. Like many other Chinese, his girlfriend satirises, ridicules and criticizes his Pandaman works. The audience in the public gallery are mainly Zhao's friends. Laughter is heard repeatedly when Zhao reads out his girlfriend's mocking words and when he tries to make comments on her writing. During the reading the judge constantly reminds him to focus on matters directly relating to the case.

This event ended with Zhao winning the appeal. In this work, Zhao expands his artistic concept to include the inner structure of the social system, in order to analyse the relationship between art and society. He examines the understanding and reaction from the Judge, the lawyers, the defendants and the audience. In postroduction, he has reconstructed a new art work. The process and relations of the work are transformed entirely into a new composition, at the same time evoking many 'thought provoking' questions- art and life, art and morality, art and law, art and society. He brings all these elements into his artistic horizon. He makes them out as 'games'. From his standpoint, the media and society have become a means of exchange: it not only represents the art itself, at the same time it also reflects the characteristics of the culture in the Chinese society.

Zhao is like a critic using media to analyse media, using images to criticise image. He plays the role of 'chief editor'. His compositions use the basic elements of advertising and yet are different from advertisements. He combines various artistic languages (performance, photography, ready-made). What he has put together are news fragments, columns, adverts and coherent messages. The artist strongly emphasizes that the human body is a kind of media extension, a self-controlled body that can be extended inside any space. He places the media pictures outside their original settings, indicating that he is dictating the media itself. From the media and from pop art, he discovers a new opportunity for art, using the process of contrasting, dissecting, grouping  and transformation. From everyday experience one can understand the concepts behind his works more easily. This kind of attitude and work ethic allows him to continue experiencing the latest events, enabling interaction between his work and society, and allowing him to maintain the highest degree of sensitivity and excitement. To some degree, the self and the media have become inseparable. However, his train of thought is not formulated. It flows and varies. These changeable events force him to make an instant decision in order to respond to the complex reality. In July 2003, thanks to the invitation from the Red Mansion Foundation, Zhao had the opportunity to spend a month working in London. As an artist coming from a Chinese socialist society, he felt the need to question those from a typical capitalist country. Since we are now living in a postmodern society which at this time is full of danger, challenge and confusion. In particular after September 11, human beings are facing the severe challenge of evaluation and judgement of morality. Under the context of global change and English culture, Zhao produced Oho: Ask London, a video work, lasting 2 hours 30 minutes. He made up 20 questions for 30 English interviewees, each one of them had to answer all the questions. Zhao took his panda with him to all of the interviews. The interviewess came from diverse walks of life: there was a stockbroker, a business proprietor, a ballerina, a priest, a gay man, a homeless person, a hairstylist, a nurse, a fishmonger, a female firefighter, and a whole class of students. When he asked "What do you know about China?", some answered the Great Wall, some said Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, some even answered Chairman Mao. On the subject of the SARS outbreak, some compared it to a smokeless war. On the Iraqi war, he asked: "Would you like to talk about the war?", " Are you worried about terrorism?", when some interviewees began to talk about his or her views on the war, Zhao then asked: "Where did you receive the information?'', if the answer was the news or television broadcast Zhao then carried on "Do you believe in the media?". He asked extensive questions with subjects ranging from war to love and daily life. In this work, the artist questions people from a range different social backgrounds. He not only investigates their evaluation of capitalism, he also, to some extent, reveals the different identities of the interviewees since people's answers more or less reflect their different living environments and social standings. This work analyses the difference between people and at the same time criticizes the domineering influence of modern capitalism upon people. Under this definition, the artist liberates the subjectivity within oneself. His performance surpasses all kinds of restrictions, entering the space of others. In this way, the coexistence between self and others goes beyond the different cultures and jointly faces these challenges. This is dynamic research into the meanings of sociology and anthropology. During the 'process', the artist can understand and experience how other people deal with pressure and confusion as well as how they express happiness and joy.

His sensitivity towards events is like that of a journalist. However, unlike a journalist, he is not interested in the objectivity of his interviewee, instead, he emphasizes the creation of self consciousness and subjectivity. His method travels nomadically, without the social rules nor the institutional systems. He fully utilizes the mass media, and at the same time criticizes mass marketed public images. This is the meaning behind his intention to create his own medium.

In conclusion, Zhao's concept emphasises the integrity of his work under the headings of 'thought-product-word-environment'. His work contains both the artistic language of pop culture and the characteristics of public art (which interacts within the social space). One might say, his creative method contains the artistic characteristics of the postproduction era – combining performance, montage, pastiche, parody, irony, humour, in order to represent the visual experience of our time. His work is not a decorative object in a public space; rather, it creates a means of contact for the public culture. His work dose not have a fixed meaning, his work does not maintain the same meaning within any said space. Under this circumstance, the space becomes controllable, productive and creative. The space does not isolate the object; rather it unites the object with its surroundings.

Huang Du, a Freelance curator art critic, based in Beijing, China

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