Installation view of ZHAO BANDI’s “China Party” exhibition at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing, 2017. Courtesy UCCA.

China Party

Zhao Bandi

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

The survey exhibition of Zhao Bandi’s work, “China Party,” begins with an object that is presented as representative of the fundamental turning point in the artist’s career, from traditional social realist style painter to multimedia social interventionist. This first artwork, Nursery Rhyme, is composed of a small glass partially filled with blood, a rib bone protruding from the liquid’s surface like a straw, topped with a flower composed of a cluster of old ten-renminbi bills. Created in 1994 and first exhibited in Holland at the artist’s first solo exhibition to not include paintings, it was an assessment of China’s rapid move toward mass commercialism—a shift that was as dangerous as it was beautiful—and at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art immediately established a dominant narrative that Zhao was and remains a socially engaged artist.

The first works we saw from Zhao’s infamous “Panda Period” were a series of surreal advertisement-style photographs from 1999 showing the artist in various situations with his ever-present stuffed toy panda: Zhao asks his panda if the cuddly pandas piled in a shop display are real or fake; Zhao asks his panda if it minds him smoking; Zhao and his panda enjoin us to “oppose violence.” The series is representative of Zhao’s utilization of visual tropes drawn from commercial vernacular, these artworks ultimately acting as ironic commentaries on the rapid changes that occurred in Chinese society in the 1990s.

ZHAO BANDI, Nursery Rhyme, 1994/2017, renminbi, rib, blood, glass, 36 × 12 × 12 cm. Courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing.

Most spatially prominent in the exhibition was Panda Fashion Show, a work of astute sartorial satire that was first staged at the Chinese International Fashion Week in Beijing in 2007, and then at the Palais de Tokyo two years later. Placed at the center of the exhibition space were mannequins adorned in panda-themed outfits representing 33 tongue-in-cheek archetypes that Zhao believed constituted Chinese society in the late 2000s: school kid, real estate agent, internet celebrity, prisoner, prostitute, corrupt official and more. Screens showed models strutting down the catwalk to a techno soundtrack and the laughs and exclamations of the Chinese audience. More social commentary is embedded within the fashion show when a doctor and nurse join the caricature of affluence: “Look at how only the rich can afford healthcare,” Zhao is saying.

Installation view of ZHAO BANDI’s series of photographs from 1999 that show the artist and his stuffed panda toy in various situations. Courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing.

Along one side of the space are four amateur-style recordings of Zhao’s performances, which were satirical and creative interventions into official events (such as government visits) and administrative spaces (such as courtrooms). Opposite these is a different type of video work, Let Panda Fly (2013), Zhao’s highly polished movie made for a mass cinema audience. The semi-fictionalized depiction tells the story of a real charity campaign launched by the artist, who invited 20,000 children to create artworks to be sold at auction, with the funds raised channeled into the construction of a nursing home. The film is littered with indiscreetly veiled criticisms of various aspects of Chinese society, such as parenting, public welfare, the wealth divide and the education system’s ethos that focuses on examinations and in the process destroys the creativity of schoolchildren. However, we are presented with a genuinely happy ending: art does effect social change.  

ZHAO BANDI, still from Let Panda Fly, 2013, video: 88 min 51 sec. Courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing.

ZHAO BANDI, still from Let Panda Fly, 2013, video: 88 min 51 sec. Courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing.

Relegated to their own corner, a collection of canvases were tucked away from the exhibition’s artworks that offered more overt social commentary. These paintings were somber and lonely affairs, offering a mini-survey of Zhao’s career as a painter, from student of social realism to a pensive aesthetic developed more recently—but with the addition of jarring objects like CCTV cameras or bright neon lights. The newest works in the show were the painting-video combination of China Party and China Party – Chopin (both 2017). The latter shows a so-called “party” organized by Zhao, at which he painted a young woman who played a composition by Chopin on a piano while she slowly sank into a lake.

In this survey, Zhao Bandi was successfully presented as an artist who has been on a mission to intervene in society, to make a difference with art. To do this, Zhao gave up painting, but we discover that he has recently returned to the medium. The two intertwined artworks, China Party and China Party – Chopin, ended the show on what seems to be Zhao’s attempt to assimilate the dominant practices of his career. They feel like something of a solemn endnote, an unintended ode to the difficulty of the task, this art for social change, which Zhao lumbered himself with when he first put down his paintbrush. 

ZHAO BANDI, China Party, 2017, oil on canvas, 290 × 390 cm. Courtesy Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing.

Zhao Bandi’s “China Party” is on view at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, until October 22, 2017.

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