Zhang Ding at the ICA: finding calm in the centre of noise

September 22, 2015

Can we find space for quiet self-reflection inside the fantastical installations and large-scale works which proliferate inside our favourite galleries and arts centres?

New media artist Zhang Ding, whose work encompasses video, installations, paintings and live performance, seems sure that in the middle of the noise, it is possible to find peace – a concept I think is intriguing.

At the ICA Theatre, you can find the new exhibition Zhang Ding: Enter the Dragon, a “mutating sound sculpture” where thoughts and senses are all around in the reflective surfaces, and a series of rotating mirrored sculptures (adjacent to two music stages) can catch us unawares. Yet they can also perhaps help us to see more deeply.

Zhang Ding, 35, is a graduate in new media of the prestigious China Academy of Art, after originally studying oil painting at the North West Minority University in Gansu province.

He may be based in Shanghai, but his work ties Chinese traditions to Western influences, with daily performances inside his space being chosen by Zhang in association with Dalston-based radio station NTS.

Even the title of the show highlights the links between East and West, referencing the final scene of martial arts expert Bruce Lee’s film Enter the Dragon (which Lee himself used to illustrate his understanding of Eastern philosophies to Western audiences).

And Zhang’s chosen performances – which will bring the installation to life – will seek to be self-reflective rather than competitive, in keeping with Lee’s interpretation of martial arts philosophy.

Zhang’s work is provocative and exciting, but we cannot just admire it. We must use it as a counterpoint to tap into our own intellects and find our own harmony.

In an interview, Zhang said: “Most Chinese artists have a rational approach toward the making of artworks. I thought that if I just followed my feelings then my work would be different; or at least more real.”

There is a progression from Zhang’s 2011 Shanghai exhibition Opening which explored his interest in audience interpretation and interaction, by forming his version of a nightclub, complete with flashing disco lights in three colours, and various elements representing a bar or a dance floor. “I don’t want people to see this as an exhibition,’’ he said at the time, “but more of a party.”

Another profound influence for Zhang is said to be the outlandish, baroque style of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. Visitors to Zhang’s studio can climb a large wooden platform structure called “Law” (2009), clambering along a precarious slope to peer into a massive bowl-crater filled with glowing lights, or to walk out on to two protruding wooden plank diving boards.

Nearby is “Tools” (2007), a room full of 24 old green refrigerators, each stuffed with cheap insulation and a speaker that randomly gives off explosive bangs.

This interplay between the wisdom and experience of continents and countries, new media and old, youth and experience may be clashing at times but in the chaos, we can find calm.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation