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Zhao Bandi: China Party
2017.8.5 - 2017.10.22
Great Hall
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From 5 August to 22 October, 2017, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) presents the solo exhibition “Zhao Bandi: China Party” in the Great Hall. The artist’s largest exhibition to date and his first institutional solo show in China, “Zhao Bandi: China Party” attempts to outline nearly three decades of the artist’s practice and presents more than a dozen of his works and projects from 1987 to the present. The included works span fashion design, video, film, performance, and painting. Throughout his career, Zhao Bandi (b. 1966, Beijing) has used art to investigate and reflect on nearly three decades of dynamic transformations, offering a romantic and personal account of China’s evolving reality. For Zhao, social development is a hybrid process, which he has described as “a fantastic party” that conflates the joys and sorrows of life. Sometimes an ardent activist and at other times a calm observer, Zhao steps in and out of this mesmerizing party to chase the rapidly changing zeitgeist with humor and irony. Moving fluidly between ideological critique, value interrogation, and personal expression, Zhao’s work is tinged with a sense of absurdity. And yet for all their playfulness, his interventions earnestly aim to harness the power of media and culture to reshape the contemporary condition.

In the Chinese art world of the 1980s and early 1990s, Zhao Bandi first gained fame as a realist painter, known for complex and virtuosic canvases drawing inspiration from the art-historical canon he revered. Rigid in composition and measured in brushstroke, these paintings often depict quotidian scenes with a narrative undertone, probing the existential and spiritual condition of ordinary people steeped in a specific moment. Works like Butterfly (1990), Letter from Far Away (1988), and The Lipstick Girl (1987) weld personal and historical references in remarkably original and lively ways. In the 1994 exhibition “Captain Moonlight” curated by Hans van Dijk, Zhao Bandi folded several ten renminbi bills into the shape of a flower and placed each of them on top of a rib bone anchored in a vase of blood, conjuring a vision of consumer society that is at once sweet and cruel, enticing and terrifying (Nursery Rhyme, 1994). Beginning in 1996, Zhao moved away from his training and turned to the popular format of advertising photography and the national symbol of the panda to intervene, humorously and trenchantly, in China’s inchoate social conditions. Using the symbol of the panda and a visual format that echoed both advertising and propaganda, Zhao realized a series of lightboxes containing public-service announcements, with the aim of generating dialogues between the art world and the public sphere (Zhao Bandi and Panda, 1999).

After the year 2000, Zhao’s works moved farther in the direction of performance and social intervention. In 2004, Zhao Bandi took two media businesses who published his advertisement photography without acknowledging his copyright to court, where he then unexpectedly subverted the court proceedings by presenting a letter from an ex-girlfriend, leading to his final win (A Tale of Love Gone Wrong for Pandaman). More than a parody, the work was a poignant critique of the status quo and a successful attempt at restoring the agency of art in the state’s legal system. In 2005, as anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics gripped the country, he held an “opening ceremony” for an imagined personal Olympics in Bern, Switzerland, enlisting a real cast and crowd in his quixotic effort. The 2007/2009 performance project Panda Fashion Show—a runway show featuring thirty-one panda-inspired “looks” based on a wide range of social roles, interrogated the sweeping impact of consumer ideology on Chinese society since the onset of economic reform. In it, fashion becomes the stage for a grotesque and gaudy vanity fair. In later intervention projects such as the various Panda Team Visitation works, Zhao aims to engage with art as a truly emancipatory and critical force to open a small but deep crevice in a rigid social system. His 2013 feature film Let Panda Fly follows the project “Trading Creativity for a Nursing Home,” juxtaposed real life events with fabricated episodes to complicate its supposed “authenticity” as the artist and his interlocutors work toward a shared goal.

In recent years, Zhao has opted to re-examine artistic practice and social activism from a distance, in keeping with yet another historical shift. In 2016, the artist launched “China Party: Chopin,” where relatives and friends gathered upon invitation to witness a young pianist play Chopin while half-submerged in a lake. A video and a new painting depicting this surreal incident will be presented for the first time in this exhibition, serving as the artist’s response to the ambivalent feelings he has experienced in today’s reality.

UCCA Director Philip Tinari observes: “UCCA is proud to present this immersive overview of over three decades of Zhao Bandi’s output. Zhao’s long career provides, at each historical moment, potent ideas about how art can engage with social realities, inspire new thinking, and leave distinctive traces. We look forward to sharing his work, and the poignant, whimsical ideas on which it is based, with our public.”

 

About the Exhibition

“Zhao Bandi: China Party” is curated by Philip Tinari, Guo Xi, and Yang Zi. The exhibition is supported by Beijing DSH Auto Co.,Ltd., Zhengzhou Jinshui Xiyu Art Center, and Mr. Liu Gang. Additional support comes from LinQi (Beijing) Asset Management Co., Ltd. Lighting support comes from Hongri Lighting. Exclusive audio support is provided by GENELEC. Exhibition production support comes from Green View Club. The exhibition opening events are supported by Wine J. J., Steinway Piano Asia Pacific Co.,Ltd., Ryan Carter Urban Garden Design, and Jing-A Brewing Co.

The exhibition is accompanied by a suite of public programs, including a conversation series that features a talk by French curator Henry Périer on Zhao Bandi’s work in relation to the exhibition, a discussion about the state of realist painting in contemporary art among a dozen artists in front of Zhao’s works on canvas in the exhibition space, a panel discussion on art and copyright which takes its inspiration from a legal dispute set off by one of Zhao’s works, and a talk about the relationship between art and advertisement. UCCA will also present “Painting Party,” a series of workshops for UCCA members and visitors; an experimental theater play starring the artist and the curators; and a live performance incorporating classical piano and modern dance improvisation.

In conjunction with “Zhao Bandi: China Party,” UCCA Studio presents a series of children’s workshops under the theme “I am an Animal Messenger,” with sessions including “Mascot Design,” “Fashion Design,” and “Conceptual Design.” UCCA Studio also launches an open call for children’s design of the UCCA Studio mascot, which will culminate in an exhibition for the submitted designs as well as an exhibition of artworks created in workshops during the October holidays.

“Zhao Bandi: China Party” is accompanied by a series of limited-edition products including brooches, phone cases, eco-friendly tote bags, and clothes. Jointly released by UCCASTORE, AIO Lab and Zhao Bandi Studio, these items are available at UCCASTORE and online.

 

About the Artist

Zhao Bandi (b.1966, Beijing) is a renowned artist and pioneering figure of the Chinese avant-garde movement. Trained as a painter, his practice has evolved to include performance, photography, video, fashion, film, and social intervention. Zhao has been included in exhibitions and presented projects including “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2017); “Chopin Underwater” Culture Party (Sichuan, 2016); Zhao Bandi Panda Fashion Show (Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2009; China International Fashion Week, Beijing, 2007); “One Man’s Olympics” Solo Performance (Bern, 2005); “Zhao Bandi: Uh-oh! Pandaman” (Manchester Art Gallery; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; Plymouth City Museum & Gallery, 2004); 48th Venice Biennale (1999); 11th Sydney Biennale (1998); “Moonflight” (Hanmo Art Center, Beijing, 1994); “China Avantgarde” (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Modern Art Oxford; Kunsthal Rotterdam, and further venues, 1993-1994); and “A New Painting by Zhao Bandi” (CAFA Gallery, Beijing, 1992). From 1999 to 2004, Zhao Bandi’s public art projects featuring pandas appeared in metro stations, airports and streets of cities throughout China and abroad, including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Milan, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Oslo, and Tokyo. From 2010 to 2013, his art and charity project “Trading Creativity for a Nursing Home” attracted over two million Chinese youth to submit their artworks, the revenue from which was used to establish a nursing home in Kaifeng county, Henan province, which currently houses 46 elderly adults. From 2013 to 2014, Let Panda Fly, a film Zhao directed based on his previous projects, was selected by the 29th Warsaw International Film Festival and many children’s film festivals, and enjoyed a wide theatrical release in China.

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The following texts introduce the various bodies of work that will be on view in the exhibition.

Painting 

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Zhao Bandi established himself as a painter with a distinct approach to the prevailing doctrine of social realism. Rather than fall under the influence of the avant-garde movement that swept through China in the mid-1980s, Zhao remained committed to rigid and measured brushstrokes, striking colors, and intimately constructed scenes. Taking inspiration from a rich array of masters, he adapted the art- historical canon he revered to develop a virtuosic style of his own. Despite being part of the academic system, he rejected the vogue among painters of working in China’s “exotic” peripheral regions, choosing instead to paint familiar scenes from his social surroundings with strong narrative undertones—quiet, private spaces excluded from “grand themes.” In his graduation work Letter from Far Away (1988), the figures appear natural and languid in their expressions; immersed in thought, they seem almost like a still life. The arch- shaped painting On That Morning (1990), on the other hand, reveals his early interest in the sense of ritual that an image invokes.

Butterfly (1990) depicts a couple in front of the Tiananmen rostrum. Unlike standard views of this national monument, this image—vertical, awkwardly cropped, its vanishing point somewhere beyond the frame—tackles public subject matter from a private perspective. A narrative scene unfolds as two people walk past one another in different directions. A female figure, seemingly weightless and held up by some invisible force, strides barefoot and twists her body to stand in profile. On the right, a half-naked man appears in the shade of a black umbrella, his gloomy face resembling the artist’s. It is a moment’s sentiment, at once personal and historical, in a single frame.

In 1992, Zhao Bandi held an unusual exhibition at the gallery of the Central Academy of Fine Arts: in the entire room, only one painting hung on the wall, tilted at an unorthodox angle. Titled Young Zhang (1992), it is a portrait of the artist’s childhood friend and schoolmate, who, sitting and stretching on a bed, seems to be listlessly daydreaming about a di erent life. He could not be more ordinary, excavated from this banal corner of life in this era. Yet even as he occupies the center of the canvas, he still seems submerged in material details—an alarm clock, a television, an embroidered quilt—in a portrait of the early 1990s everyman.

After experimenting with a variety of other media, Zhao Bandi returned to painting as an artist, not merely a painter. Social alienation has become the central theme of his current work. At first glance, Night View and Scenery with Monitors (both 2015) seem to salute impressionism with their short and hasty brushstrokes. But these landscapes are not purely natural, containing traces of human transformation. The deeply emotive painterly language belies a feeling of anxiety, an elusive, bleak quality. My Garden (2016), the artist’s only self-portrait since Butterfly, inherits the brushwork and texture of Zhao’s earlier landscape paintings. Placed in front of the light-dappled artist, a plant growing out of the iron fence seems to evince a certain autobiographical quality. China Party (2017), exhibited here for the first time, originates from a “Chopin concert half-submerged in a lake” that the artist organized in the suburbs of Chengdu in 2016. “At this moment,” he declares in an interview, “I think of the reality of China as a party, and I am trying my best to break away from it.”

 

Zhao Bandi and Panda 

Beginning with the “Panda Calendar” series in 1996, Zhao Bandi entered his “Panda Period.” The panda is a beloved figure, serving as a national mascot. The use of this symbol marked a shift in Zhao’s practice, from art as medium to art as social intervention. After 1996, it became apparent to him that art should not exist in a vacuum; it needs to become more open. Artists must preserve creative vitality through constant self-improvement. From 1999 to 2004, public art projects featuring pandas appeared in metro stations, airports, and streets throughout Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Milan, London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Oslo. In these works, conversations between Zhao and a plush toy panda appear in dialogue boxes. They touch upon a wide range of topics, including quitting smoking, tra ic rules, layo s, animal rights, HIV/AIDS prevention, and more. As the artist once observed, “I grew up in an environment of socialist propaganda art. The beginning of the Reform and Opening set another enormous apparatus in motion—advertisement.” In other words, this series stands at the intersection of two distinct styles, each belonging to a particular era.

 

One Man’s Olympics 

In this work, Zhao Bandi wears athletic clothing resembling the outfit of an Olympic torchbearer and sets out from a Beijing hutong with his toy panda. He races through city streets, subways, and various cultural landmarks, crosses a grassland, a desert, and a snowfield, and finally carries the torch to the opening ceremony of the “Beijing Olympics.” But this staged opening ceremony is dislocated across time and space: it was actually held in the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf in Bern, Switzerland, in 2005. The artist creates the illusion of being in Beijing: the black bear on the flag of Bern turns into a panda; road signs are swapped for those of famous Beijing streets; and an inflatable Tiananmen stands in the city square. The mayor of Bern, dressed in a Mao suit, is invited to deliver a speech at the ceremony. The video of this performance is accompanied by a pop music soundtrack of distinctly Asian motifs (theme songs of famous Chinese TV shows such as Shaolin Temple and The Story of the Red Chamber are humorously dubbed in as promotional music for the Beijing Olympics). In keeping with the piece’s title, Zhao Bandi often appears running alone on screen, transforming a collective and national spectacle into a declaration of artistic autonomy.

 

A Tale of Love Gone Wrong for Pandaman 

During the SARS epidemic of 2003, two media outlets used Zhao Bandi’s work Block SARS, Defend the Homeland— a photographic billboard in the style of a propaganda announcement—without the artist’s permission. Zhao subsequently took the case to court. The artist showed up with his toy panda and turned the courtroom into a stage for a performance art piece. During his speech, he subverted the proceedings by reading out a letter from an “ex-girlfriend,” who listed ludicrous shreds of evidence to support her claim that the photograph wasn’t really the artist’s work. Through this bold act, the artist disrupted the solemnity and authority of an administrative space. Instead of objectively documenting the event, A Tale of Love Gone Wrong for Pandaman appropriates the cinematic language of early silent films and plays it against a soundtrack of Chinese folk music. This juxtaposition realizes Zhao’s central intention: to blur the boundary between expressive and administrative spaces, the line between art and life.

 

Panda Team Visitation 

On Chinese New Year’s eve in 2007, Zhao Bandi led a “Panda Visitation Team” consisting of delegates dressed as panda messengers to visit various marginalized communities, including the elderly in a nursing home, migrant workers in a factory, and children at a boarding school. In this seven- part video, the cinematography, voice-over, and exaggerated scenes of speeches, glad-handing, and choral singing all echo the political visitations often seen on Xinwen Lianbo, the state’s daily news program produced by China Central Television (CCTV). That the visitation team was dressed in amusing, panda-themed costumes surprised and moved the groups they met. Through this work, Zhao raises questions of art’s sense of ritual: how is this sense of ritual invoked, disseminated, and produced? How might it effectively intervene in reality? How is reality, with all its complexities, regulated to become an easily reproduced paradigm?

 

Panda Fashion Show 

The project Panda Fashion Show has had two iterations: first during the Chinese International Fashion Week in Beijing in 2007, and then at Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2009. Thirty- three models, each in attire inspired by the symbol of the panda, perform as thirty-one archetypal characters from Chinese society—student, teacher, migrant worker, prostitute, groupie, beggar, homosexual, internet celebrity, judge, corrupt official, and more. They together compose a convincing portrait of China at a specific moment. The fashion show here becomes a vessel for staging the complex society that has emerged in a rapidly developing China—a fantastic party conflating the joys and sorrows of life, attended by people from all walks of life driven by their private desires. Drawing on the long tradition of social realism, Zhao Bandi applies his strength in formal construction and color combination to fashion design, resulting in a work of satirical elegance and glamour.

 

Let Panda Fly 

The film Let Panda Fly (2013) is a semi-fictualized depiction of a real charity campaign that Zhao Bandi launched. He invited over 20,000 children to create artworks inspired by the symbol of the panda and organized an exhibition and auction of their works at the Henan Art Museum. The revenue was then used to open a nursing home. The children in the film go through periods of doubt, confront their failures, and eventually learn to make art through perseverance—in this sense, the film is also about the process of an artwork’s formation. The film employs real participants as actors, providing a sense of naturalism that diverges from conventional filmic approaches while preserving a critical distance. Throughout the film, Zhao juxtaposes real events with a dream-like atmosphere, shifting freely between the two. Balancing truth and fiction, the artist implicitly expresses a certain regret towards the state of public welfare, sensationalism, and art-making today.

 

Nursery Rhyme 

In 1994, Dutch curator Hans van Dijk organized an exhibition for Zhao Bandi at the New Amsterdam Art Consultancy (NAAC), the artist’s first solo exhibition that did not include any paintings. At the end of the curatorial essay Zhao Bandi’s Moonlight, van Dijk offered his interpretation of the work Nursery Rhyme: “Here is a work with an innocent title: Nursery Rhyme. It consists of several beautiful flowers, petals made of ten-renminbi bills, growing atop a rib bone in a small vase filled with blood.” The sense of novelty and seductive alienation that consumerism brought to China is here invoked by the artist in a delicate yet frightening fashion.

 

China Party – Chopin 

On 12 September 2016, Zhao Bandi held a party in Shanquan, a small town on the outskirts of Chengdu. Adorned in black, a teenage, female pianist slowly stepped into the lake. She sat at a partially submerged grand piano and began playing Chopin. Her performance was subtle, emotive, and beautiful, but she seemed to be constantly sinking. During the event, Zhao delivered a speech titled “Away from Mainstream Ideology.” The tastefully dressed guests soon lost themselves in the melody and the spirits, but this pleasant scene belied a certain disquietude.

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  • "Zhao Bandi: China Party" Installation Views
  • Photographer: Zhang Hongyang
Works in the Exhibition
 / 6 1
    • Zhao Bandi
    • The Lipstick Girl
    • 1987
    • Oil on Canvas
    • 170 x 109 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Letter from Far Away
    • 1988
    • Oil on Canvas
    • 1690 x 1960 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • On That Morning
    • 1990
    • Oil on Canvas
    • 200 x 190 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Nursery Rhyme
    • 1994
    • Renminbi, rib, blood, glass
    • 12 x 12 x 36 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Butterfly
    • 1990
    • Oil on Canvas
    • 250 x 140 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Scenery with Cameras (reproduction)
    • 2015
    • Oil on Canvas
    • 100 x 75 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Night View (reproduction)
    • 2015
    • Oil on Canvas
    • 100 x 75 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • China Party
    • 2017
    • Oil on Canvas
    • 390 x 290 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • My Garden
    • 2016
    • Oil on Canvas
    • 171 x 117 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Young Zhang (reproduction)
    • 1992
    • Oil on Canvas
    • 214 x 140 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • A Tale of Love Gone Wrong for Pandaman
    • 2004
    • Video
    • 14'15''
    • Zhao Bandi
    • One Man's Olympics
    • 2005
    • Video
    • 27'5''
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Bandi Panda Fashion
    • 2007
    • Video
    • 33'33''
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Panda Team Visitation – Nursing Home
    • 2007
    • Video
    • 4'3''
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Let Panda Fly
    • 2013
    • Video
    • 88'51''
    • Zhao Bandi
    • China Party - Chopin
    • 2017
    • Video
    • 4'28''
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Zhao Bandi and Panda
    • 1999
    • Light Box
    • 120 x 120 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Zhao Bandi and Panda
    • 1999
    • Light Box
    • 120 x 120 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Zhao Bandi and Panda
    • 1999
    • Light Box
    • 120 x 120 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Zhao Bandi and Panda
    • 1999
    • Light Box
    • 120 x 120 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Zhao Bandi and Panda
    • 1999
    • Light Box
    • 120 x 120 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Internet Celebrity
    • 2017
    • Archival Print
    • 100 x 166.7 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Corrupt Official
    • 2017
    • Archival Print
    • 100 x 166.7 cm
    • Zhao Bandi
    • Stockholder
    • 2017
    • Archival Print
    • 100 x 166.7 cm
Installation Views
Related Programs
    • 2017.8.6
      Who is Zhao Bandi?
      14:00-16:00
      Auditorium
    • 2017.7.10
      “ZhaoBandi: China Party” Docent Recruitment
      Great Hall
    • 2017.9.16
      A Girlfriend’s Letter In Court—A Discussion on Art Copyright
      14:00-16:00
      Workshop
    • 2017.9.16
      Immersive dance for Zhao Bandi exhibition: Party in Between
      19:30-20:30
      Great Hall
    • 2017.9.24
      You’re Cordially Invited to a Painting Party
      17:00-19:30
      Atrium
    • 2017.9.13
      Summit on Chinese Painting
      16:00-18:00
      Great Hall
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Videos
  • Zhao "Bandi: China Party" Trailer Part 1
    01'05''
  • Zhao "Bandi: China Party" Trailer Part 2
    01'20''
  • Zhao "Bandi: China Party" Trailer Part 3
    01'35''
  • Zhao "Bandi: China Party" Trailer Part 4
    04'40''