文 / David Spalding
近来，国际性报刊关于中国迅猛的经济增长与快速城市化报道络绎不绝。的确，国内生产总值在近四年里经历了双位数增长。这样的经济繁荣给中国不少城市带来了大幅度的改善。每次剪彩典礼和招待会都象征着里程碑建筑项目的开始，这些项目皆出自名家之手——雷姆·库哈斯设计的CCTV新总部，赫尔佐格和德梅隆的鸟巢状奥林匹克体育馆就是两个鲜活的例子。 然而，还有数以百计的报道不为西方新闻界所知。北京当地的媒体，有个专门负责调查的记者小组创立了一档节目，该节目每周都在报道令人发指的案件，贪婪，腐败——人们互相欺骗，这在当下的中国已是司空见惯：出售伪劣产品，承包商和地产开发商骗取身无分文的外来民工数月工资。中国经济螺旋式的上升，已造成了法律和道德上的漏洞， 导致了腐败的肆无忌惮，它负面冲击着那些没能力承受哪怕失去一点的人们，他们的绝望往往成了容易被攻击的要害。
张小涛作品中扎堆的昆虫， 难道除开让人讨厌， 就没别的造诣了？它们能成为张小涛早期作品中描述的混乱场面的解决方案么？戈登通过观察认为，群居式的互动，导致群体内发生行为的变化。假如这观点是真的，腐败堕落的态势可否通过个体的选择而逆转——好比俗话说的“星星之火可以燎原”，戈登很快阐明了群体论在人类社会关系中的可应用性她说：“一个秉承蚂蚁道德品质的人，将是个及其空洞的人⑥。”留给我们的问题是：我们与张小涛作品中的蚂蚁有几分差异？这差异是人类的救星，还是灾星？
① 以下出现的视频及其它作品，都出自艺术家个展系列，《张小涛作品集2002—2006》。 深圳何香凝美术馆。2002，11月11日－11月26日
④可查阅 http：//www。fabricworkshop。org/exhibitions/swarm。php （被访时间：07年2月10日）
Desires Without Limits: The Recent Works of Zhang Xiaotao
TEXT / David Spalding
Swarms of ants pull apart a dead cockroach, fighting over the head before carrying it back to the colony. Nearby, vast heaps of medical waste have become a feeding and breeding ground for a grotesquerie of insects: fat, segmented larvae nest next to used syringes, attended to by ants with snapping mandibles. A razor-toothed bat soars over Beijing’s moonlit sky, weaving through the skyscrapers before swooping down over the construction rubble. Upon closer inspection, piles of bricks turn out to be mounds of human skulls. These are some of the images that comprise the single channel video projection Night, 2006, Zhang Xiaotao’s first foray into computer animation.1
Now in his mid-thirties, Zhang studied oil painting at the prestigious Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing, southern China, before relocating to Beijing in 2002. In an artist’s statement written that year, Zhang describes the city as teaming with “breathtaking scenes of an excessive, lawless life.” As he explains:
I only moved to Beijing this year, having lived and worked in a few different cities. Because China, in this transitional period, is changing too fast, the strongest feeling is that living in Beijing is really not the same as living in Europe or America. China is huge and chaotic, and it makes you feel tiny and insignificant… I want to express human desires in a materialistic society, people’s instinctive reactions, both physiological and psychological, to living in this era. 2
Skillfully combining the alluring with the abject, Zhang’s paintings are formally ambitious—large in scale (often measured in meters), they enlist techniques from both Western and Chinese traditions. While he tends to reflect on his immediate surroundings, Zhang’s approach is usually allegorical rather than strictly narrative. In contrast to his contemporaries, such as artist Xia Xing, who exactingly copies newspaper stories detailing China’s social problems, Zhang’s paintings, videos, and installations focus on psychologically charged symbols—feasting ants, moldering strawberries—that suggest and elicit powerful, conflicting affective states: longing and disappointment, desire and disgust.
These days, one often reads reports in the international media about China’s meteoric economic rise and rapid urbanization. Indeed, the country’s gross domestic product has experienced double-digit growth for the last four years. This boom has resulted in massive facelifts for many of China’s cities. Yet, for each ribbon-cutting ceremony and press conference marking the beginning of yet another landmark construction project by a brand-name architect—Rem Koolhaas’ new CCTV headquarters and Herzog and de Meuron’s bird’s nest Olympic Stadium are just two examples—there are hundreds of stories that do not make it into the Western press. Every week on local Beijing television, a team of investigative journalists produces a program about particularly heinous cases of greed and corruption—stories of people cheating one another, an all to common practice in China today: the selling of faulty consumer goods; the defrauding of migrant workers who, owed months of back wages are left penniless by contractors and real estate developers. China’s spiraling economy has created huge legal and ethical loopholes that have bred unbridled corruption, often negatively impacting those who can afford to lose the least, but whose desperation makes easy targets.
Simultaneously magnetic and revolting, many of the paintings Zhang Xiaotao made from 2002 to 2004 suggest a world where hunger gives way to decadence and promises of pleasure are broken—sometimes by the intensity of the subject’s desires. He renders everything with a horrible precision. In The Gift from Heaven No. 2, 2003, a dilapidated cake, festooned with ribbons of pastel icing, sits decaying on a filthy tablecloth. Though inedible, the cake beckons with a desperate, empty offer to satiate the viewer’s sweet tooth. Ants may be crawling just beneath the delicate, violet sugar-flowers, but the image still manages to inspire temptation. You want to stick your fingers in the frosting. With its ironic title, the painting is emblematic of the cloying and toxic dreams churned out for mass consumption in China, reflected in the billboards for new, upscale housing developments that line Beijing’s thoroughfares.
Candy-hued condoms float in murky, electric color fields, offering up the detritus of sex without a trace of gratification in the series of painting entitled Enlarged Prop, 2002. Decayed Landscape, 2004, perhaps Zhang’s best-known painting, depicts mountains of enormous, moldy strawberries, evoking the snowcapped crags of a classical Chinese landscape, while Room 310 Building 116, 2002, and Image of Desire, 2002, invite viewers to dine on the sickening leftovers of a decimated crab dinner. A swarm of cracked legs and twisted antennae await your agape jaws.
The works from 2002 to 2004 are trophies to time’s ravages. Meanwhile, in China today, atrophy is compressed into an instant. In the blink of an eye, the banquet has
already been devoured, the condoms are sticky from use, dessert has spoiled, and the newest high rises already seem to be crumbling from poor construction. Yet there is a perverse thrill to being lured into the aftermath, and a melancholic comfort in contemplating the ruins. These paintings reveal the moment when, having followed your appetites too far, you realize that there can be no turning back.
The frenzied gluttony and attendant corruption that Zhang captures in these paintings are echoed in the writings of French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who argued that periods of rapid social change, and particularly economic growth, can give rise to unrestricted desires. When such desires are unrealistic, because of a fundamental disconnection between what is professed to be possible and what is actually achievable, social values and ethical codes erode. People slip into a state of alienation. Durkheim called this condition anomie. As he states in the pioneering L’Éducation Morale:
Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly
considered a sign of morbidity….The notion of the infinite, then, appears only
at those times when moral discipline has lost its ascendancy over wants; it is
a sign of the attrition that occurs during periods when the moral system which
has prevailed for centuries is shaken, and fails to respond to new conditions
of human life, without any new system having yet been formed to replace that
which has disappeared.3
Though he was writing in Europe over one hundred years ago, Durkheim’s link between desire and anomie seems particularly acute in the face of Zhang’s works. Through the artist’s practice, the tensions created by China’s rapid revision of outmoded systems, such as a centrally planned economy, find their reflection.
During the last two years, Zhang has increasingly used vermin—bugs, bats, rats and their ilk—as stand-ins for Beijing’s human occupants. In Ants Moving Things, 2004, one looks down onto a scene wherein some two dozen tiny ants pull at the bloated bodies of three dead cockroaches. While the painting’s scale—two by three meters—creates a sense of immersion, the bird’s-eye view encourages a certain distance. The ants do not overwhelm the scene, but seem to be struggling to forage for sustenance. Though unpleasant to witness, nature is seen running its course.
In Zhang’s most recent paintings, however, insects pursue their appetites with a reckless violence that is both highly organized and without consciousness; a destructive, consuming force that knows no ethics. In Ants Moving Things #3, 2006, the tiny insects swarm under a freeway overpass, threatening to cover every square inch of freshly laid concrete. With its skewed, endlessly receding horizon and telescoping cement grid-work, the painting envelops viewers and creates the uneasy sensation that the unfolding scene is infinitely repeated.
Coming Tempest, 2006, the most remarkable of these new paintings, is a vertical
canvas whose elegant brushwork, bordering on abstraction, suggests Chinese ink painting. The painting enlists a lush palette of purples and blues to depict a monstrous, desperate hoard of ants whose frantic activity begs the question: are these insects manically preparing for impending rain, or is the swarm itself the storm that we should fear?
Swarm theory, which is currently informing practices ranging from entomology and artificial intelligence to business planning, looks to the behavior of insects— particularly ants—to find that flexibility, rather than fixed social roles, offers the best model for survival and success. The possibilities of this new organization model is also being explored in the arts: the group exhibition Swarm, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia juxtaposed work by artists with diverse practices—including Julie Mehretu, Paul Pfeiffer and Yukinori Yanagi—and pursued questions raised by current interest in swarm theory. As the curators Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller explained, “Fascination with swarming reflects a contemporary view of nature, politics, and social life—one that favors unplanned and decentralized modes of organization.” 4
The swarms of ants that have overrun Zhang Xiaotao’s newest works are indeed overwhelming in their rapacity. Nevertheless, they also map out an arena in which each player’s identity is constantly renegotiated through social interactions. Seen in this light, Zhang’s images intersect with the research of entomologist Deborah Gordon, Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and an expert on ant behavior whose research has helped to fuel swarm theory and its various applications. Gordon writes:
Each ant’s “decision” on whether to become active and what activity to
perform seems to depend not on a single meeting but on the patterns of
interactions among many individuals. Specifically, red harvester ants seem to be recognizing and “tallying”—not numerically, but through sensory cues such as scent—the other ants they encounter and adjusting their behavior
accordingly. If the foragers meet a certain number of patrollers within a certain time, for instance, they may “decide” to begin foraging.5
Could the swarming insects in Zhang’s paintings do more than repel? Might they suggest a solution to the anomic scenes depicted in his earlier works? Gordon’s observation suggests that behavioral changes within the swarm are cued by social interaction. If this is indeed true, could rot and corruption be reversed through the choices of an individual—the proverbial single spark that starts a fire? Gordon is quick to clarify the applicability of swarm theory to human social relations. “A person with the moral qualities of an ant,” she observes, “would be terrifyingly empty.”6 The question remains: how similar are we to those ants in Zhang Xiaotao’s paintings? Will our differences save us, or will they be our undoing?
1.The video and many of the other works described below were presented in the artist’s surveyexhibition, Zhang Xiaotao:Works, 2002-2006, He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, November 11 – 26, 2006.
2. Zhang Xiaotao, “Artist Statement 2002,” reprinted in Kaneshima Takahiro and
Snejana Krateva, eds., Dream Factory, Rubbish Heap: Zhang Xiaotao, 1998-
2004, Beijing: Timezone 8 Ltd, 2005, 119.
3. Émile Durkheim, Émile Durkheim: Selected Writings, edited and translated by
Anthony Giddens, London: Cambridge University Press, 1972, 174.
4. See http://www.fabricworkshop.org/exhibitions/swarm.php, accessed February
accessed February 10, 2007.