​zhang ding: enter the dragon

We speak to the Chinese artist about his two-week-long musical installation at the ICA.

by Felix Petty
16 October 2015, 9:15am

If you've stumbled into the ICA's theatre this week you might've been lucky to witness a performance as part of Zhang Ding's new exhibition Enter The Dragon. The gallery's theatre has been coated in blocks of gold and covered in reflective surfaces, punctuated by rotating mirrors and suspended sound blocks. As you negoiate the space through the reflections, two bands start playing at once, the sounds clash and fluctuate betweem harmony and anarchy, they synchronise and combine to form a new whole or teeter on the verge of collapse.

A visual reference to the iconic final battle of scene of Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon, Zhang describes the work as a "mutating sound sculpture" -- but the work breathes new life into the cliched visual tropes of "eastern culture" and metaphors of "eastern philosophy" in Bruce Lee's film to confront ideas about exoticism, the other, and the Chinese art scene.

How did the idea for the installation form? What were you initial inspirations?
The idea came from the final fight scene of Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon, which is about someone's self cognition and how to defeat an opponent within a certain space. This scene inspired me to construct a similar mirror maze, while inviting musicians and artists to give performances here.

How did the collaboration with NTS come about?
Matt introduced us to NTS Radio, which is important to this project. They helped a lot by building close connections with the local underground music scene in London, as well as letting me know more about the culture of this generation in the UK.I wanted the musicians to come from a variety of genres, which could create some unexpected output.

Is it interesting for you to take your work to the UK for the first time? Did it influence the way you approached this exhibition at all?
It was a bit of a complex project in the UK for me because of the participation of many musicians. We needed to spend a lot of time selecting the collaborative group of musicians. We also need to deal with involved collaborative relationships, which are done in a slightly different way to in China.

Much of our understanding of the Chinese art scene comes from the treatment of Ai Weiwei, and the relationship between politics and self-expression: Is this a daily reality for an artist working in China?
It's an interesting question. Actually I feel the way the western scene understands Chinese contemporary cultural is a bit passive. The young generation in China have more and more access to culture and information from around the world than ever before. Works here are not only limited to the relationship between political and self-reflection, but there's a very diverse artistic exploration happening at the moment.

How does the figure of Bruce Lee work within the relationship of performances and between the performers?
Martial arts are fascinating. It's like a performance but it's also a competition. For this performance, the participants have to be able to merge with each other and balance the sound environment in this strange and unusual space

How much control can you have over how the performers react to the situation you create?
I have set up some obstacles in the environment, but I didn't have any requirements for the performers. What I'm interested in is what happens spontaneously between the performers.

You are aiming for co-operation and joint improvisation, but there is, of course, a chance too, that these performances could descend into anarchy?
I can't control what will happen but I'm confident that the musicians will deal with it sensitively and co-operation will take place, just as masters in Kung Fu films always instinctively know how to cope with their opponents.

Is the work interested in the aesthetic or the conceptual?
I'm interested in both the aesthetic and the conceptual, and I'm interested in how much I can open my project and the exhibition space. I'd love to put myself in danger to explore the relationship between art and society. I'm just a producer in this project.

How do you feel this western understanding of an eastern philosophy has changed since enter the dragon?
This question is too huge to answer.



Text Felix Petty
Installation view of ICA and K11 Art Foundation present Zhang Ding: Enter the Dragon 12 Oct 2015 – 25 Oct 2015, Institute of Contemporary Arts London (ICA) Courtesy of K11 Art Foundation

enter the dragon
zhang ding
felix petty