artist / participant
The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art presents Zhao Gang: The Road to Serfdom, a collection of works produced by the artist in the last year, including 15 paintings, 19 photographs, and two short films. The exhibition will open in the Nave and Long Gallery April 3 and run through May 31. The exhibition brings together recurring themes evinced throughout Zhao Gang's long career—the identity of the wanderer, his critique of reality and history, and his research into the language of painting. Titled after economist Friedrich von Hayek's treatise on the detriments of a planned economy, Zhao Gang's tacit confirmation of the book's message offers viewers a context from which to unpack his show.
In preparation for the exhibition, Zhao Gang visited the home villages of several prominent scientists and intellectuals involved in China's 1919 May Fourth Movement—Wu Mi, Hu Sidu, Xiao Guangyan, Feng Zikai, Ma Yinchu, Yu Guangyu, and Qian Jin among others—in search of visual subject matter. These early 20th-century thinkers were educated abroad and returned with heated passion to construct the homeland, suffering countless setbacks but never abandoning their ideals. Juxtaposing his personal journey with the trajectory of this group, Zhao Gang hints at a resonance therein. After participating in the late 1970s exhibitions of the Stars Group, widely considered China's first modern art movement, Zhao Gang left China to study and live abroad for more than 20 years, assuming several roles along the way—among them investment banker and publisher of ArtAsiaPacific—before finally returning to China in the early 2000s. For this exhibition, however, his film The Road to Serfdom and the photography series "Pics of the Road" make no reference to the tremendous upheavals of modern China, but rather feature banal scenes that have remained unchanged for several decades.
The paintings featured here navigate a gray area between the subjective and objective. In depicting these select individuals' classrooms, living quarters, and surrounding landscapes from a first-person perspective, Zhao Gang seems to be "performing" as a stand-in, turning their portraits into his own. The exhibition also contains several still lifes, executed in the same frenetic, heavy strokes of intense colors that hint at multivalent meaning. His personal reflections imbue these "neutral" subjects of landscape, portraiture, and still life with a deadpan humor carried throughout the exhibition. Once an ancient innovation, ceramic wares like that depicted in Hi-tech became a plaything for emperors, and the "Buddha's Hand" citrus flower of Handjob is religious symbol in several cultures. These visual motifs question the social function of science and religion from a broad spectrum. Meanwhile the monumental group portrait Cocksucker Blues brings viewers face to face with the scholars that served as inspiration for the show, their belabored, brown bodies forming a bulbous mountain underneath an uncannily blue sky.
The only previously shown work, Harlem School of New Social Realism (2002, 2007) is a recording of Zhao Gang and several other American artists and scholars of color discussing possible forms and features of a future collaboration, produced for The Long March: A Walking Visual Display shortly before he returned to China for good. This work makes clear Zhao Gang's line of inquiry is not rooted to a specific geography or culture, but rather comments on a larger human condition.
Opening to the public April 3 and running through May 31, the exhibition is curated by UCCA Director Philip Tinari with Assistant Curator Guo Xi. The exhibition is accompanied by the survey catalogue GANG, Zhao Gang's most comprehensive, bilingual publication to date. Taking The Road to Serfdom as its thematic structure, the catalogue contains an expansive selection of artwork images and photographs drawn from the artist's archives, spanning nearly four decades of his life and career. Contributing writers are Simone Levine, Michael Murray, Franklin Sirmans, Sun Dongdong, Philip Tinari, and Christian Viveros-Fauné. The catalogue is published by Post Wave Publishing Consulting. The exhibition catalogue is sponsored by aye gallery, Galerie Christian Nagel, and Post Wave Publishing Consulting. The exhibition catalogue is sponsored by aye gallery and Post Wave Publishing Consulting. Special thanks to Davidoff Art Initiative and Beijing WeiJi Preservation International Center Company for their additional support. Several public programs, including lectures and workshops, accompany the show. For more details check the UCCA website.