Echoes and System Failure: Zhang Ding
Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was a fan of painter Nicolas Poussin. He analyzes Poussin’s use of light and composition in painting Echo and Narcissus, and expands on its subject matter. The concept of the echo holds different meanings in different cultures. To the Greeks and Romans, the echo was an impediment to communication; to Native Americans, the echo is a manifestation of evil; in modern European culture, the echo belongs to the realm of poetics: “they seem to think that the main function of echo is to remind people of the words or songs that no longer exist through repetition.” Similarly, over the last several decades, the reverb effect employed by pop music guitarists has become a part of our poetics too, as it also makes use of repetition. But this repetition is not pure replication, but rather progressively abates, implying a growing distance and the passing of time or, more importantly, a path that leads eventually to death.
As for Narcissus, he fell in love with his own image. That is not an easy thing to do, just like it isn’t easy for most people to perform oral sex on themselves. Therefore, he turned to science: he first projects himself, and then uses the rest of himself to watch. In the words of the Greek philosopher Empedocles, he sends his gaze to the water, which pushes back, causing the two threads to collide in midair, thereby creating the image. In the most extreme case, the echo becomes feedback when a signal is repeated, superimposed, and infinitely expanded until the system breaks down into sheer noise, potentially overloading weaker electronic components. Narcissus went into breakdown through this mechanism; when his energy is awakened, it continues to inflate, which his fragile self is not equipped to handle. Clearly, Echo has fallen in love with feedback, perhaps specifically with his fanaticism. Musically, it’s as if the new age fell in love with the avant-garde. Echo’s melancholy and low-key folk tunes are no longer able to cope with the cruelty of this world, and she awaits a Dada with whom she could abscond to join the noise revolution, to reveal the broken truth.
Zhang Ding’s project at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), London, references the beginning of Bruce Lee’s 1973 film Enter the Dragon, where Lee tells his master that the highest state of kung fu is when one forgets the self; at the end of the film, he reaches this epiphany in a labyrinth of mirrors, breaking the mirror and overcoming his enemies. Some say that the villain Han, who hides in the maze, is in fact Lee—a manifestation of his self, or perhaps an imaginary figure created by his mind. This pseudo-philosophical and very much dialectical cliché is one of the founding elements of the kung fu genre, which we are more than willing to consume and identify with in the banality of our daily lives. It certainly makes Lee that much more charming, and gives our everyday behavior—not to mention advertising agencies— a firm underpinning.
Oft-missed details seem far more interesting. Does Zhang Ding not resemble Bruce Lee in appearance? To go down this path is to follow in the footsteps of Sigmund Freud… But isn’t every citation, every allusion, and every hint for future reference a form of echoing? It is often said that no art is truly original, that it has always referenced imaginary figures constructed from physical objects and observations of them. As time passes, art is gathered into art history, which is referenced with ever higher frequency; artists who borrow from classical brush techniques in traditional Chinese landscape paintings must now borrow from the entire Forbidden City. Gazing directly into the eyes of all of history, some artists are easily satisfied with the poetic romance of this vanishing; some prefer breakdowns, such as Zhang Ding in his earlier years, when he turned his fist on cacti; and some, perhaps most often, prefer neither to vanish nor to break down, but rather, in the words of Albert Camus, to glide on the surface of this world, becoming simple tourists. History, on the other hand, adjusts as a result of our gazing, transforming, multiplying, and dying.
According to Zhang Ding, he has grown increasingly fond of creating an atmosphere in which events can spontaneously occur. He is no longer a maker of sculpture, installation, or object. Those items no longer enjoy the spotlight, nor do they project any Bruce Lee-like charm to galleries or audiences. He makes some objects and lights them, creating an ambience in the space in which they are placed, and simply waits. To borrow from a story in Han Feizi’s Five Bookworms, this act is akin to standing by a tree and waiting for a rabbit to run into it of its own volition.
This is an ancient practice. Temples, pagodas, bagua or trigram formations, stage smoke, red lights in red light districts, perfumes, symmetrical rock stage designs: a minimal amount of objects, symbols, and smells can change the nature of a space, and the space then independently attracts and absorbs spirits, wealth, or businessmen. In 2014, Zhang Ding created such a field in Beijing’s ShanghART Gallery, which one might also call a zone or domain, where he presented “Orbit of Rock.” The exhibition was over-crowded during the opening reception, but afterwards the gallery was essentially empty. The space, bombarded by a rock music performance, survived a massive festival of contradiction through emptiness apart from a stage of several stationary geometric shapes; days later, it was still covered in golden acoustic material, but betrayed no signs of the past that had taken place there. The physical location is the same and no one can be sure that nothing will happen there again, since this territory still maintains both the very emptiness that makes it immensely attractive and the discussions that took place inside. Standing in place, one can’t help but wonder: has the myth of rock music been broken? Must we smash a myth before we can return to the faith?
The ICA space has different acoustic properties from the ShanghART space. The latter was fitted out to absorb sound and minimize echoes, while the former is filled with mirrors in order to maximize them. For musicians performing in this space, the echo is an absolute challenge; while we enjoy hearing ourselves, we cannot bear too high a dosage. We prefer rooms that are neither completely dead nor fully wet. As for echo machines, they are equipped with on-off buttons and knobs that allow us to control them, allowing musicians to play the role of god and exert absolute control. In this space, the musician has no control; he is like the rabbit in the proverb, invited or maybe volunteering to perform, having to put up with the echoes that the space creates, no matter how great. The setup, in its quest to overtake the conflicts created by “Orbit of Rock,” no longer emphasizes content (it conjures rock music and strips it of allure, in order to reconstruct its values); it poses an openness akin to the shopping malls that pervade our world today: smooth, equipped with air conditioning, open to all potential consumers, hospitable to refugees from around the globe, and completely fair and equal in the name of exchange rates.
Its smoothness is beyond our comfort zone. It reflects light to excess. It mimics the popular art carnivals by incorporating dazzling live performances into an art space, welcoming subcultures, urban guerrillas, graffiti, underground music, and voices from every dark corner with open arms, in order to counter our inability to cope with silence. In more formal language, once this aesthetic system suppresses the multitude of frivolous sounds with a white box, it further overcomes soundlessness. This is a natural soundlessness—a death that is approached by echoes infinitely, a darkness that lies in wait on the canvas for the gaze to traverse it. In this silence, objects exist but remain unexplained. It quietly vanishes in the presence of an irrepressible growth of seminars and art tours.
But this remains a space of unease. It may very well make everyone uncomfortable, a sensation that the body instinctively generates after internalizing a seemingly beautiful picture.
Excessive echo, an echo that is not allowed to dissipate, is like a death denied. This grand hall adorned with thorny metal dragons, this marathon of musical ceremony, was not designed for the public to enjoy or celebrate.
A person, as long as he still controls his own self, will inevitably get lost in the maze. Any minute trace of the self will be infinitely magnified until the system breaks down (breaking the mirrors) or self-destructs (kills Han). This is an extremely simple concept, simple to the point that it will never actually materialize.
The radical Narcissus put an end to the feedback that tormented him—with death. Or perhaps he used feedback to lure towards him a form of death meant to be integrated within life; he has no alternate means to peel back the shiny exterior. Every mirror contains its eventual breaking; every guitar is destined to be smashed by a guitar hero; every democracy will inevitably explode; and every Zhang Ding fights an innate urge towards crime. It is illegal to build an unauthorized altar, and for this he must pay a price. This altar, this sacred hall of mirrors, a labyrinth to trap the self, must be allowed to direct its own breakdown. Everyone who partakes of his system with ignorant joy is also part of this system, and must face the same inevitable fate.
Text by Yan Jun
Translated by Frank Qian