The Saturday Profile: Carving Plight of Coal Miners, He Churns China

Copyright The New York Times
July 14, 2007
Zhang Jianhua, a sculptor, before a photo shoot with his piece, “Coal Accident, Coal Accident,” at A-Space gallery in Beijing, China.
IT is not easy to forget an encounter with Zhang Jianhua’s sculptures of Chinese coal miners; that is, if one is lucky enough to see them.
Many of the life-size works depict miners sitting on the ground in their black rubber boots wearing looks of sheer fatigue. Some stare blankly into the distance or prop up their heads with both hands, their faces fixed in nameless agony.
Yet, easily overlooked at first are the most haunting sculptures of all. At the edge of the out-of-the-way Beijing lot in a new art zone that is frequented by foreigners — but few Chinese — lie six figures shrouded in green blankets. Silently, they symbolize the mostly anonymous victims of China’s rolling mineworker catastrophe.
Although Mr. Zhang, 35, has an impeccable background as a student of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and has received critical praise for years, no Chinese museum or established gallery has been willing to display his coal miner work in its entirety, as he insists that they must. When an exhibit was organized in April at 798 Art Space, one of Beijing’s premier forums for contemporary artists, censors demanded that he leave the six dead workers out of the show.
Officially, 4,794 coal miners died in work-related accidents in China last year — more than 13 every day, on average, though many believe that the official figures understate the real toll. But Mr. Zhang’s temerity in representing the victims has won his work what might be called a soft ban.
“Each year, countless coal accidents take place,” he said. “The media puts the death toll at six to seven thousand, but I know the numbers don’t stop there. There are between 20 and 30 thousand deaths a year, but those who die at many illegal mines are not counted, and these deaths are not allowed to be reported.”
These days, a great deal of contemporary Chinese art veers into abstraction, or clever visual punning, often riffing on the country’s revolutionary past or on the new prosperity that many have found. But Mr. Zhang’s route to prominence has been more old-fashioned. He embraces realism, and uses it in a time-honored tradition as a prod to the social conscience of a society that he finds lacking in that department.
The artist’s first taste of successful shock realism came with another series of sculptures four years ago in which he depicted the lives of peasants from his native Henan Province. The 12 figures in that series included an elderly woman sitting alone, threadbare migrant workers and rural schoolteachers.
The work drew critical praise when it was introduced at a gallery in Beijing. But when the show began touring other venues in the capital later that year, displayed on the grounds of two middle-class housing developments and at China Agricultural University, it drew strong protests, with residents and students attacking it as vulgar, striking the artist and knocking over some of the figures. The university exhibition had to be canceled after only two hours. “These were beggars,” said one commentator in a school newspaper. “It’s sick.” Another complained, “Rural areas have progress, too. Why not show that?”
Mr. Zhang’s answer is that China these days is consumed with what he calls a “bubble reality.” Euphemism and sentimentality have deep roots in Chinese art, but on top of this has come a kind of idealizing self-censorship reinforced by the state propaganda system and further fueled by years of strong growth.
IN China today, news reports are full of problems being solved. The radio airwaves are full of odes to perfect love, and art galleries are full of pretty pictures. “Very few works speak to social problems,” Mr. Zhang said. “Chinese contemporary art doesn’t make people understand. It has lost its function and its very important social, avant-garde and revolutionary features.
“Today’s artists now create neither pain nor itch, and they don’t remain in people’s memories. Many of them are scared.”
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