Carving Plight of Coal Miners, He Churns China

From Saul Thomas <>
Date Sun, 15 Jul 2007 12:46:50 +0800
User-agent Thunderbird (X11/20070530)

(Go to to see artist's work.)

NY Times, July 14, 2007
The Saturday Profile
Carving Plight of Coal Miners, He Churns 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.”

Mr. Zhang’s choice of topics is not the only thing that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. He said that to prepare for his miner series, he made numerous trips to the coal country in Shanxi and Henan Provinces, living with miners for weeks at a time, soaking up their hard-knocks culture while simultaneously observing the lives of the illegal mine owners, with their flashy, sudden wealth.

The artist grew particularly animated as he described the scenes of lavish weddings organized for the daughters of coal mine owners in Datong, one of China’s most famous mining towns, of motorcades of stretch Cadillacs and Hummers and Mercedeses, festively honking their horns. “This is the kind of ostentation they want,” he said. “Yet underneath the wheels are piles of white bones and pools of fresh blood.”

ALTHOUGH he is a habitué of the capital, in many ways, Mr. Zhang’s reporting on coal miners was a return to his roots. He was born in a small village in Henan Province to simple parents. His father was an agricultural extension worker and his mother a farmer. As a boy he cut hay to supplement the family income, and ran away to Beijing after high school to escape his parents’ pressures on him to conform.

Mr. Zhang’s pursuit of art grew out of praise from a boyhood teacher for his calligraphy. He took a variety of small jobs, paying his way through art school, and eventually his parents came to understand that his developing love of painting was a way to assure his future.

An early source of rebelliousness was set off by resentment of his village’s domineering chief, who he said constantly bullied the weak and forced people to flatter him. “I’ve been very sensitive since childhood,” he said. “I don’t know why, but because of my sensitivity, I did things that other people ignored.”

For his next project, clearly another effort at unveiling a ubiquitous but officially invisible social problem, Mr. Zhang said he planned to portray the country’s large number of prostitutes. “Not the prostitutes of the rich, but the ordinary, working-class prostitutes, who live in very difficult conditions.”

Was there pleasure in such provocation? “I am not just trying to criticize my country for the sake of it,” Mr. Zhang said. “I want my country to be better. I want it to be more democratic. I want it to have even better development.”