Zhang Ding, High-Speed Forms #4 (detail), 2019, copper, gold, stainless steel, 90 1⁄2 × 22 7⁄8 × 37 3⁄4".

Zhang Ding, High-Speed Forms #4 (detail), 2019, copper, gold, stainless steel, 90 1⁄2 × 22 7⁄8 × 37 3⁄4".

Zhang Ding

Zhang Ding’s work to date has centered on immersive installations that feel less like discrete artworks than intangible experiences. “Opening,” at ShanghART in 2011, waived the art in favor of spectacle, re-creating a nightclub interior in the space of a gallery. “Buddha Jumps over the Wall,” in 2012, turned Shanghai’s TOP Contemporary Art Center into a kitsched-out banquet hall for the nouveau riche, recalling the kinds of interiors that have become increasingly common in China’s coastal cities over the past decade. In London in 2015, “Enter the Dragon,” named after the iconic Bruce Lee movie, transformed the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ theater into a “battleground” concert hall with two facing stages. Each night for thirteen nights, two warring sets of bands or DJs took turns playing at one another with the audience trapped between, until gradually the competing sounds melded and warped one another into a cacophonous rapture.

In his latest exhibition, “High-Speed Forms,” Zhang explores what might be called vehicularity—both literally and figuratively. On entering, one is confronted with High-Speed Forms #4 (all works 2019), a throne composed of a car seat crowned with a golden sculpture of two rhinos fucking. The image is a reference to the policy analyst Michele Wucker’s concept of the gray rhino—a large and visible economic threat that is ignored until it begins to move at a dangerously brisk speed. The Chinese Communist Party embraced the term in 2017, when, in hopes of avoiding a crash, it began to take measures to rein in the unruly spending and massive debt accumulated by domestic tycoons, anxieties over which continue to resonate in China. The show’s centerpiece, High-Speed Forms #1, is a racetrack winding its way through the exhibition space. Visitors navigate the course in an electric wheelchair that proceeds along a preprogrammed route, so as to prevent any illusion that the user is in control; the wheelchair moves at a sluggish pace that puts one in a soothing daze. This meditative effect is aided by High-Speed Forms #2, a drone-like sound installation, and by High Speed Forms #3, sepia video footage of car racecourses and traffic projected on long, horizontal LED screens. Finally, photographs (High Speed Forms #6–#10) are installed throughout, showing horses, cars, and human bones, among other things.

The “high-speed” in the title can be taken ironically or seriously. Speed is relative, at least here, to one’s perception. Zhang said in an interview that this work was partly inspired by his nocturnal drives, when flashes of neon signs and streetlights would imprint themselves in his mind as fleeting sculptural forms. Such impressions of pure light and color tend to fade as soon as they appear: memory at its most fleeting, ungraspable.

Writing about Zhang’s work—about this installation in particular—can make it sound gimmicky. And so it can appear when one arrives at an off hour, in between the scheduled rides, and one is left to wander aimlessly around. The ride makes all the difference, for it forces us to confront what Zhang is trying to express: The vehicle becomes a metaphor for the body and reminds us of all the ways we routinely surrender control: the ways our agency is increasingly remote-controlled by, among other forces, that grand deity of the twenty-first century, technology.