VISUAL ARTS | Zhao Liang’s quietly subversive “Heavy Sleepers” turns in at the Walker


Heavy Sleepers and Narrative Landscape, silent video works by Zhao Liang that will be on view in the Walker Art Center’s Target Gallery from this weekend through mid-March, are simple documents that inspire a world of questions. The videos capture contemporary life in China, but together they draw a bridge spanning 1,500 years of labor history. 

Narrative Landscape, displayed on a standard flat-screen television, is the first piece you see when entering the gallery. At first glance, it’s a lovely but otherwise unexceptional series of images of the Great Wall on a snowy winter day. After a few minutes, though, you realize that no visitors are to be seen: Liang has documented portions of the sprawling wall that are rarely visited and are in decay. Eventually, the camera rests on the collapsed sections of the wall, quietly contemplating the ruin.

Slipping past a curtain, you enter the space occupied by Heavy Sleepers. Video projections fill opposing walls, depicting a humble dormitory where workers sleep on wooden pallets. On one side of the room, the workers are sleeping—in fact, heavily. On the other side, the pallets are empty; the workers are off building the monumental facilities used in the 2008 Olympics. Liang’s camera slowly pans past the sleeping workers, who are so dressed so similarly that only gradually do you realize that the camera has been moving in a continuous shot, without repetition, for ten or more minutes.

The connection between the pieces, obviously, is the might of the edifices that China has constructed over the course of its history. By spotlighting laborers, Liang quietly reminds the viewer how those structures got there—built brick by brick (or whatever by whatever constitutes that huge new birds’ nest of a stadium) by the hands of men who sleep clutching small televisions, who have toothbrushes and magazines and families waiting in the country for them to return with their earnings.

To the extent that contemporary Chinese laborers lead a meager existence—the pallets don’t look too comfy, and I’m guessing most of those guys would prefer not to be spooning with their coworkers for lack of blankets—the fact stands in ironic contrast to the grand Communist experiment that seems to be, very unofficially, coming to a gradual end. Liang, who was born in 1971, remembers the days before Mao died. His work doesn’t romanticize that period, but it does silently remind viewers that the fundamental principle of communism as a philosophy—the shared dignity, and worth, of every last citizen—has not been negated by the failures of communism as a system of government.