BEIJING – Zhang Bingjian’s art studio in the northern suburb of Beijing looks like a simple one. Spiral stairs lead to a small penthouse where he stores his books and makes tea for guests, a big wooden desk sits downstairs, and a huge map of China hangs on the wall.
But something catches your attention when you walk in: Dozens of huge portraits on the wall, all in bright pink, all of Chinese government officials convicted of corruption charges.
Most of the officials are in prison, some have been executed, and others have been sentenced to “death with reprieve” – which in China means a life sentence.
Zhang came up with the idea of creating his “hall of shame” as early as March 2009, during China’s National People’s Congress, the annual meeting of Communist Party officials. It was then that he learned that 3,000 officials had been convicted for corruption in the previous year alone.
“I was shocked at the numbers, I did not realize there were so many,” Zhang told NBC News during a recent visit to his studio. “China is in such a transition period, those corruption issues also should be witnessed in a historic context.”
The artist decided to depict the history of China’s shame as part of an ongoing project. But he is not the actual painter – the portraits are mass-produced just like other “made-in-China” commodities.
Zhang picks a publicly prosecuted government official, finds his age, crime, and most importantly, a photo of him – then he sends it to Dafen village in southern China, a place famous for churning out cheap, Wal-Mart-quality oil paintings for the whole world. Through an assistant, Zhang finds artists in Dafen village to paint the portraits in a deliberately tacky and assembly-line style to reflect China’s 30 years as the world’s leading exporter of low-end, mass manufacturing. Their rosy hue is the same bright pink color as the Chinese currency.
What would an American Wall of Shame look like?