China in 60 minutes

An exhibition of video, curated by Beijing’s Dong Bingfeng, explores the human and inhuman face of contemporary China

By David Frazier  /  Contributing reporter

Sun, Jun 09, 2013 - Page 12

An exhibition of recent Chinese video art, People’s Park, claims academic pretenses of analyzing urban planning in China, but the hour-long program of four contemporary artists is not so boring as that. You might call it a rough cut for a video portrait of life in Chinese cities over the last 10 years. Chinese curator Dong Bingfeng (董冰峰) chose the exhibition’s title and operative metaphor because Peoples Parks, existing all across China, are some of the nation’s most obvious symbols of the changes in the idea of public space. Such commons were once a means of authoritarian control by China’s Communist Party, but now they are becoming zones where citizens can experiment with free activities. This exhibition thus intends to explore and reflect the realities of China’s human — and often inhuman — environment. It was originally commissioned by the Chinese Arts Center in Manchester, UK for exhibition in May 2012, and now tours to TheCube Project Space (立方計畫空間) in Taipei.

For the most part, the China of these videos is as dehumanized as ever. They show the architecture of capitalist, post-Mao China to be just and bleak and conformist as that of the original revolutionary socialist vision, though capitalism has managed a scope communism never imagined. Zhao Liang’s (趙亮) City Scene (2004) is an 18-minute video collage of life in the margins of China’s new cities — grainy, fixed shots of fistfights on city streets, men peeing in construction sites, a building demolition that courts tragedy and causes men to scamper for their lives. These are perhaps the outtakes cut from the official video of the “harmonious society,” as official China continues to represent itself. The video is cheap and artless, like raw footage from an ethnographic archive. But violence is always fascinating to watch.

Paris Syndrome (2008) by Yang Jun (楊俊) is a series of vignettes of a modern urban couple posed among massive, newly constructed housing complexes in Guangzhou. The city is famous for extravagant overdevelopment, including the world’s largest shopping mall, which was completed but — in an abject failure — remains utterly empty. Yang’s video shows the man and woman as idealized types. They pose like wax figures, or computer avatars, among unpeopled backdrops of bourgeois housing developments. Or they mechanically stroll through these new Utopian constructions. Though the images are real, they are set up to look fake. The rather obvious point is the fakeness of China’s new materialist dream.

In the video People’s Limbo (2009), artist Cao Fei (曹斐) delivers a pure virtual reality. Cao is famous for creating an area within the Second Life online virtual world called RMB City. Peoples Limbo is an 18-minute segment of machinima, video created by recording video game action, then adding voiceover, that was “filmed” in the wake of the latest financial crisis. Set amidst a candy-land virtual landscape of new Chinese monuments — the Shanghai Tower, Rem Koolhaus’ CCTV Tower in Beijing and others — she presents snippets of conversation between avatars of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), Karl Marx, a western capitalist identified as Lehman Brother and Laozi (老子). One of the chats is in the crater of a collapsed skyscraper, the ruins of financial collapse. The conversation however is still far below the level of philosophy for dummies, and the only novelty of this critique of liberal capitalism is that it comes from a Chinese artist. Cao is not a bad artist, but she is certainly an overrated one, who is quick to pick up media buzz topics — China, Cosplay, virtual reality, capitalist critique and so on — without ever adding much insight. Here, the video ends with Marx, Mao and Lehman turning to Lao Tzu for his timeless advice.

The last video, Yang Fudong’s (楊福東) The Nightman Cometh (2011), presents the greatest enigma of the group. It is a gorgeously filmed black and white parable of a medieval Chinese general encountering, in a snow-covered battle camp, mysterious figures during the night. Though the scenes progress like a narrative, there is no real story, only a sequence of dazzling and symbolically suggestive tableau. It is also the only work in the show that seems it is not trying to explain China to the West (or perhaps more accurately, to rich Western art collectors.)

Yang catapulted to recognition following his inclusion in the 2007 Venice Biennale, which presented his five-hour film Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, a work similar in style to Nightman. Seven Intellectuals reframed self-exiled third century Taoist scholars as China’s new rootless and self-absorbed intellectual class.

In The Nightman Cometh, in addition to the general, there are also a Chinese princess and a dandy young couple perhaps from 1930s Shanghai — the beau wears a white suit and the belle a modern qipao. The encounter of these four characters is indeed baffling, as there is no dialogue and, aside from one scene where the modern woman grabs her fella’s handkerchief and weeps, and the final scene in which the general uncertainly rides off, nothing happens.

But is there really no story? As a Westerner, the experience of watching Yang’s films is like that of viewing an ancient Chinese scroll or a temple carving. One can appreciate the beauty, but one cannot decipher the iconography, and as a result, one experiences a total loss of critical authority. But even Dong admits Yang’s work is “open-ended and inconclusive” and that the artist “mostly portrays his own generation of individuals in their late 20s and early 30s, young people who seem confused and appear to hover between the past and present.”

Perhaps, then, it is better to read Yang’s work as a pastiche of the cinema China never had. Some have compared Yang’s work to the Chinese cinema of the pre-communist 1940s, and his films can be understood as an impressionistic re-imagining of a modernism lost to Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. It is as if Yang is speaking for a generation that rejects the official “glorious” past of the communist party, inventing a different vision of their own.

Exhibition Notes

WHAT: People’s Park

WHEN: Until June 16

WHERE: TheCube Project Space (立方計劃空間), 2F, Ln 136,13, Roosevelt Rd Sec 4, Taipei City (台北市羅斯福路四段136巷1弄13號2樓), tel: (02) 2368-9418