video: signed in Chinese, titled, dated 2007 and numbered 2/4 on the tape
Painting: Signed in Chinese and dated 2006 on the reverse
betacam tape and oil on canvas, in 2 parts
One of the core pursuits of the writing of contemporary art history in China since the 1990's has been to compare and contrast the patterns and markers of its video art with those of the West; the overarching narratives of the latter, after all, had been familiar to artists and scholars in China for some time prior to the earliest forays into video production within the post-1985 art world. It is to be expected, then, that certain thematic categories, including the relationship with broadcast media, propaganda or cultural control, industry sponsorship, and the possibility of independent communication would have exerted a significant influence over both readings of and experiments in Chinese video art, creating a ghostly doubling of experienced reality for these artists and observers that consistently offers an imagined alternative to existing cultural phenomena. This was the case as early as 1988, when Zhang Peili screened his 30 x 30 at the "Huangshan Conference" to a professional audience that was familiar with the concept of video as art—and even brought a certain set of preconceptions as to what it should entail—but had not yet attempted to consider its surely impending emergence within the Chinese context. The importance of the fact that video art first appeared at that juncture, as the pseudo-spiritual traditionalist aesthetics of the '85 New Wave movement gave way to the text-oriented analytical fascinations of conceptual art that would pave the way for the anti-humanist decade to come, cannot be underestimated: its agenda was to be set by rational painting, manual generative techniques, and the dissection of bodies in situations of institutional control.
Qiu Zhijie, whose work defined the relations between technique and ideology in its early explorations of what medium specificity might entail within the collision between new ways of seeing and an established visual culture, marks a second generation to have absorbed the lessons of the 1980's into a less naive reception of cultural heritage. In Ten Tang Poems (Lot 146), the viewer watches as ten poems, executed in a radically wild calligraphic script in black ink on white paper, seemingly disappear into the brush of the writer, whose arm and hand just barely break the composition of the video frame. Accomplished through a technique by which the artist wrote each character of each poem backwards, reversing both stroke order and character order, purportedly from memory, these ten classic poems are made to appear not canonical and static (though they are exhibited in glass frames alongside the video) but rather fluid and very much constructed in the present moment: for Qiu, this body of ancient culture is dispossessed of its transcendental references to history and instead made to function as the material of a contemporary aesthetics. Given the temporal functions and possibilities of lens-based media, it is through invisibility that the past becomes the present.
Although the body is a constituent cause (albeit one with a dazzlingly absent effect) here, the work shares its primary impetus in common with Qiu Zhijie's other well-known calligraphy project, Writing the "Orchid Pavilion Preface" One Thousand Times (1990-1995). Both explore the potential for an embodied and personal relationship between the contemporary individual and what might otherwise be labeled an undifferentiated and domineering mass of historical affect, arriving at highly unstable visual conclusions that posit the invisibility or illegibility as history as the proper mediators of aesthetic experience. Similarly, both projects depend on the variability of lens-based media, but, where Orchid Pavilion Preface relies on the sequential nature of the camera and the serial doubling of the photographic reproduction, Tang Poems instead appropriates the time-based dimensions of video. Importantly, he remains within the conventions of boredom established by Zhang Peili and other video pioneers in China, but Qiu Zhijie also takes to editing earlier than his peers: the true breakthrough of Tang Poems lies in the fact that its visual effect is only evident when played backwards (that is to say, against the direction of its documentary recording). Matching up with the hand of the artist as it writes the characters backwards one by one, it is through such fundamental temporal relationships, revealed through basic video techniques that, the proposition of invisibility is presented.
Cui Xiuwen similarly maneuvers between various forms of lens-based media, and it is perhaps the highly repetitive and iconic vocabulary of her photographic work for which she is best known. Her contribution to new directions of art in the Chinese context, however, must be traced down a divergent path to the much-celebrated if underexposed video Lady's (Lot 148). Through a fish-eye camera furtively installed in the women's restroom of a nightclub, the artist documents behavior in this private space as the studied veneer of the public and highly contextual presentation of gender as sexualized aspects of the body is dropped in favour of honest identification—or at least the performance thereof. The imagery cataloged is predictable: prostitutes stashing cash, making phone calls to arrange meetings with clients, applying makeup, sneaking glances at competitors and allies, changing clothes, adjusting bras, and—more than anything else—examining reflections in the mirror that becomes the physical and psychological focus of these restroom rituals. Cui Xiuwen here captures a highly specific moment in Chinese social history, consolidating the movements of urbanization and the market economy through relationships made evident in the occupation and denial of urban space. Presaging a turn toward social or activist documentary practices in both underground film and certain aspects of contemporary art well after the turn of the millennium, the artist collapses the use of the camera into the objects of its gaze.
By drawing such parallels between the position of the artist behind the camera (metaphorically if not physically in this particular case) and the women exploiting the economic potential of the body in order to claim a certain space, Cui Xiuwen allows herself to step outside of the once-rampant conventions through which video art is made to document the performative actions of the artist or otherwise create its own content. Instead, it is the submersion of technique within the subject matter under observation that frames the visual effects of the piece. Through a series of savvy editing maneuvers it becomes unclear whether the video is indeed purely documentary or whether certain scenes might be staged with actors: meaningful glances, sustained periods of still absorption in the mirror, and rapidly cut sequences of identical actions all destabilize the role of the artist, making the viewer a co-conspirator indulging in the same patterns of recognition, repulsion, and desire. This splitting of the subject position was further reinforced in the controversy that surrounded Lady's when it was exhibited in the "First Guangzhou Triennial," at which time an established professor of art went so far as to sue the museum for psychological damages (in addition to the refund of his admission ticket). Of course, the wide attention this brought the piece could only further support the assertion that, by turning the camera outward and declaring it an appendage of the body of the artist, Chinese video art had reached a mature stage of reception politics.
Whereas the history of video in China is largely marked by intense exhibition and exchange within several core communities, including initially Beijing and Hangzhou but expanding later to Shanghai, the impetus behind the adoption and adaptation of the medium appears also in several other locations: in the case of the loose Big Tail Elephant group in Guangzhou, it erupted on an as-needed basis in the form of a natural accompaniment to the radical urban experimentation occurring there in the first years of the 1990's. A core member of this casual collective centered more on exchange than production, Lin Yilin documented his landmark performance Safely Maneuvering Across Lin He Street (Lot 145) on video: over the course of some half hour, the viewer watches as the artist moves a makeshift wall of ordinary gray cinder blocks from one side of the road to the other, brick by brick, around two meters at a time, always keeping himself safely protected behind his transient urban shield. The gesture is simultaneously pitiful and aggressive, enacting the minimal conditions necessary to do something as simple as moving from one side of a busy thoroughfare to another, a new experience for the rapidly urbanizing southern city that had been, just years prior, a sleepy provincial center.
Most importantly, Lin's action marks a metonymic reference to the actions that he and his collaborators Liang Juhui and Chen Shaoxiong had initiated in their town, belonging more to the cultural orbit of Hong Kong and separated by dialect from much of the rest of the country: Big Tail Elephant itself functioned as just such a temporary defense wall intended to insulate the artists from the transformations of the city, lending a highly symbolic import to an implicitly absurd action that, had it appeared in somewhere Hangzhou, would certainly have been construed as a vague reference to techniques of control rather than a sincere reaction against limitations of personal space. Here, meaning is returned to visual expression, no small feat by the time video had already been defined as an exercise in the impossibility of communication. In refusing to stage any kind of contrived set in favor of documenting a straightforward performance in a public environment, Lin Yilin posits the status of the artist within the city and its social space as a necessary component of artistic practice. Specifically, it is the question of autonomy that links this video to the urban practices of Big Tail Elephant and the social transformations to which they were intended to respond: the artist is a unit, constructing his defenses and moving slowly if steadily through an unsympathetic milieu.
Big Tail Elephant was not, of course, the only peripheral rupture that attempted to open new pathways for video that diverged from the analytical, medium-specific mode that had, against all odds and in contrast to the mainstream of Chinese contemporary art, come to dominate work in this genre by the early 1990's. Li Yongbin, something of an outsider despite his position in the Beijing art world, has pioneered a stunningly unique approach to video that sets out from a highly poetic premise bordering on the romantic but ends up in tune with some of the most fundamental technical and historical aspects of video, an arc of affect that has been influential not only over a younger generation of artists working in the medium but also over leading early figures in video as they began to negotiate a new humanist turn after 2000. Virtually all of his work with the moving image is related to the expressive and signifying qualities of the human face, in most cases using his own. In Face No. 1 (1995-1996), for example, the artist superimposes two semi-transparent video tracks depicting his own face—that of a young man—and that of an elderly woman, contorting his facial expressions in a vain attempt to match his own image to the other for longer than a half hour.
This may be one of the more psychologically complex variations of the facial gymnastics Li Yongbin, but the images produced in such experiments have become eerily pervasive. Trained as a painter even though he focused exclusively on video art for a period of time, Li later began to these images back into his work on canvas. In Face No. 13 (Lot 149), a pair of melancholy eyes stare outward from a blurred black and gray field, recalling both the monotone faces that launched the gray humor movement (and therefore quoting also the early influences of video art) and tradition of painting from photography in general. It is this collusion of media that floats to the fore here: painting is betrayed as a mechanism for the production of affect within the temporal frame of video.
The genealogy of Chinese video may have been launched with a handful of notoriously dry, analytical tapes circulating outward from Hangzhou, but it quickly grew to include a significant number of distinct lineages tied not only to working communities, educational institutions, and geographic locales but also to particular political and aesthetic sensibilities. In addition to those described here, animation has grown to occupy a significant niche within Chinese art history, particularly in the vocabularies of hand-calibrated animated painting; the youth video has come to encompass a category of its own, influenced by fashion photography and the music video but evolving more specifically from the early genre of the street video; surreal narrative video has equally borrowed from and contributed to successive generations of new wave cinema around greater China; and digital documentary has established a relationship of mutual support with the independent film circuit. At the present moment, the most pressing task in terms of the writing of histories and organization of collections may be to discards this genealogy and replace it with an archeology oriented around particular objects—namely, those few massively influential works of video that refuse to sit too squarely within the easy stories historians tell.
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