Tag Archives: Zhao Liang

No Salvation in Prophecy

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Consciously conducting a transformation of one’s style can be a tricky and risky business for any artist, and an audacious one too. Recently in competition at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, Behemoth, directed by Chinese documentary filmmaker Zhao Liang, is a performance of such. The film borrows from the dream method and architecture of Dante’s Divine Comedy to enter the monstrous industry chain of Inner Mongolia, and in doing so contemplates ongoing natural and humanitarian disasters in China. From the investigative curiosity of the HBO series Vice to the sociological concerns of the recent documentary The Land of Many Palaces, the debt-ridden “ghost cities” and their political, economical and social causes and consequences are no stranger to journalism and filmmaking in China and elsewhere. The apocalyptic landscape of collective abandonment has undoubtedly presented a remarkable spectacle within the global circulation of media images. Zhao’s approach to this reality is unique. Starting from soil and motivated by the formidable corporeal presence of migrant workers, the film steadily proceeds through three color schemed stages: the red inferno (coal mines, iron mines, and ironworks), the grey purgatory (hospital), and the blue paradise (the “ghost city” in Ordos). Compared to his earlier works, which are often categorized as “direct cinema” –such as Crime and Punishment (2007) and the epic 5-hour Petition (2009) – Behemoth pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking by simultaneously operating on three plains: documentation, interpretation, and visual experimentation. The result is a stunning cinematic metaphor with a strong personal vision and poignant critique on what he considers the bane of such phenomenal failures of modern civilization: human desire.

Driven by a conviction in the revelatory capacity of the camera-eye, nothing is too commonplace for Zhao’s camera. To the end of accepting photography as the existential baseline of cinematic ruminations, Behemoth seems to acknowledge the Straub/Huillet position that “the greatness of film is the humbleness of being condemned to photography.” Indeed, Zhao’s image entices with a generosity of meanings in its expansive and meticulous display. While the use of depth of focus allows our eyes to wander around the screen and to determine the importance of each object, every frame is devised with a compositional elegance that strives to illuminate the ill-fated choices we have made.

Working in conjunction with cinematic strategies such as minimal editing and extreme close-ups, the pensive gaze of Zhao’s camera embeds the viewing experience with aesthetic and psychological complexity. As the image stages nothing but the power of an unadorned visage void of any histrionic gesturing, its commitment to a spiritual realism forces us to scrutinize the traces of violence that testify to the monumental smallness of these lives. Meanwhile, when the image is intensively engaged in the movement of a certain machine part, or abstracts the coal glaneuses into colour blocks in movement. The value of the object is placed in the plastic form of itself, its pictorial and poetic equivalence. The whole 90 minutes of Behemoth is charged with a tension between the unapologetic earthiness of the material body and the sublime grandeur of art.

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Zhao has always sought and found meaning in people, and his films always discover pathways to burning revelations through the marginal lives at the very bottom of our social power structure. Even in front of the untameable fire at the ironworks, nothing stopped Zhao from getting close to his flaming creatures, to see the fire in their eyes, literal and metaphorical. At the moment of dawn, a night-shift worker is on his way back to the dorm: life is hard, clouds are pink and the fire lies between the land and the sky. A woman looks at a portrait of her deceased husband whereas he is looking peacefully towards us. The fire here lies between the seeing and the seen. The calloused hands of a man, the scarred leg of a woman, the laboured breathing at work, the heaving chest in the sickbed; these scorching images never ceases to pain.

If the sensuality and pleasure of realism confirms the existence of a world beyond the screen, then poetry and the choreography of the image give method to Zhao’s pathos. Intermittently, the film enters these surreal scenes where the world fractures into a broken mirror of irregular pieces. As the intact landscape is replaced by a disintegrated one, and the internal fragmentation of image takes over montage as the visual rhythm device, the film submits itself to a different set of governing conditions of time and place – those of dreamland. If the dream in Divine Comedy is a metaphor for the author’s spiritual journey towards God, the dream in Behemoth is its segue towards mournful introspection and a spiritual escape from industrial clamour into the tranquillity of primitive innocence as symbolized by the fragile naked body. In visualizing and verbalizing his own considerations of reality, his expressions of grievance, and an internal quest for answers, Zhao finds himself performing several balancing acts –some with more success than others. Much as the mirror within the black frame (a black framed photo is commonly used as portrait for the deceased in China) points to an enlightening symbolism of the death of the natural paradise, the abrupt disappearing of a man holding a plant at the final scene is suspiciously gimmicky. Occasionally with Zhao’s voice in elegiac sentimentality, a sense of finality emerges; when an image conforms to its accompanying text in an excessive manner, or when a conclusion is explicitly given, the film meets a momentary ending of its imagination and intelligence. At such moments, I wished for more freedom, for that would have allowed delightful epiphanies and a cinematic detachment that affords us the opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of the world.

Among all possible readings of the “I” in Behemoth, one obviously is Zhao himself. His personal presence and intervention in the narrative ascends to be equal to the material as another primary motor as well as the object of observation of the film. Behemoth reminds us of an often forgotten truth: that cinema is a visual art before it is a narrative one. With a personally unprecedented liberation, Zhao opens up his canvas to a field of colliding and coalescing audio-visual forces. This is why, the true accomplishment of Behemoth is not for its ideological independence, but its cinematic victory.

LU Yangqiao

The original text in Chinese is published on artforum.com.cn: http://artforum.com.cn/column/8367.

Notes on the 10th Shanghai Biennale 2014

“The processes of modernisation and industrialisation transformed and redefined all the elements of the social plane…. society itself slowly became industrialised even to the point of transforming human relations and human nature. Society became a factory.” - Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

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Shanghai Biennale 2014 at Power Station of Art – Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum

SHANGHAI, CHINA - The day was smoggy. On my way to the museum, I checked the Air Quality app on my phone for the pollution level of the day: heavy. Appropriate, I thought, for a day to find out what kind of (hi)story is being presented about modernisation and industrialisation that we breathe everyday, literarily.

The main thematic exhibition of the 10th Shanghai Biennale takes place at the Power Station of Art – Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum. Located right next to Shanghai’s mother river, the Huangpu River, the architecture is an old electric plant whose history can be traced back to 1897. In 2010, it became a Green Building for the Shanghai World Expo’s Pavilion of Future, a site where people imagined the prospect of our cities and civilizations. Opened in 2012, it is now the first state-run museum of contemporary art in China.

Entitled “Social Factory”, the Biennale organizes over 70 artworks surrounding the central concern of “the social”. Chief curator Anselm Franke wants the Biennale to explore an interlocking set of questions in regards to the characteristics of the production of the social and the constitution of social facts. In his article discussing the Biennale for Artreview, Franke says “For the Shanghai Biennale, I think of what modernisation can mean in the current situation… I think that we need an affirmative, positive definition of what modernisation can mean. The socially implicit should not be left to the nationalists or the religious obscurantists or the ideologues of technocracy.” In the vein of this attempt, works presented focus on different social classes and groups and offer a wide variety of gestures and positions.

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Peter Ablinger & Winfried Ritsch, “The Truth or: How to Teach the Piano Chinese” (2014)

At the entrance, Peter Ablinger and Winfried Ritsch’s The Truth or: How To Teach The Piano Chinese opens the journey for all visitors. A computer-controlled piano plays some seemingly random notes while the text of “seek truth from facts” (实事求是) – possibly the most referenced, interpreted and studied phrase of modern Chinese text – is projected on a big screen one character at a time. Originated about 2000 years ago from East Han dynasty teachings, the adage was invoked by Mao Zedong in 1938 as the foundation of Maoism and then repurposed by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 for his social reform of China. The piano is programmed to play a musical translation of the phrase. Jarring and agitated, this sonic greeting takes the past as a point of departure and sets up the mood for the Biennale as the sound wave reverberates the central chamber of the museum.

The factory, as a fundamental figure of industrialization, is a protagonist in several works. One of the most poignant and touching pieces is Zhao Liang’s three-channel video installation Black Face, White Face (2014). Three vast quarries are displayed with one nude body lying in each. Occasional cuts to three close-ups make the workers visible: one covered in black coal, one in white limestone powder, and a third with messy hair. Through the placement of tender skin against the rough dirt and rocks and the montage between production sites and human faces, the projection constructs a visual discourse of Marx’s labor-capital relation and exerts powerful psychological impact on the viewer at the same time. Another direct critique of labor under capitalism comes from Ken Jacobs’ Capitalism: Child Labor (2006). The American experimental filmmaker animates a stereoscopic photograph of a 19th-century factory floor. The image never truly progresses but unfolds in an obsessive flickering mixed with cutting and collaging. As the film brings the faces of working children to the foreground, their suffering becomes immediate, along with an aggressive soundtrack punctuating the personal and political distress. Also by an American avant-garde legend is By Night with Torch and Spear (1942) by Joseph Cornell. Similarly, a collage of found footage of industrial processes and indigenous people undergoes a formal and structural manipulation and reconstruction. Film is sometimes run backwards and sometimes flipped upside-down. Through a constant recontextualization of image and a varied juxtaposition of tinting and texture, By Night with Torch and Spear fabricates and unravels layers of suggestions and meanings out of the images of industrialization and of the noble savage while appealing to a playful surrealism.

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Zhao Liang, “Black Face, White Face” (2014), three-chanel video installation

From factory to a more broadly defined site of production, Leviathan (2012) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013) by Shaina Anand & Ashok Sukumaran, and Crust (2013) by Huang Wenhai all choose ship as their site of documentation. In Leviathan, Go-Pro cameras were strapped to the body of the ship, the fishnet, or a fishermen’s body. The image no longer registers the world according to men’s will but chance. It challenges the hierarchy of an anthropocentric worldview and searches for a more profound realism. In comparison, Gulf is more interested in man. Gulf mixes HD video image with cell phone and camcorder images captured by sailors. A sensual collage of visual textures combined with Bollywood and religious songs chosen by the sailor gives an intimate account of the human perspective. Crust is a 13-minute depiction of the daily existence of workers who live in on-site barracks to produce €15-million ships for a German client on the banks of Yangtze River. Gulf and Crust render visible the carnal bodies of labor that are often ignored and erased by this era marked by the elusive immaterial global flow of information and capital.

While some works comment on symptoms of modernity, some works achieve a grand narrative through an individual storytelling. The Man With No Name (2009) by Wang Bing gives an intimate portrait of a marginal survivor who lives in a cave and on the barest necessities, completely isolated from the industrial landscape of the “New China”. Fully self-sustained, the hermit offers a shocking existential alternative to the collective enslavery of the mainstream Chinese society to material desires. Two films from the Tohoku documentary trilogy (2013) by Ko Sakai and Ryusuke Hamaguchi were included in the Biennale: Storytellers and Voices from the Waves. Flowing with a sense of life, the films capture a series of conversations of local residents of Tohoku after surviving a major earthquake and a tsunami in 2011. The folklore dialogue between the teller and the listener (instead of the camera) brings a warm humane dynamic allowing the uniqueness of experience to be conveyed through the particularity of voice and expression, thus a special production of documentation, fiction, and meaning. After a viewing of over 5 hours, I was surprisingly left wanting more.

If art is not only a product but also a production, it’s then equally susceptible to the metamorphosis of social conditions. Liu Ding’s 1999 (2014) is a monumental installation that occupies a large area in the center of the second floor. Fifty phones on fifty separate walls play 30 pieces of text (including interviews with artists and critics) and 20 pop songs from the 1990s. A narrative account of the art world and a historical metaphor of the decade, 1999 reflects on the oppositional nature of art-making of a generation in China and its dependence on the ideological framework and the political order, whether the art production wrestles with it or operates within it. Meanwhile, Practing LIVE (2014) by Yu Cheng-Ta is a more playful look at the professions in the art world. Taking ideas from reality television productions, Yu Cheng-Ta have real-life practitioners in the arts (curator, collector, gallery manager, artist, critic, and professor) play a 30-minute family scene with identities switched. While the real and the reenacting personae drive the work towards both the documentary and the fictional ends at the same time, the seemingly common familial conversations draw out a complex web of power relations. Armin Linke’s C2RMF – Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at her bath, Paris (2014) looks into one of the most sophisticated operations of art restoration at the Louvre. New specialist technologies reveal new discoveries of the painting process unknown before, adding new layers to the already intricate history of alteration, repainting, and production.

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YU Cheng-Ta, “Practicing LIVE” (2014)

Elsewhere in the Biennale, several works serve as an examination of visual culture. The Story of Ah Q by Zhao Yannian is a series of woodcut works made over a 15-year span (1979-1994). The series is based on the famous novel by Lu Xun, one of the most recognized Chinese authors, known for his literary reflection and criticism on the Chinese reality during early 20th century. The sharp contrast of black and white responded well to the ideological needs and aesthetic tendency of the time when the conflict between the working class and the capitalists, and between Chinese and foreign invaders were intensifying by the day. As its craft comes from a folk origin, the woodcut gained enormous popularity as a reproductive art-making. The woodcut art was widely used in newspapers, magazines, flyers, posters, matchboxes and other everyday objects. It formed a major source of realism in the modern aesthetics of China. Another look at the visual culture in everyday life objects is Liu Chuang’s Segmented Landscape (2014). From the mid 1980s to the late 1990s, due to the privatization of real estate and changes in urban planning, apartment buildings began to replace bungalows as the main residential arrangement in China. What also emerged in large quantities was anti-theft window fences with various simple patterns that suggest familial happiness while maintaining low cost. A piece of white fabric and a light projection turns the fences into shadow images emblematic of the modern mass production as well as the frugal economic position of Chinese people at the time.

Every artwork is an act of subjectification of history and its social fabrication through objects and/or images. In Ming Wong’s video installation Windows On The World (Part 2): Tradition and Sci-Fi (2014), 24 images construct a non-linear narrative of history with found footage of various sources and natures: cantonese opera, sci-fi films, news clips, documentary footage, etc. The meaning of modernity articulates itself through an interplay of cultural imagination and the supposedly more truthful documentation of reality. From pop culture to iconography, Ho Tzu Nyen’s Earth (Back to Comm) (2009-2012), a video of 42 minutes, draws upon European canons of French and Italian painting such as Caravaggio and Théodore Géricault. Accompagnied by a soundtrack inspired by rock-n-roll from the the 1970s and 1980s, the imagery in slow motion creates a self-contained time and space with a sense of nostalgia, decay and agony where history revives itself in an intensified manner. In one of his last pieces, Harun Farocki explores the impact of digital technologies on the construct of reality. The work at display, Parallel II (2014), is part of his series Parallel I-IV (2012-2014) examining the visual language of video games and digital animation as the iconographic imagery of our time. In comparison to the general unconscious of history explored in Earth, Parallel is more interested in the specific conditions, forms and structures of representation and knowledge of the digital age. In his works, video games are grand and complex architectures, and Parallel Il specifically explores the design of limits while nevigating in the virtuel space. The design of the world in these digital images intrigued the filmmaker as a platform where we produce a world where we project our perception, program the movements, and moniter its administration. This echoes one of the key questions Anselm Franke wants the Biennale to touch, that is the “implicit zone of the social, where the boundary conditions of sense and behavior are formed and permanently monitored, is the zone where ‘the social’ and aesthetics are always already one.”

The 10th Shanghai Biennale lasts from 2014/11/23 to 2015/03/31.

LU Yangqiao