VIDEO ART CONTEMPORARY CHINESE ART ENVIRONMENT
Beijing’s second “Shan Shui” exhibition, “Shan Shui 2010: H2O”, showcased the works of such internationally acclaimed video and new media artists as Song Dong, Bill Viola, Wang Gongxin and Janaina Tschӓpe, all drawing attention to the subject of water either by using it as their subject or as material in their art.
Hosted by Bejing Center for the Arts (BCA), “Shan Shui 2010: H2O” ran from 20 November, 2010 to 5 January, 2011, and was a continuation of the “Green Art Project” launched in 2009 by BCA director, Weng Ling.
Although these works are visually and conceptually quite distinct, what unites them is the fact that they all highlight a single, unique substance – water – which is an inescapable element of human existence.
To find out more about the Beijing Center for the Arts (BCA), click here.
Song Dong (b. 1966, Chinese, lives and works in Beijing) has consistently chosen water as his theme. One of his best-known works is Water Diary (1995-present) which stems from a childhood memory of his father teaching him to practice calligraphy with water rather than ink, on stone rather than on paper, exercising thereby the utmost economy. Phillips explains,
For the past 15 years, as a personal ritual and a meditative practice, Song Dong has used a brush dipped in water to set down diary entries on a flat black stone…. These daily inscriptions, of course, evaporate rapidly and leave no discernible trace.
In his most recent work, Touched 100 years (2010), which was specifically commissioned by BCA for the current exhibition, Song Dong uses 100 small screens, each with a date underneath, and lines them up in an almost U-shape along the gallery walls. For each year he has chosen one photograph that to him represents the most important historic event that has impacted our world in politics, marks a milestone in science and technology or represents a significant event in arts and culture.
He starts in 1911 with a portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, known to the Chinese as “the Father of the Republic”; for 1918 he has chosen an image from the Great Influenza that killed millions; 1940 sees Charlie Chaplin posing as “der Fuehrer”; 1955 shows the first Kassel Documenta; 1966 is the start of the Cultural Revolution in China; in 1975, Bill Gates founds Microsoft; Facebook and twitter represent 2006; and 2009 is graced with an image of China’s 60th anniversary parade.
He projects each of these 100 images on water, so the audience actually sees the reverse of the original. Every so often he slowly moves his hand over the reflected image, thereby distorting it until it is no longer visible. After a few seconds the waves disappear and the image becomes visible once again. This blurring of the image, according to the curator, “invites the viewer to ponder the ephemerality of history as well as the transience of human memory.”
Bill Viola (b. 1951, American, lives and works in California) is a pioneer of video art and one of the world’s most-recognised video artists. He has repeatedly dealt with the subject of water in his works.
Viola’s fascination with water goes back to a near-drowning experience in his childhood. As the artist himself has stated,
It was possibly the most profound, life-changing and transcendent experience I’ve ever had. It was accompanied by a complete lack of fear – only calm and peace. When I think about it now it centers me again. “Shan Shui 2010: H2O” exhibition catalogue
Two vertical format video images depict the torso of a man and a woman slowly emerging and nearing flowing water. They each purposefully wash their hands under the glimmering running water and then fade again into the background. Viola has described his work as “a kind of purification ceremony akin to those one would experience in a Japanese Zen temple.”
The curator explains, “Like many of Viola’s video works, Ablutions attempts to dramatically slow down the viewer’s perceptual response, in an effort to create a concentrated mood of stillness and meditation.”
Janaina Tschӓpe (b. 1973, German-Brazilian, lives and works in New York) also has a childhood connection to water, through her dreams of being a mermaid who lives in the sea. This, combined with her love for the cultural folklore of her parents’ native cultures such as northern European fairy tales and South American mythic tales, has led to the creation of such works as Blood Sea (2004). Another source of direct inspiration was Italo Calvino’s book t zero (1967), in which he discusses the similarity of the composition and movement of our blood to that of the oceans, which he terms “the sea of our origins.”
Blood Sea is a four-channel video installation that shows figures floating in the water in unusual – at times bulbous, at times long flowing – gowns. Tschӓpe partly uses an actress specifically trained as a “mermaid” and partly acts herself as the protagonist in these videos.
“These bizarre images, which dramatise extraordinary physical and emotional states, can awaken feelings of both fascination and profound discomfort in the viewer,” says Phillips.
Wang Gongxin (b. 1960 China, works and lives in Beijing) was commissioned by BCA to produce work for this exhibition and came up with his video installation Rain, or Water (2010).
The artist placed 32 screens resembling various sized and shaped drops on the gallery floor. Six projectors that are mounted on the ceiling project objects of everyday life (such as food, furniture, a toothbrush or a mahjong game) onto the 32 screens on which rain is falling.
The sound of rain and a weather forecast can be heard in the background. After a few seconds both picture and sound disappear only to start over again but with new images. With each cycle the artist tries to show the effect that a downpour of rain can have on various objects.
In his artist statement for the exhibition Wang Gongxin states, “Only by endowing more profundity to water will we be able to keep our life GREEN.” The curator sees in this work a continuation of Wang Gongxin’s previous artistic output. He writes,
His expansive video installations accomplish a rare feat, combining video’s power to record direct images of reality and its ability to suggest extremely personal subjective states. This ability to strike an unexpected balance between lens-based realism and dreamlike imagination characterizes virtually all of Wang Gongxin’s video work.
More on “Shan Shui 2010: H2O”
The Chinese characters for shan shui literally mean mountain and water but are usually understood as referring to the ancient Chinese tradition of landscape painting with brush and ink which portray mountains and rivers or waterfalls and convey the artist’s thoughts on nature.
“Shan Shui 2010: H2O” is a collaboration between BCA and the Shan Shui Conservation Center, who in 2007 started a grass-roots documentary project called Through Their Eyes. The project’s ten videos make up another part of “H2O” and were shot by people who live in the mountains of south west China or the eastern edge of the Tibetan Tableau, the headwaters of Asia’s largest rivers, which daily bring water to a quarter of the world’s population.
Through Their Eyes aims to support these communities by documenting their unique views on environment and culture.
Mankind, relying on the conveniences of industrial civilisation and constant improvements in technology, has allowed a fundamental truth to fade from view: without the planet, there is no existence. The solution, however, either from technological breakthrough or calling for heart-to-heart transformation, has to be based on a reflection on the way we see our nature and environment. These communities may just bear the answer. “Shan Shui 2010: H2O” exhibition catalogue
The exhibition’s curator Christopher Phillips is chief curator at the prestigious International Centre for Photography in New York. He has studied and curated shows showcasing Asian artists for many years. Formerly he was senior editor at Art in America.
- Taiwan eco-art exhibition Going Green tours America – curator interview – January 2011 – a decidedly honest look into the organisation of a US-touring Asian eco-art exhibition
- Miao Xiaochun pushes limits of digital art – an Art Radar interview – December 2010 – we talk to Xiaochun, includes a sneak preview of one video work
- Taiwanese artist Wu Mali on role of art in communities – Asia Art Archive – December 2010 – on an AAA interview with Taiwanese community and enviromental artist Wu Mali
- Para/Site brings Indonesian moving image to Hong Kong – Record Waves exhibition – December 2010 – the emergence of video art in Indonesia
- A testimonial for Chinese contemporary art – Art Radar speaks with Weng Ling – August 2010 – find out more about the director/curator of the Bejing Center for the Arts