New York Out of Character: Chinese artist Cheng Ran at New Museum, New York

Chinese artist Cheng Ran debuts in the United States with a museum solo exhibition.

Just when we think that all has been said about New York, Cheng Ran presents us with a sci-fiesque multi-channel video installation about the city, without blemishing its true character.

"Chen Ran: Diary of a Madman", 19 October 2016 - 15 January 2017, New Museum, New York. 15-channel video installation, HD video, stereo sound. Courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and GalerieUrsMeile, Beijing and Lucerne. Music by While We Still Have Bodies. Installation photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio. Image courtesy New Museum.

“Chen Ran: Diary of a Madman”, 19 October 2016 – 15 January 2017, New Museum, New York. 15-channel video installation, HD video, stereo sound. Courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and GalerieUrsMeile, Beijing and Lucerne. Music by While We Still Have Bodies. Installation photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio. Image courtesy New Museum.

In line with its mission of showcasing contemporary art from all over the world and providing promising talents their first US exposure, the New Museum, in collaboration with the K11 Art Foundation (KAF), has recently come up with a residency programme that targets emerging Chinese artists. For this venture, the selected artist is given the opportunity to work in New York for three months; and much like KAF’s other residency programmes, this New Museum-based one boosts the participant to come up with more new and meaningful works.

First to be awarded the New Museum-KAF residency is Hangzhou-based artist Cheng Ran, who in recent years has become a distinguished video artist, for seamlessly integrating ambitious cinematic techniques in intriguing narratives that relate his personal contemplations about real happenings with mythical and fictional elements. “Cheng Ran: Diary of a Madman”, the exhibition that culminates his residency, runs until 15 January 2017, and on Wednesdays the New Museum will also screen a special seven-hour cut of the artist’s film In Course of the Miraculous. In the show, the artist presents a 15-channel video installation that captures an outsider’s view of New York filled with enigma and the mundane.

"Chen Ran: Diary of a Madman", 19 October 2016 - 15 January 2017, New Museum, New York. 15-channel video installation, HD video, stereo sound. Courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and GalerieUrsMeile, Beijing and Lucerne. Music by While We Still Have Bodies. Installation photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio. Image courtesy New Museum.

“Chen Ran: Diary of a Madman”, 19 October 2016 – 15 January 2017, New Museum, New York. 15-channel video installation, HD video, stereo sound. Courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne. Music: While We Still Have Bodies. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio. Image courtesy New Museum.

For Cheng Ran, this exhibition does more than expose New Yorkers to what is beyond the mainstream Chinese contemporary art. He tells Art Radar:

I do not think the outcomes of this residency program could represent Chinese contemporary art. It’s rather a mere expression of personal emotions and experiences, which [are] maybe also the things I want to bring to the viewers – independent thinking and cross-border experiences.

The artist himself claimed that “Cheng Ran: Diary of a Madman” expresses personal content. Thus, to further understand the exhibition, let us consider his journey as an artist.

Chen Ran, 'Diary of a Madman (Circadian Rhythm)', 2016HD video, silent, colour; 3:16 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

Chen Ran, ‘Diary of a Madman (Circadian Rhythm)’, 2016, HD video, silent, colour, 3:16 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

Video Art: Working With Less

Born in 1983 in Inner Mongolia, Cheng Ran studied painting and art history in the prestigious China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Though knowledgeable about the field, the artist admits that he did not have a clear direction for his work after graduating. It was only in 2003, while working as an actor and assistant in Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, a five-years-in-the-making film by his mentor Yang Fudong, that Cheng Ran realised the options of working outside the studio, with a crew, and a concept over a clear-cut script.

Fortunately for the artist, China was undergoing great change; everything around him fed his curiosity for film. “I was born in the early years of China’s Reform and Opening up which was a special and important moment,” Cheng Ran recalls:

I grew up in the 90’s, another particular era when a large number of pirated films, even experimental and independent films were spread out on CD and the Internet in China. It affected the younger generation’s re-understanding of the world in a sense.

Video artist Cheng Ran during the opening night of his exhibition in the New Museum.Photo by Madison McGraw / BFA.com. Image courtesy New Museum.

Video artist Cheng Ran during the opening night of his exhibition in the New Museum. Photo by Madison McGraw / BFA.com. Image courtesy New Museum.

It was due to this endless supply of visuals that Cheng Ran became exposed to the imaginative narratives of Werner Herzog and the contemplative and languid styles of Jim Jarmusch and Béla Tarr.

To develop and master a unique directorial style, the Chinese artist explored filmmaking in his home, with a simple camera and the absence of a crew. Such state of working with less served as the foundation of his being a successful video artist. Cheng Ran’s early video works were all shot within the walls of his apartment, which disciplined him to maximise resources and fabricate narratives that have never been seen before.

Cheng Ran, 'Diary of a Madman (The Bridge)', 2016HD video, stereo sound, colour; 4:25 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

Cheng Ran, ‘Diary of a Madman (The Bridge)’, 2016, HD video, stereo sound, colour, 4:25 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

An obvious way that Cheng Ran crafts distinct stories is by focusing on matters that are ignored and appropriating other people’s works. His The Sorrows of Young Werther (2009) takes inspiration from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s autobiographical novel, and In Course of the Miraculous (2015) is influenced by the disappearance of Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader.

Since he began his venture into film and video art, Cheng Ran has participated in biennales and exhibitions in and out of China, such as in the Qiao Space, Shanghai (2016); YUAN Space, Beijing (2015); the 14th Istanbul Biennial (2015); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2014); and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2011).

He was a nominee for the first edition of the OCAT & Pierre Huber Art Prize in 2014 and the Absolut Art Award in 2013. In 2011, Cheng Ran was named the “Best Video Artist” by the Randian.

Cheng Ran, 'Diary of a Madman (While We Still Have Bodies)', 2016HD video, stereo sound, colour; 55:29 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

Cheng Ran, ‘Diary of a Madman (While We Still Have Bodies)’, 2016, HD video, stereo sound, colour, 55:29 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

Cheng Ran’s New York Minute

For his debut exhibition in the United States, Cheng Ran continues his streak of looking into the mundane and appropriating other people’s work. “Cheng Ran: Diary of a Madman” borrows its title from Lu Xun’s story of an anxious nobody who is speaking of the society he is living in. Like the Chinese modern story, his video installation captures the enigmatic atmosphere of one’s surroundings. Only this time, the narrator ignores factors that have been celebrated.

Cheng Ran is clear about his stance as a video artist; he refuses to join the mainstream. He explains:

There is a list that I found on the Internet, including hundreds of names of the movies that ever took scenes in New York. I hope[d] I could choose different perspectives to look at New York, [and] also ponder on what is irreplaceable for New York.

Cheng Ran, 'Diary of a Madman (The Bridge)', 2016HD video, stereo sound, colour; 4:25 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.     Cheng Ran, 'Diary of a Madman (The Bridge)', 2016, HD video, stereo sound, colour, 4:25 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

Cheng Ran, ‘Diary of a Madman (The Bridge)’, 2016HD video, stereo sound, colour; 4:25 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.
Cheng Ran, ‘Diary of a Madman (The Bridge)’, 2016, HD video, stereo sound, colour, 4:25 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

After going around the city, he concluded that one of the things that makes New York tick is its trash. “This is the poetry that New York has taken me [to],” he quips. “If New York was a body, then the trash would be the blood, representing that the city is still alive.” Apart from trash, other uncelebrated fragments that Cheng Ran played with in his video vignettes are the pigeons, the city during its dead hours, and sites such as Staten Island’s ship graveyard and Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay.

When asked how effective video/moving image is in discussing the neglected, Cheng Ran notes that the art form is not strategy:

The usage of video is more inspired by the early ‘90s video art movement from the city I live in. For me, I want to remain independent at all times. I had seen a TV series from Hong Kong of the 90’s, which talks about the daily life of several generations taking risks in desperation, whose title I like very much – The Challenge of Life.

Clearly, Cheng Ran would continue to seek what is untapped and find unique ways to film and present these elements.

 Cheng Ran, 'Diary of a Madman (Dead Horse Bay)', 2016HD video, stereo sound, colour; 5:11 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

Cheng Ran, ‘Diary of a Madman (Dead Horse Bay)’, 2016, HD video, stereo sound, colour, 5:11 min. Image courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne.

Flowing Forward

After coming up with a nine-hour film about expedition and disappearance and working with a small film crew in producing 15 New York ponderings, Cheng Ran expresses his desire to return to New York to shoot films and shares that he would like to focus on language in his future works:

Language is also an intriguing factor for me; for instance, the foreign languages chaotically intertwined in the videos. To follow up, I will explore more of the estrangement and mystery of languages in my future works. I will be heading to Jerusalem soon, to make a video regarding languages. In the meanwhile, I’m also concerned about the works produced in unfamiliar regions under the status of ‘in elsewhere.’ As for the format of the video, I don’t over think in advance, just go with the flow.

Javelyn Ramos

1465

Related Topics: Chinese artists, feature, urban, film, new media, sound, video, installation, museum shows, events in New York

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