Chinese artist Shen Xin’s solo exhibition “Strongholds” runs at Lychee One until 5 March 2017.
The exhibition features Shen Xin’s video works that explore notions of love, spirituality and surveillance, by examining the intersection between Buddhist philosophy and everyday life.
Chengdu-born artist Shen Xin, who now lives and works in London, has featured in several recent group shows in China, such as “Dragon Liver Phoenix Brain” at Shanghai OCAT (2016), “Extravagant Imagination, The Wonder of Idleness” at MadeIn Gallery in Shanghai (2016) and “The Ballad of Generation Y”, also at Shanghai OCAT (2015). In these contexts, a self-consciously contemporary and kaleidoscopic interpretation of modern life has been the context for her work. In “Strongholds” at Lychee One in London, Shen Xin’s works are experienced in an austere setting, with just two projections on the adjacent walls of a cell-like space. Fine acting and cinematography make the works dignified and economical.
Following the UK solo show in 2016 “Originally Inclusive” at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester and the online commission “Forms Escape: Prologue” at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, Lychee One presents new video works connected by an examination of the intersection of Buddhist spirituality and everyday life.
A Love Triangle
The titular 71-minute video Strongholds (2016) is a disjointed narrative about two Dutch women, Emma and Margriet, preparing for a dance performance at Kagyu Samyé Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland. Founded in the mid-1960s, Samyé Ling was the largest Buddhist temple in Western Europe until the inauguration of The Benalmádena Stupa in Spain in 2003. Beyond the narrative, told in flashback, the video is an unusual love triangle between the two Dutch women and a surveillance drone. As well as doing much of the filming, the insistent buzz of the drone’s motors, its shadow and reflection make its presence ubiquitous. In other scenes, it appears propped on a chair in the cottage where the two women are staying and is seen lying beside them as they rest on the bank of a river in the deserted rural landscape around the temple.
The two women rehearse their dance routine outdoors and the drone, also, moves around them. The dance itself, in keeping with the title, involves holding and trust, interaction and letting go. These themes of actual physical contact become confused with emotional and spiritual concerns. Buddhist ideas of harmonious unity provide the framework for the women’s desire for a balance between autonomy and dependence in their relationship.
Chat taking place on a Dharma (in Buddhism, states of ethical consciousness) website are sometimes flashed up as text on the screen and disassociated with the main action, they reflect on the interface of ordinary life and spiritual devotion. These add a layer of mysticism to the apparently ‘fly-on the-wall’ report of the introspective activities of the women. In the film, the dancers as actors portray themselves with poise and conviction.
Ultimately the need for closeness in the women’s relationship suggests a universal desire for integrity. The drone is a benevolent mediator suggesting that technology can provide reflective distance and impartiality to aid self-discovery.
In the last scene, the drone adopts an unflinching distance while the two women engage in a struggle. Or is it a play fight? Finally, they break free. They run off separately but in the same direction to the refrain of blind Chinese folk singer Zhou Yunpeng’s Elegy to April (2014): “No one should dream of finding her again […]. There won’t be any news anymore.”
The other work at Lychee One, Provocation of the Nightingale #1 (2017), also explores the interface of Buddhism and utilitarian concerns. It is an intimate encounter between two women, the manager of a DNA testing facility and her meditation teacher. The physical attraction of the couple is taught. They struggle to keep focused on their conversation as their bodies draw one to the other.
The work seems closely related to Forerunners (2016), a three-channel video installation, the residue of a performance included in the recent exhibition at Shanghai OCAT. Both works record the dialogue between the same characters. In the earlier work, the conversation is more pragmatic, even argumentative. The screens show a deserted theatre space and the voices of the scripted performers are present on the screens as graphic animations, keeping the issues discussed in the abstract realm.
In the current work, the two figures sit close together on the floor of a darkened space, similar to the theatre seen before. The dialogue is flirtatious. The two women endeavour to please one another, attempting to accommodate and integrate each other’s perspective. Occasionally the encounter changes, although the dialogue continues their lips do not move. Their communication appears to be telepathic and is sublimated by intimate touch and gesture. At such moments the camera also abandons its objectivity and is drawn to linger on the women’s bodies and clothing, expressing sensuality.
The work is compelling largely due to the touching conviction brought to the acting. The women’s attraction is palpable making it believable that their different world views are actively becoming integrated as the video plays.
The surface of Shen’s works address personal attractions and affections, and these also serve to evoke political questions and particularly Accelerationist theory. A branch of these theoretical ideas foreground the disjuncture between the rhythm of bodily desire and the automated rhythms of contemporary capitalism, seeing in this rupture the possibility of capitalist disintegration, allowing people to revert to simpler living and to closer spiritual networks. To the UK audience, many of the Buddhist references are esoteric, such as references to the five Aggregates (matter, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness). These are principles that are familiar to some Asian audiences, such as those brought up with Confucius’ five virtues that underpin the principles of education in China.
Shen’s previous works, such as Shoulders of Giants (2015) and Forms Escape: Prologue (2016), were acted out in the format of seminars. In the current works, Shen puts her protagonists outside the circuit of the actual. Their communication is oblique, such as in theatre and dance, and disconnected from utilitarian life. The characters’ loving interaction is radical. In love, they grapple with being together despite mental separation.
In the videos, love is as an unerring bond. In all manifestations of separation, it holds people together. For all their ethereal content these videos grapple with the possibilities of practical solutions to universal contemporary concerns, proposing ways to close the territorial, political, environmental and sectarian detachments of today.
- “Extravagant Imagination, The Wonder of Idleness”: 7 young Chinese artists at MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai – April 2016 – curated by Lu Mingjun, the exhibition at Xu Zhen’s MadeIn Gallery brings together seven young Chinese artists who bridge the past and present
- Between hospitality and hostility: Iranian artist Abbas Akhavan at DRAF studio London – February 2017 – Art Radar takes a look at Abbas Akhavan’s creative practice and his exploration of the tension between hospitality and hostility
- British-Ghanaian artist John Akomfrah wins Artes Mundi 2017 – February 2017 – Artes Mundi 2017 winner’s award winning film Auto Da Re (2016) is on display along with the five other shortlisted artists at the National Museum Cardiff
- “Prediction Laboratory”: Chinese artist Sun Xun at Yuz Museum, Shanghai – December 2016 – curated by New York-based art critic and independent curator Barbara Pollack, “Prediction Laboratory” is a select space for investigation and experimentation
- “The Unity of Time and Place”: Iranian artist Mahmoud Bakhshi at narrative projects, London – February 2017 – Mahmoud Bakhshi explores the relations between history, politics and artistic research