London’s Hayward Gallery presents Taiwanese artist Yuan Goang-Ming’s exhibition “Tomorrowland”.
The new media artist investigates globalisation through the lens of discomfort and distopia in his new show at HENI Project Space.
A siren howls. The camera follows a bridge, steadily approaching a city. The city’s streets are deserted; despite it being broad daylight, there is nobody. Cars are parked neatly along the rows of skyscrapers of concrete and glass. Something must have forced everybody to evacuate, just minutes ago. Since everything else appears peaceful, the scene seems unreal, staged. An apocalypse might be pending.
These are the images of Everyday Maneuver (2018), the first of the three videos by Yuan Goang-Ming that one encounters in the exhibition “Tomorrowland” at HENI Project Space, contained in London’s Hayward Gallery and showing emerging and established artists from around the globe. On view from 20 June to 6 August 2018, “Tomorrowland” is the first solo show of the internationally influential Taiwanese media artist in a public institution in the United Kingdom.
A large projection, Everyday Maneuver is a single-channel video following the documentary course of the camera’s mechanical eye over deserted cities. The place is Taiwan, and the event the Wanan Air Raid Drills. Since the lifting of the Martial Law in 1978, once a year in spring, time is suspended in cities all over the country as a howling siren signals the beginning of the exercise, for which the streets are evacuated in preparation for a potential war. This, Yuan Goang-Ming notes, is a common thread in his work – the “war in everyday, or everyday during war”. War is not only bombs and guns, but perceived in the small changes it brings along, such as the economy.
Assembled from the footage of five different scenes, the strangeness of the scene is enhanced by small manipulations of the video, distorting the viewer’s perception. First moving forward, the camera’s course slows down in the third scene, and the siren fades, replaced by a hum that is felt with the entire body. This evokes a feeling of nausea. Further along, the footage is played backwards, and the hovering height of the camera changes, adding further discomfort. The camera’s gaze is reminiscent of surveillance technology, looking for anyone left outside, as if this were dystopia.
Everyday Maneuver is characteristic for the topics at the heart of the work of Taipei-based 1965-born artist Yuan Goang-Ming. He has been working in video art since being 19 years old, and became one of its pioneers in Taiwan. Later, he pursued a masters in Media Art at the Academy of Design in Karlsruhe in 1997 and is now Assistant Professor at the School of Film and New Media of Taipei National University of the Arts. Laureate of numerous prices since the late 1980s, his work is exhibited and collected internationally. In 2003 he represented Taiwan at the 50th Venice Biennale.
Yuan’s videos depict the “perplexing state of the world today” and challenge the viewer’s awareness for the present. He notes that while most of his work is drawn from personal experience, this is scaled up as he aims
to enact a kind of subversion of our indifferent attitude to daily life experience that gives the viewer an ambiguous feeling of being confronted with something that is both familiar and strange. This alternative ‘angle’ gives the audience a different perspective on reality, and a different perception as well.
Thus, his work orbits around the contemporary, the diaspora, the rise of populism, and most importantly, the impact of globalisation on the world: climate change, economic crises, the influence of technology and the impossibility of utopia. He says:
The ‘ideal’ place always exists somewhere else, this sense of the ‘ideal elsewhere’ has overshadowed and dimmed our sense of existing in the here and now.
Questioning the idyllic peace of home becomes manifest in Landscape of Energy (2014), the second film in the exhibition, and the oldest of the three works. It was created from a personal urgency: when the triple–disaster struck Japan on 11 March 2011, leading to a nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Yuan was reminded of the nuclear power plant near his home in Tamsui. His video serves as a painful reminder of the danger of nuclear energy and the fragility of everyday life, since “energy can be good or bad, tangible or intangible.”
Again, he uses the detached mechanic gaze of aerial camera views that follow a linear trajectory. From this, Yuan constructs a tale of energy, creating a feeling of looming danger. His use of sound supports this – at the beginning a low, mechanic hum, which changes in accordance to the footage, adding meaning.
First, we see an overgrown village of abandoned raw concrete buildings; it is unclear whether they were ever inhabited at all. Further along, we encounter a school. Children’s play is audible, but the schoolyard is empty. The building – Lanyu Elementary School – is situated right next to a storage facility of nuclear waste, and therefore subject to the danger of radiation, which becomes apparent when the camera hovers over such a facility in the following scene. At the same time, a clicking and crackling becomes audible, overlaying the playing children. This sound originates from a radiation-detection machine. Again, a scene of leisure is superimposed onto this disquieting sound: a beach. South Bay (Nanwan) is located next to Maanshan nuclear power plant, of which we are shown a simulated control room in the next scene, while a beeping is audible in the background.
The room is contrasted by shots of an abandoned amusement park located in Taichung. A music box plays in the background, and while the camera still seems steady, a sense of visual distortion begins to emerge, when the camera begins zooming in. The next scene of a nuclear power plant by the sea is played backwards, noticeable in the waves, evoking further discomfort. The video ends with the sea and a sound of waves, while the camera approaches a city. The sound of the Geiger-counter becomes louder.
Yuan’s films often relate to the Freudian concept of the uncanny (the “un-homely”) that we get when we perceive the strange in the everyday – like when something that should be there is absent. In looking at homes and abandoned places, there is a longing for an idyll that has become impossible in a globalised world. Knowing this uncomfortable truth, existentialist questions are being asked: Who was there before me? What kind of life is possible living along technology? What will remain of me after I am gone?
The video installation Tomorrowland (2018) is the eponymous and final work for the exhibition. It is also the most abstract one, not showing actual places, but rather a model of a deserted amusement park. Sitting on a park-like bench, the viewer is confronted with carousels, a Ferris wheel and the iconic Cinderella Castle, culminating in a place that condenses the dreams and ideals of globalisation and capitalism. When the economy flourishes, places like these shoot up like mushrooms, presenting a parallel world of constructed happiness. Indeed, “Tomorrowland” was an actual part of Disneyland, created at a time when a hypertechnological future was still feasible.
The model (a combination of 3D-printed, laser–cut and handmade parts, adding to the two-year long production time of the video) and the way it is depicted in the video – at times blurry – distorts the viewer’s sense of dimension. The whole scene seems uncannily instable. The sky is overcast, and rubbish rustles on the floor, as if a storm were coming, and the visitors had left in anticipation.
The disaster strikes; utopia is blown up in flashes of explosions. The sound is deafening, and weirdly at odds with everything happening in slow motion. Silently, the dust and debris settle into a landscape of destruction. Birds enter the scene, creaking, as the fires burn out. Suddenly, the scene begins reassembling itself rather quickly, and with a swooping sound, returning to the ostensible peace form of before, as if reborn. But the video is looped, so the recovered peace is only an illusion, like the institution of the amusement park itself is a by-product of utopian dreaming. Yuan Goang-Ming exposes the dissonance between the construction of an ideal world and our everyday that does not provide us with safety.
Had one been visiting the show on 7 July for the occasion of Art Night 2018, there would have been the chance to see a fourth video, screened onto a billboard outside of Hayward Gallery: Dwelling (2014). Formally, it relates to Tomorrowland, working with an model of an ideal place, this time a bourgeois living room, tidy and quiet, but deserted. Its strange appearance is achieved by filming the model submerged underwater. Again, an explosion destroys the surreal peace; debris flies towards the viewer, only to revert its course and reassembling itself back to its original state.
What is a home – the epitome of safety, like a womb? How do we dwell today? Relating to an essay by Martin Heidegger from 1951 that suggests “poetically, man dwells”, Yuan’s work poses the question of whether this is possible at all considering the state our world is in. In the end, utopia translates to a “non-place”. In Yuan Goang-Ming’s videos, people are uncannily absent, but the works are very much about us: about how we react to these spaces that are subject to globalisation, about the impossibility of utopia, and about the contemporary human condition.
“Tomorrowland” by Yuan Goang-Ming is on view from 20 June to 6 August 2018 at HENI Project Space, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, 337-338 Belvedere Rd, London SE1 8XX, United Kingdom.
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