The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 2, 2003
'Art and Soul

Subversive and restless
B. N. Goswamy

"You eat Chinese food, but you drink Coke …You can't erase this reality … See, I do not paint any more. I hang my clothes on the frames of my old paintings."

Wu Ershan, Chinese artist

A scene from the video installation "My Sun" by Wang Gong Xin. China, 2001
A scene from the video installation "My Sun" by Wang Gong Xin. China, 2001

ONE has seen video installations and experimental films abroad, of course. But I was not quite prepared for the show that I saw the other day in the Media Gallery, on the outskirts of Delhi. For here was not only this shiny new place, elegantly designed and with high-tech equipment: it was showcasing a whole range of video installations/films that one does not usually get to see. For they were all by Chinese artists - "Beijing Spirit" is how the show was titled - and nearly all of them were a sharp comment on the turns and twists that their own culture and society are in the process of taking.

The names might be unfamiliar to us here, but not in their own land, even when one realises that making video films of the kind on view was, till recently, more or less an underground activity in China, surreptitious and daring at the same time. The artists are not all young, but upon their minds are clearly imprinted memories of all kinds: the Mao era, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the economic, etc. And they are able to sense that, for all the glitter that massive urban renovations reflect, all the affluence that is coming to a burgeoning class of people in their land, there are anxieties under the surface. And it is in these anxieties, in this sense of loss, that most of the works on view in this show are rooted. One may not see frontal assaults upon the system, and - contrary to what one is generally used to in totalitarian societies - there is little propaganda. But the messages are clear, and the voices firm.

Should cultural property be returned?
February 9, 2003
Art in the times of war
January 12, 2003
The world of art sales
December 29, 2002
Caught in a time warp
December 15, 2002
Crafts and craftspersons
December 1, 2002
Of ‘golden pens’ and others
November 17, 2002
Portraying the Parsis’ past
November 3, 2002
Of girdles, sashes & patkas
October 20, 2002
Celebrating with the Lion Dance
October 6, 2002

An elegy to a bygone era
August 25, 2002
Those seductive jades
August 11, 2002
Gifts from an ambassador
July 28, 2002
Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002
Zen and the art of archery
June 16, 2002
Art from the south seas
June 2, 2002
To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002

In the sumptuously mounted show in Delhi were featured works by six different artists, each quite different from the others, not only in respect of approach and tenor, but also scale. It was difficult to miss the enormous screens - set up in the space between different buildings which make up the gallery - with video films being projected upon them, or the gigantic glass façade upon which another film, a single channel video installation, kept running. But, nearby, on a small screen, was also running a quiet little video film, casting a cynical look at modern gallery culture. There were also sounds to be heard everywhere: martial music accompanying a satirised "revolutionary opera", which sought to supersede the graces of the traditional Chinese stage, energetic actors, dressed in military uniforms, leaping and singing with guns in hand; giant mirrors being broken with a hammer at regular intervals to reveal what was, once, behind them. But, at the same time, there was great quiet in some of the installations one saw.

But the video installation that stands out in my mind even now was only seven minutes' long: a three channel affair - parable, if one so likes - by Wang Gong Xin, titled "My Sun". It opens with only the screen in the middle being lit: an image of a vast, furrowed field, with a Van Gogh-like sun suspended in the sky above, and a lone old woman, wearing a regulation dress, working with a rake in her hand. A quiet scene, with nothing much happening, allowing the viewer to take in the form of the woman and her wizened, trusting face with but a few teeth left in the mouth. Then, suddenly, things begin to happen. The sun grows larger and larger, and begins to descend upon the earth, right in the middle of the field. Unbelievingly, the old woman moves towards this solar disc and gazes at it; then stretches out one arm and takes a fistful of the sun, resting it on her open palm. As she does this, from nowhere other women emerge, much like her-the old woman's very form multiplied- and approach the sun, taking, each in her turn, a fistful and placing it upon her palm, gazing at the golden light with wonder. The two screens at the sides then come to life, and more, countless more, women come gliding in, and, having taken from the sun, move away, each with a little orb in her palm. The screens get completely filled with these seamlessly expanding, multiplied forms: darkness prevails, and the little suns on outstretched palms glow like stars in a night sky. The effect is magical.

The crispness of the images, the subtlety of the music in the background is overpowering. Then, while one is taking these visual and aural riches in, suddenly, on the side screens great big clouds appear, moving about threateningly; and the suns start going out, getting extinguished, one by one. Finally, while the side screens go off, on the middle screen, a small group of women appear, standing in a circle, in the very same furrowed field, each plying a rake, which begins to look more and more like a mine detector now. But the images of the women do not stay: slowly, as their rakes move, they begin to fade away one by one, till only the old woman whom one saw in the beginning remains. And then she, too, disappears, dissolving lingeringly in the air surrounding her.

Changing realities

The curator of this Chinese show, Johan Pijnappel, says somewhere in an essay: "Chinese video art is mainly concerned with changing reality: the rapid disappearance of the traditional city and its neighbourhoods, the changes in human relationships, in lifestyles, in taste and values and, above all, in the experience of the self." This is precisely put. But, seeing this short video film, I wondered if it was not also concerned with exploring the reality of the gods that failed.