I will die

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“I’m not a fish”. A thick-lipped mouth, an aquatic passivity and a glassy look. This was the first video installation by Yang Zhenzhong, a young visual artist from Xiaoshan, a small city between Shanghai and Hang-chou on the East China Sea. He is fond of using animals as metaphors. A long way from Beijing, the communist republic’s rather extreme capital, Yang Zhenzhong works in Shanghai, a less political and calmer city – its artists think too much so – smoothed as it has been by international commerce. A Zen Buddhist and a meditative person, Yang is nonetheless critical, a subtle witness of the issues that beset his contemporaries. His photos and videos humorously recall the obsessive melody of their anguish and alienation, capturing the attitudes and the slight nausea of humans in the face of life and death.

Concept: Yang Zhenzhong

Présentation/Presentatie/Presentation: KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

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Little tales from our ordinary lives… How can their story, with its many meanings, be concentrated into constantly changing images? Here are a few simple stories from Yang Zhenzhong, a visual artist born in Xiaoshan, a small seaside town near Hangzhou, and not far from Shanghai where he now lives, works and holds exhibitions.

Viewing his photographs and video installations is like a journey into clever visual parables. In 1995, his series entitled Lucky Family fixed a cockerel and hen for eternity, then the two birds with their cluster of chicks, mocking the typical picture of families and togetherness that, until recently, was so fashionable. He used photographs – snapshots of weddings and family celebrations – preparing them in the studio against a brightly coloured background, like an advertisement. Hen and cockerel were again chosen to mock human behaviours in his short video, 922 Rice Corns, presented at the ‘Big Turin 2000’ exhibition and at ‘Home’, another exhibition held in Shanghai. It shows in close-up the exquisite detail of a load of grains of rice thrown on the ground. The camera pans in on a hen and a cockerel beginning to peck greedily, while a woman’s voice counts the grains eaten by the hen and a man’s voice those eaten by the cockerel. Also shown are three meters recording the performances by the hen, the cockerel and the two together.

Initially, Yang only approached video as a tool for recording his 1995 performance, Shower. To fanfare music in the background, a fully-dressed young man stands under a shower, rubbing soap on every last bit of his body – head-cap, feet-trainers, legs-jeans, body-shirt – before rinsing and drying himself assiduously. His first real video work was I Am Not A Fish, an installation from 1996, in which three monitors located behind an aquarium show the same picture of a thick-lipped human mouth. The mouth was shown very close up, inverted upside down, resembling the mouth of a fish. It repeatedly murmured: “We are not fish”.

An energetic noise comes from a remote-controlled toy. The camera is fixed on the little racing car. Fast, jerky driving. The apartment is seen from floor-level. Quickly into reverse to avoid the legs of the giant furniture. It is called Sleepwalking Is A Therapy, 1997. Three monitors show the artist welcoming everyone entering the gallery with a big smile. On the centre monitor, he slips away when visitors approach and the visitors themselves end up on the screen, caught by a camera placed at an angle, and therefore all shown leaning to the right. The visitors therefore have to lean to the left to make themselves upright on screen: Balance, 1998. A plaster is coming slowly unstuck from a piece of hairy skin on a screen, accompanied by an annoying sound. The same scene is repeated through all the colours of the rainbow. On the table is the object of the crime, the plaster, and two photos showing before and after the operation: Trace, 1998.

In 1999, Yang Zhenzhong filmed Shanghai, hanging a mask in front of the camera lens, almost expressionless if it were not for the mask’s fixed smile. The mask partially covers the swarming passers-by, rippling and occasionally blocking out the light. Under its features, anonymous people hurry by. In the installation, the projector is on the ground, the screen on the ceiling, and between them is a see-through tank filled with water. The image passes through its liquid magnifying glass. The vibrations of noise from the street that are replayed on the video unsettle the surface of the water, which in turn unsettles the face of the city: The Face of Shanghai.

“Shanghai is on the way to defining itself on the international stage”, explains Tang Di, now an art critic in Beijing. “In the 1930s, the city was at the forefront of the artistic avant-garde. Many intellectuals sought refuge in a cosmopolitan colony that enjoyed immunity and fed off foreign influences. Nowadays it's open and conservative. It is market driven, but lacks the roughness of creative urgency. It's running so fast and its people have to bear the consequences of this rapid change. On the one hand, they happily embrace the new wealth, but on the other hand, they feel lost. It's like jumping onto a boat, only to find yourself being unable to do anything but leave your fate in the hands of the mighty force of the sea. The smiling mask in The Face of Shanghai is more of an existential question mark. It is void of expression, as if it were saying ‘so what?’ to the surrounding crowd.”

A recent example of the marketing spirit Tang mentions came with the biennial ‘Shanghai Spirit’, a jamboree of the visual arts. Concurrently, in November 2000, an alternative independent exhibition, ‘Fuck Off’, called ‘Bu Hezuo Fangshi’ in Chinese (No Co-operating), was held. At it, Yang Zhenzhong showed his 1999 short film, What You Endure Can Not Be Dispelled By Your Enduring. It shows an agitated young man entering a metro station. He has held on for too long and is now looking for the toilets. He walks through the crowd, feeling more and more uncomfortable. He makes enquiries and ends up finding the public urinal, relieving himself at last!

Censorship is a lot less rigid in Shanghai than in Beijing. In the political, cultural and diplomatic capital of the People’s Republic, the friction between nascent capitalism and communism is causing sparks. “In Beijing, artists are more radical and more threatened,” compares Tang Di. “The spotlight is on Beijing, whereas Shanghai’s cultural landscape is less turbulent. Artists are more contemplative there, their criticism is less full-on, more allusive. It’s less perilous showing your work to the public there, provided you are able to pay. But only the same small number of aficionados visit the galleries.”

In 1999, to overcome the problem of their work being viewed by so few, Yang Zhenzhong and two of his colleagues invited around thirty visual artists from China and abroad to take over the fourth floor of Shanghai’s most popular shopping centre. At the heart of its commercial centre, one of the artists, Song Dong, dressed up in yellow like a steward, with a loud-hailer and flag in hand, to direct the customers-consumers to the artistic works which were being exhibited in a supermarket, using shelves, trolleys and check-outs. In order not to be refused permission, they ignored the authorisation required from the Cultural Office. On the third day, they had to vacate the premises after a police raid. More than a thousand people visited ‘Art for Sale’.

In Brussels, Yang Zhenzhong will be continuing an experiment he conducted in Shanghai. Mixing age groups and settings, he asked his compatriots to say “I will die” (Wo Hui Side) to camera. Either not moving, or filmed in the middle of doing something (driving, smoking, playing, at home, in the café, at a ticket machine…), young people, nurses, soldiers, cooks, pregnant women, children and the old went along with it, saying the phrase about death that confronts each and every one of us. Yang Zhenzhong is familiar with Buddhist philosophy, having studied its Zen maxims – do not turn away from problems, but face them with tranquillity.

“If you want to qualify his work, it is humour with the lightness, transparency and simplicity of water”, concludes Tang Di. “But water is something that can’t be contained, just like Yang's work. His pieces seem to be telling us something so obvious that it keeps eluding our attention and comprehension.”

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