Xiaofei Mo (XM): Thank you for coming tonight. I am Xiaofei Mo, Program Coordinator here at Asia Art Archive in America. Tonight we will be watching a film by artist Li Ming called The Afternoon on June 1. But first I would like to introduce Howie Chen who will be introducing this event and then moderating the Q and A afterwards. I’m sure many of you already know Howie. He is a curator based in New York involved in collaborative art and art research. Howie wears many hats: he’s the founder of Dispatch, which is a curatorial production office and project-based space in New York and he co-founded JEQU and Collectionof. His past curatorial experience includes organizing exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and MoMA PS1 among many others, and he’s currently teaching Critical Theory at NYU Steinhardt School and Parsons The New School. This year in April Howie, with the support from ISCP, went to China and conducted research at Video Bureau on moving image from China. Afterwards he came back to New York and curated a show ‘The Poplar Tree and Mirror’ with works by five Chinese artists, and they are Huang Xiaopeng (黄小鵬), Li Ming (李明), Ma Qiusha (馬秋莎), Zhang Peili (張培力), and Zhou Tao (周 滔). It was in Howie’s show that I first saw this piece by Li Ming and I was impressed by it. The exhibition itself was framed around monstrous beauty, which can be the result of rapid social changes as well as the actions and the events that are set into motion quite carelessly, something we could explore later in the discussion. But before we start the screening I want to mention one more thing. Howie presented a paper at a Symposium at Artist Space last weekend. The subject of the symposium was the ‘Demonstration of Capitalist Realism,’ and your paper was about Management…
Howie Chen (HC): Managerial Domination of Reality.
XM: Yes, exactly. As you’ll see, Li Ming’s film develops in an ad hoc style, semi-documentary, unscripted. It would be interesting to keep in mind the idea of realism or reality while watching this film and I hope we can come back to that topic later. So, now over to Howie who will introduce the artist and the work and lead us in a conversation afterwards. Thank you very much for coming tonight.
HC: Thank you Jane for hosting and inviting me, and Xiaofei also, and thanks to everybody for showing up to view Li Ming’s piece. I’m really excited for people to see it. Earlier this year, I went on a trip to China to conduct research at Video Bureau, an archive of important video work in China. I had the chance to watch a good portion of it. I sat there with the DVD player for days and in the nth hour I was going through Li Ming’s work and I came across this video. It’s a long one, for him, but I found myself sitting through it 20 minutes in, even 30 minutes in, which is rare for a video when you’re reviewing it, and at the end I was really impressed and I thought it was something that I definitely wanted to bring back and share with people. Also, I wanted to include it in that abbreviated exhibition that I presented at ISCP. Xiaofei’s introduction about reality is something that really resonates here, and you’ll see in the video how Li Ming treats reality…there’s a fine line between surrealism and the everyday and that line is crossed fluidly and effortlessly. I was really struck by how his videos vary but also adhere to a main core theme of how the everyday can easily slip into the absurd – that there is always a possibility of a libidinal encounter that can be playful but also may unmask other possibilities. There’s also a strain of homo-social dynamics that is really interesting but never directly addressed, especially with this one which has the dimension of an incestuous relationship, which develops in such a way that it becomes a foil for another type of social dynamic.
There are two quotes that I now want to read out loud to provide a short introduction for the video. In one quote Li Ming describes his work as follows: ‘When the content of the imagination is expressed through ordinary modes of recording, those fictional elements become indistinguishable from reality. The one holding the camera needs to examine the relationship between one’s body and his filming methods over and over again. That is also his relationship with the viewer. For those who, like myself, are not gifted in creativity or producing visual aesthetics, what is done is a response to the present.’
The video that I’m showing today is part of an ongoing series that Li Ming decided to kick off in 2006 with a group of friends. Starting June 1, 2006, he and his fellow artists made an agreement to get together every year on the afternoon of June 1 to spontaneously make a film. Some of the films, if you get a chance to see them, are more casual. They definitely feel like the [artists are] shooting as they’re going along, but here [in this film] it feels like there’s a loose script, or at least it feels like there’s an illusion of a script that comes together. Maybe it’s through the magic of editing or maybe it’s just by sheer luck but [it feels that] more came out of something that was improvised.
Now I’m going to read a little bit more about the video that I put together for the catalogue for the exhibition for ISCP titled ‘The Poplar Tree and Mirror.’
‘The video starts out with Li Ming’s voice, “I was wondering at the moment what would happen today. I wasn’t feeling anything yet… would I feel anything later?” In Li Ming’s The Afternoon of June 1, mercurial shifts in performer roles and relationships unfold in the video in which the artist and his friends make an ad hoc video featuring an older unemployed actress whom they encounter in front of the Beijing film studio. Filmed in a nearby park, where abandoned nuclear plants and ancient pagodas dot the horizons, the video shows the subjects acting out unscripted scenes, loosely based on a narrative of an incestuous relationship between a mother and her sons. What begins in the register of a prank evolves into a complex play of fiction and reality as these elements become indistinguishable to the viewer and the subjects of the video. Each scene begins to parallel different realities for the performers, for example, the actress’s real life relationship with her son, which is revealed later in the video, perversely mirrors the physical interaction between the young men and her character. The surprising reversal in the power dynamics happens late in the video, when the cast trespasses on the site of an abandoned nuclear silo: the emboldened actress takes the camera and reveals artist Li as a visible performer, no longer the detached director and eye. In this transition the young men show their vulnerability when they confront the actress’s true fearless abandon.’
That’s a short description of the dynamics of the video, but there are a lot of other micro relationships that become revealed. So without further ado, let’s show the video.
Sorry, this video is currently unavailable.
Audience Member: Thank you very much Howie. You spent many days at Video Bureau looking through dozens of works. What distinguishes this work?
HC: There are a lot of great video works in the Video Bureau archive, but something about this video has me thinking about it a lot when I’m just walking around. Especially because it has a type of humanity to it that you normally wouldn’t expect. Up until the halfway point it just looks like a prank. There’s one moment where Li Ming is laughing when the characters are moving off screen, and I remember watching that part and wanting to turn it off. I was like ‘oh I know how this is playing out: artist plays prank on unsuspecting actress.’ But I’m glad I stayed with it because she really takes over the script. The film [towards the end] becomes a really meditative experience, and that last scene is drawn out longer purposefully, counterbalancing the tone the video starts out with. It’s good that you all have now seen it, because I’d really like to hear your thoughts. Otherwise, I’m usually describing it to somebody at a party or at a meeting, and it’s hard to get across something when nobody else has experienced it.
Audience Member: For me, there was a shift when she was imitating the ghost and the devil. [Up until that point] she wasn’t quite sure of herself but then the guy gets physical with her. That’s when there was for me a shift, because you could tell from then on that she was kind of taking on her own role and expressing herself. From then on she becomes much more confident in her actions, especially as [the film] culminates towards the end. Before then, they were kind of guiding her and telling her what to do.
HC: I think that kind of agency is really liberating for viewers because she succeeds by being much more ‘crazy’ than the artists. She acts like she had nothing to lose. Normally you would think the artists would be the ones that are crazy because [that’s often how they] figure in society. I think that pivot is…
Audience Member: There was that point where they were telling her, ‘be careful, you could fall down,’ and she was making fun of them for being afraid.
HC: Yes, she gets the camera too which I think symbolically was really great. A lot of things seemed fortuitous in how it all played out, or maybe it develops from the magic of editing. But I think structurally you can feel the hand of the artist setting it up and pacing it, to the point where you feel these shifts.
Audience Member: And it’s really odd to see the shifts as they move from a public place to a really private place. For example, the artists are really punkish when they’re out in public and everybody can see them, but as [the setting] gets more and more solitary they become more timid and she becomes [bolder]. It’s also about the heights and the darkness, but it’s also when nobody is looking that the artists don’t want to do anything.
HC: Artifice and spirituality — art as construction in outside space, what you construct, but when you’re inside in the darker space, the artifice is stripped away, leaving the spiritual.
Audience Member: Right, there’s a kind of discussion of spectator agency.
Audience Member: Why did they shoot that film? What was the reason for it?
HC: It was just an exercise they agreed to do every year on that date, the date that they would come together. A lot of the other films are jokey, though they do hit on certain things. But I do think this one is a stand out, although they’re great to see in succession.
Audience Member: I’ve only ever seen one other film, Comb, by Li Ming, which is actually in Michael Jacobs’ collection and was shown recently at White Box. There was something both menacing and at the same time tender in that one too, although compared to Comb, this one seems less predictable, less staged.
That you have mentioned the power shift midway through the film is interesting, but to my mind she was also a pretty gutsy woman to go off with these boys in the first place and displayed a distinct fearlessness from the beginning. That fearlessness may have come from her dramatic family situation and the salvation or consolation she found in her religion. But it was also from a pretty early moment in the film that I also detected some fearfulness in the boys, as if very early on they were not so sure about what they had gotten themselves into. I too found interesting the way these shifts in the relationships begin to slip in and out, between reality and play-acting. I found that very affecting. I’ve watched this film three times now and it continues to retain a sense of unpredictability; you never quite know where it’s going. You mentioned luck (serendipity) and chance. The question remains: how much of this was the artist’s doing and how much of it just happened.
HC: Yeah, that’s why I’d be interested in meeting him someday. The Comb piece, from what I know, is much more constructed.
Audience Member: Right, it’s quite artificial but at the same time there’s a tension around the strangeness of it.
HC: And the backdrop is post-modern or modernizing.
Audience Member: It has that same sort of dystopic backdrop. Here you have this ruined reactor and in the other one is a ruined apartment building. And against these similarly distressed backdrops emerge the threat of violence, yet emerging also is something that could be considered tender, fragile, even vulnerable. In both films there are those kinds of tensions.
HC: A lot of the film concerns touch too, even with the machine [that is ‘combing’ the woman’s hair]. There’s another video where there are security guards who end up shooting each other with water guns and then they end up napping together. It’s all about physical touch…if you could just move out of normal roles, that even proximity could really change relationships between people. There’s yet another one where men are spraying each other with whipped cream and then try to lick whip cream off each other. That one is a little more overt. There’s a whole interesting body of work way before this [film we watched today], and it seems like Li Ming is moving to something more constructed but using a lot of devices from past work.
Audience Member: Actually in one of his earliest pieces he asked his girlfriend at the time to slap him for something like half an hour or an hour. It’s just one single long shot and you can see how the girl moved from finding it funny, to getting violent, and then she got so scared about ‘why do we have to keep doing this for an hour.’ I’m curious about your reaction because neither of us have met the artist. The film is supposed to be unscripted but obviously every single move, at least on the editing level, has a lot of intention to it. So how do you feel about this working method or style that uses realistic documentary footage but moves into something surreal, even horrifying?
HC: I think this specific series really leverages improvisation and everyday encounters. The other works are much more constructed. Even with this series, the content may be improvised but the structure is laid out, so it’s not just ‘let the camera go and things will happen.’ There’s an underlying structure that seems to have resonance with his other work.
Audience Member: I had a question about the concept of capitalist realism. At the symposium the other day the speakers mostly focused on Western Germany at the time when their economy was really growing, and they had a reverse pop art going on. But while I was listening to the speakers, I began to feel that the biggest capitalist realism is happening in China and we’re witnessing it everyday. Have you ever thought about any comparison between Polke and Richter, their way of approaching reality, and what you’re seeing in China? Maybe you can share your feelings?
HC: It’s interesting that you’re making those connections. For those of you who weren’t there, I attended a Capitalist Realism symposium at Artists’ Space last weekend and that symposium was trying to connect the informal movement, although it’s more formal now, that happened in Germany with a group of artists, Polke and Richter being the more recognizable names, who attempted to use capitalism as the subject and material of their practice. This conference was trying to link [this development] to a book by Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism. They’re unrelated but they’re using the same term. Mark Fisher lays out that Capitalist Realism in relation to Socialist Realism is really the condition where capitalism presents itself as the only mode that society can imagine, where there are no alternatives, no other exterior possibilities, where there is an enclosure of reality within capitalism. I don’t know as much about the particulars in China, but I think the strain of capitalism that’s perceived there is different. I don’t know if it does feel like the only option. I don’t know the Chinese experience of reality in that way. But I would ask: does one feel like capitalism is the only choice? The Q&A ended up discussing the multiple realities of capitalism that people are experiencing and when these versions collide is when things become interesting.
Audience Member: Back to the film. Did they do some pre-production such as location permission and did someone create the costumes or the props?
HC: I’ve never met him but I think some of it is premeditated. The illusion is that they’re trespassing and they were coming up with the locations as they were going along. They knew that they were going to go to the film studio and choose somebody and go from there. The first scene is a film studio, there are freelance actors and actresses who hang out outside the gate hoping to get an extra part and that’s why some of them were in costumes and she was one of them. She was already in an ‘extra’ costume hoping to be part of a production. That was the departure point. They were going to go to a film studio and pick up somebody who wanted work.
Audience Member: I noticed that the lens is not very clear. Is that part of his style or did he forget to do something?
HC: You mean the quality? Yes, I think that they were being kind of adventurous, so out of necessity, they had to work with what they had. His other films are a little bit more polished. This one is definitely more casual.
Audience Member: Did they submit this film to some festivals?
HC: I don’t know. This film and this series are not as shown as his other work. I was looking at his CV and these aren’t the ones that they show.
Audience Member: I’ve only seen it in your show. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. I was wondering if Michael Jacobs would like to say something about Li Ming and his practice.
Audience Member: Have you met him?
Audience Member: Yes, I know him really well. He’s a very unassuming, very funny artist who I think is really talented. There is comedy, but there’s also an underlying sadness to his movies. Were these made just for fun, these June 1 ones?
HC: Yeah, definitely.
Audience Member: I think the [main actors are] just his friends, and I don’t know why they picked June 1 but they decided to keep going, just like the movies that Double Fly made for fun in the beginning and now all of a sudden they’re showing up at the Armory Show. They were never meant as art videos. I’ve never seen this piece before.
Audience Member: How do you compare this with other pieces you’ve seen? Do you think it’s very different?
Audience Member: Yes, the way it’s shot is really different; it’s more like a reality shooting, whereas the other ones were very thought out and executed, more time consuming, even painfully so.
HC: The comedy aspect is there. A lot of his videos are kind of one-liners. There’s one thing happening, for example, him spray painting into the fan with it blowing back on him…
Audience Member: Right, and he refers to his other videos [in his videos], like the one with the loudspeakers. He has little tricks he does to play off his other videos.
HC: Yes, there are some references to his other work in his videos.
Audience Member: I saw his latest video last summer. In it he’s running about, going in and out of different cars that are moving. I thought he was going to kill himself and he did end up getting injured and going to the hospital for a little while, but time and space are his new focus.
JD: I think we need to stop here. I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for coming and for your great questions. And Howie, I want to thank you very much too. Your introduction and moderation have made this a very meaningful discussion.
Li Ming (b.1986, Hunan, China) lives and works in Beijing and Hangzhou, China. He is a member of artist collectives Double Fly Art Center and COMPANY, and a former member of GUEST. His works have been shown at institutions such as the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston; Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, East Lansing; Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; China Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum, Beijing; Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; Himalayas Art Museum, Shanghai; and Today Art Museum, Beijing, among others. Li holds a BFA from the New Media Art Department at China Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou.
Howie Chen is a New York-based curator involved in collaborative art production and research. Chen is a founder of Dispatch, a curatorial production office and project space founded in New York City, later transitioning to a peripatetic exhibition model. His past curatorial experience includes organizing exhibitions and programs at the Whitney Museum of American Art and MoMA P.S.1 among other international institutions. He is currently teaching critical theory at the New York University Steinhardt School and Parsons The New School for Design, and is a research affiliate at MIT. Chen recently curated ‘The Poplar Tree and Mirror,’ an exhibition of video works by Chinese contemporary artists selected from the research archives of Video Bureau, a not-for-profit organization established in 2012 in Beijing and Guangzhou, at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP).
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.