Li Ran + Liu Shiyuan: A Screening with Christopher Phillips

Tuesday, July 8, 2014, 7-8pm
Asia Art Archive in America
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise

A screening of Li Ran’s Beyond Geography (2012, Color & Sound SD Video, 23’09”) and Liu Shiyuan’s Evidence (2009, Color & Sound SD Video, 11’40″), followed by a discussion with Christopher Phillips, Curator of  the International Center of Photography, New York.

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you everyone for coming to today’s screening.  I am also pleased to welcome Christopher Phillips who is a curator at ICP, an expert on China, in particular related to photography and video. Christopher will introduce the works we will view tonight, and after the screening will lead a question and answer.

Christopher Phillips (CP): It’s great to see so many familiar faces here this evening. I want to start by giving you just enough information that you’ll have a little idea about what it is that you’re watching in the two short videos that we’ll screen this evening.

The first video is called ‘Evidence’. It was made in the year 2009 and was recently on view in the exhibition of Michael Jacobs’ video collection in Manhattan. The artist is a young woman named Liu Shiyuan who was born in 1985 in Beijing; I think she’s about 29 years old now. Like many other contemporary artists she would probably refuse to be called a video artist, as she works in a number of mediums; she has a dispersed practice, which can embrace a lot of things. A year ago she had an exhibition in Beijing in White Space called ‘The Edge of Vision’ that got a lot of attention and has moved her into a very prominent position. A lot of people are waiting to see what she’ll do next. ‘Evidence’ is an improvised performance for the camera, and I think it will help you to know its ground rules, The artist invited a number of individuals to a studio, whose walls you’ll see were painted in different colors. Everyone brought examples of their clothing and then other people selected those items of clothing, put them on, and tried to imagine a personality for the wearer of those clothes. And as you’ll see there are interactions between two or more of the people involved in this performance. There are about fourteen segments and it runs nine minutes long. As you will see it is very casually directed, done in a very pop style, and very energetic.

The second video is called ‘Beyond Geography’ and it’s by a young man named Li Ran, who was born in 1986 in Hubei province. He comes from a family of artist–his father was a painter in the tradition of Xu Beihon–and Li Ran studied oil painting at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, graduating in 2009. For the last several years he’s been working almost exclusively in video, creating video productions that channel performance activities. In most of his recent videos he plays a wide range of characters and presents them in overtly fake documentaries. ‘Beyond Geography’ mimics the narrative structure of reality TV series of the kind you might find on the Discovery Channel. In it a talkative on-camera explorer leads the viewer into a supposedly adventurous situation in a remote locale. As you will see Li Ran’s TV explorer encounters a group of tribespeople who react to his non-stop chatter about a range of very interesting topics with a kind of amusement. I think that should give you enough to get started with these two works. When we finish looking at them I’ll have a little more to say, and hopefully you’ll have a lot more to say, about the two videos.

- Video Screening -

CP: Let’s see what we can say about the two videos. First I’m going to take advantage of the presence of Michael Jacobs here., Michael, since you have looked at more Chinese videos than anyone I know, how would you say these two works fit into the panorama of videos made by Chinese artists in the last few years?

Michael Jacobs (MJ): Well I think these are more indicative of performance videos, which is something new on the Chinese video horizon. Shiyuan went to CAFA and then studied at SVA so I met her here in New York when she was still a student going for her Masters. This was really the first video piece she did ever, and this was all her friends and school classmates. She designed the sets herself, they’re very meticulously painted and constructed. The visuals are really beautiful. I thought that she had a lot of places to move in her career going forward. I thought she was really talented.

CP: It’s the kind of video work that as a curator, I know that if I put it in a room with fifteen other works, that’s the one that everyone’s going to look at because it’s filled with pop colors. There’s also lots of action and movement. There are bizarre things going on. It’s an attention magnet. In that way it’s very calculated even though it seems so loose and improvisational.

MJ: She’s really obsessive. She married a Caucasian man who is a composer and they live between Europe and Asia. He’s done music for some of her other works and she’s slowly gotten a career; she was just a first year student when I met her and she had done this the year or two before. So she was 24 years old when she did this, which I thought was pretty good.

CP: I mentioned earlier that Liu Shiyuan had a very well received show last year at White Space in Beijing. The works were entirely different, very polished, beautifully fabricated, fabulous exhibition design, only six works in the show and every one extremely good. But [the show] still had that elusiveness that we saw in the video. It’s really hard to pin down what’s going on, or what it means, or how it fits into our preconceptions about what art is. That’s the sort of through-line, the narrative-line I see in her works. She’s really an artist who’s resisting getting hemmed in, who wants to leave herself the maximum freedom and room for experiment. And the more I know about her work the more interesting it becomes.

MJ: I also liked the animations that she did. We’ll see what happens with her.

CP: Li Ran is almost too professional in comparison–that’s why I wanted to show his work second. Li Ran trained as a painter. He decided not to go for an MFA and started actively making works as he finished his undergraduate degree.  He has produced an enormous amount of work in the last four years. If you read interviews with him he says he’s getting invitations to participate in exhibitions every day, and he’s trying to make new works for all of them. All of his video works are scripted, he is in almost all of the works that I know of, and he does have a clear–maybe too clear–sense of where he wants to go with the work. It’s very sophisticated and very polished as I think you can see from the video that we just saw. What’s interesting to me about both of these works is that they’re really part of the video tradition. There’s no cinematic element. In the few works that we just saw, there’s no looking back to film history or film heritage à la Yang Fudong.

Audience Member: Is this Li Ran of Company project?

CP: Yes, that’s him. Company is the group that he put together… Li Ran was in the show that James Elaine organized at Meulensteen Gallery in New York around three years ago.

Audience Member: This piece was in the CAFA Bienniale show in Beijing.

CP: He’s now popping up in shows everywhere in the world.  Other comments or questions? We have some very knowledgeable people in the room so I’m interested in you reactions to the works we just saw.

Xiaofei Mo (XM): Can you talk a little bit more about the artists nowadays looking into the broader cinematic tradition, and perhaps differentiating themselves from the legacy of video art?

CP: I’m going to turn that question on its head and answer a different question that is equally related to these two artists. I said at the beginning that both of the artists we are looking at this evening would probably reject the idea of being called video artists, even though the work that they’re probably best known for at this point is in a video format. They’re what I would call artists working in a dispersed aesthetic, using whatever medium happens to be handy and useful to carry out the idea that they’re thinking of. A lot of the young artists that I talk to today assure me that, with technological developments going in the direction that they’re going, in five or six years artists will not be thinking so much about the distinction between film or video or between photography or painting.  The big distinction that’s going to remain, I’m told, is the distinction between works of art that are still and works of art that are moving. If you’re an artist who is working with camera technology you will be using your handheld device, and if want to make still images, you can twist the dial one way, and if you want to make photographically based moving images, you’ll twist it another way. If you want to turn the scene in front of you into an animation or a moving graphic you’ll be able to do that too. And you will be able to combine all of those modes and to insert written text over that as you happily edit it on the fly. I realized that this is something that’s really happening this spring when I was teaching a class of undergraduates at NYU. I was trying to explain something to them about video art, and I looked and suddenly saw blank expressions on their face. They had no idea what video art was, or they thought it was something that sounded so retro that they didn’t want to be associated with it at all. They said ‘We’re all using digital devices now to make works. Video is just something that has been absorbed into the bigger domain of digital image making.’  That might include animation, video, or still images that are sequenced in a slide show.  Many of these old medium-based distinctions are in the process of evaporating before our eyes. I’m now having to watch myself when I refer to video art, especially when I talk to younger students.

Audience Member: That distinction is interesting because I’ve heard a lot of artists saying that now people are trying to create these installations around video art to turn them into a sculptural pieces. When you’re saying still versus moving, these works were interesting because they were devoid of props . . .

CP: With the work by Li Ran we saw, ‘Beyond Geography’, he originally presented that as an installation with a couple of dozen monitors simultaneously playing the same footage. He meant the work to be a little cacophonous and to occupy a physical space.  In that case the installation idea I think is just as important as the moving image idea. A lot of artists today they know that they want their works to exist in a in a real space, and just shooting a digital image of  the world isn’t necessarily going to get you there.

Audience Member: So you think it’s going to move more towards installation?

CP: Or just toward works that occupy three-dimensional space. The next frontier is going to be printed sculptures using 3D printers. With a handheld scanner you can have a digital printed sculpture in a matter of minutes, and some of them are pretty terrific.

[To Lori Zippay] Lori , are you also being overwhelmed with video works that also have a strong performance component?

Lori Zippay (LZ): Absolutely, although I think that’s been a constant for the past forty-some years. I do think it’s interesting, this blurring between film and video and digital. Again it has been happening for quite a while, and it’s absolutely true that we refer to it now as moving-image art. We don’t even say video art any more. It’s digital media art or digital arts in moving image art. And yes, the context and platforms and technologies are really blurring and there’s an overall sense that distinctions are evaporating. On the other hand I think your point is well taken that watching these works you can see them coming out of the tradition of something you call video art as opposed to cinematic vision. So at the same time that these distinctions are evaporating there’s still something there that does point to the specificity of the history, and the specificity of a medium.

CP: In terms of terminology, I’m hearing from 18 year olds who just say ‘imaging’ as the alternative to still or moving, and that’s become the accepted term. Other questions, comments, remarks, observations?

Audience Member: It’s interesting for me to look at these pieces because I actually work in commercial film production, so what you’re saying is definitely true about the value of recording. It’s interesting because it makes you think about how much of the aesthetic of video art was potentially determined by the limits of the form.  We’re only just now getting to the point where even if you don’t have a lot of money, if you’re shooting digital, you can actually control how it looks. Even five or ten years ago, you were very limited in what you could do aesthetically, what kind of lighting you could use.  It’ll be interesting to see where things move forward because it’s actually less limited now.

CP: Certainly in China you can find very talented young artists who are working with very high-end imaging systems. Cheng Ran, who was Yang Fudong’s assistant for five years, is doing sophisticated cinematic-style works. Ma Qiusha in Beijing, a young woman artist, is doing short video pieces that are clearly story-boarded, and she’s working with a good cinematographer. What I find interesting looking at the two works tonight is the continuing attraction to super low-end production which has flourished since the 1970s in video. I think that very rough improvised look is not going to go away. It has its own peculiar charm which a lot of artists are never going to let go.

Audience Member: I was debating whether I should talk about my observations or comments about Li Ran’s work in particular. This is the second time I’ve seen the video. The first time was two years ago when I did a studio visit with him and he showed me the work. Immediately my struggle with the work was not that it’s hard to understand it, but it’s so easy to understand his references. It’s almost like rolling out a checklist about otherness, about the exoticizing gaze, what otherness means in China, post-colonialism–all of these discourses young Chinese artists are getting really well versed in and making use of in their works. That bothers me a little, so it makes me happy when you said that perhaps he’s a little too sophisticated with his approach. Two years later, looking at the work I still feel the same way. It’s really easy to plug these works into international biennials, like ‘Oh, Chinese artists are thinking about post-colonialism and they’re so well versed in it.’ But in the meantime [inside China] there are hugely popular commercial films like ‘Lost in Thailand’ (second only to ‘Titanic’ in global box office) that features brutal stereotyping of Thai people and Thai culture. All this is happening at the same time that the artistic and intellectual communities are waxing poetic about ‘Oh we’re at the receiving end of exoticization’.

CP: Based on your studio visit with Li Ran, is he aware there might be a little bit of a problem with his work in terms of piling on too many ready-made references and wrapping up everything a little too neatly in one package?

Audience Member: It’s kind of hard to say that to a person’s face, but I don’t think so. Two years ago it was still refreshing in a way to see artists evoking those discourses so explicitly. But now it bothers me as the video rolls on — there’s just talking point after talking point. If I’m a curator, which I am, and a writer of art, this is exactly the type of art that is really easy to talk about because there’s just so many talking points, but what does it say about the conditions of its making? And if it’s a critique of this whole critical approach then why even bother doing a work? Or making it so long or elaborate? Maybe I’m asking too much but I was expecting a twist on top of the twist because there’s already a twist.

CP: So you think at 28 years old, he is washed up?

Audience Member: I don’t necessarily think that, and I don’t think that this is a problem that’s unique to one particular artist. A lot of artists’ works – not just work by Chinese artists – have such easy access to the type of works that are popular in the international arena. I was just looking for something more.

Audience Member: Does the same thing apply in Liu Shiyuan’s work?

Audience Member: I’ve been following Liu Shiyuan’s work for a while, and I like how she has a really strong visual impact in all of her works–stills, installations, and videos,. You can see some of her references, too, but her references don’t seem to overshadow her piece. I really appreciate that.

CP: I think we have run right up to our time limit.  I want to thank you all for coming and for your comments. And thanks to Jane and Xiaofei for doing all of the organizational work.


Li Ran (b. 1986, Hubei, China)  lives and works in Beijing. He has exhibited in ‘Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video,’ The Jewish Museum, New York (2014); ‘Many Places at Once,’ CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2014); ‘FORMER WEST: Notes from Berlin,’ BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht (2013); ‘FORMER WEST: Documents, Constellations, Prospects,’ Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2013); and ‘Unfinished Country: New Video from China,’ Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston (2012);(make single space)among others. In 2008 he initiated the Company Project with Chen Zhou, Li Ming, and Yan Xing. He holds a BFA in Oil Painting from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.

Liu Shiyuan (b. 1985, Beijing, China)  is currently based in Beijing and Copenhagen. Her works have been presented in ‘Now You See,’ Whitebox Art Center, New York (2014); ‘Local Futures,’ He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen (2013); the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Shenzhen (2012); and ‘Stillspotting,’ Guggenheim Foundation, New York (2011). In 2009 she founded the Andingmen Performance Group. In 2012 she was rewarded the Paula Rhodes memorial award. She holds an MFA in Photography, Video, and Related Media from School of Visual Arts in New York and a BA from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. 

Christopher Phillips  has been the Curator at the International Center of Photography in New York City since 2000. In 2004, Phillips and Professor Wu Hung of the University of Chicago, organized the first major US exhibition of Chinese contemporary photography, ‘Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China.’ In recent years he has curated such exhibitions as ‘Atta Kim: On-Air’ (2006), ‘Shanghai Kaleidoscope’ (2008), ‘Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan’ (2008), ‘H20: Art on the Horizon of Nature’ (2010), and ‘Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide’ (2011). He has also served as a member of the curatorial teams that organized the 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2013 editions of the ICP Triennial of Contemporary Photography and Video. He is an adjunct faculty member at New York University and Barnard College, where he teaches classes in the history and criticism of photography.


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