Wang Jianwei, Living Elsewhere: A Screening with Eugene Wang
A screening of Wang Jianwei‘s Living Elsewhere, introduced by Eugene Wang, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art at Harvard University. This program is part of My Camera Doesn’t Lie?: Documentary Aesthetics in East Asia, a panel and screening series initiated by the Department of Art History of Columbia University, co-organized by Asia Art Archive in America.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): The screening that we are presenting tonight is part of a series about the documentary aesthetic in contemporary art that we kicked off a few weeks ago—particularly, but not exclusively, focusing on moving image in East Asia. We started with a Japanese film from the 1960s, we’ve looked at a recent film by a Korean artist and also one by a younger Chinese artist, and tonight we’re pleased to be screening a work by the well-known older artist named Wang Jianwei. On the 28th we will finish this section of the series with a Taiwanese artist named Chen Chieh-jen and I really hope that some of you will be able to come and see that screening as well. Tonight we are honored to have Professor Eugene Wang of Harvard University here, who participated in our kick-off panel and has returned for tonight’s screening. Eugene has been a distinguished professor at Harvard since 1997. His expertise is broad, including importantly, a focus on Buddhist art. But he’s always been interested in contemporary practice and for the past number of years has been writing quite a lot about it. Eugene, we’re delighted to have you here today to introduce this film.
Eugene Wang (EW): Thank you Jane, it’s wonderful to be here. Wang Jianwei is a name that probably won’t need much introduction in New York City as he was recently featured in a Guggenheim solo exhibition. I think that’s the second Chinese artist, after Cai Guo-Qiang, to be commissioned by the museum. If you go online you can find his biographical information so I won’t repeat that. For tonight, I’ll just give you a little guidance for the film. I want to give you three key words or contexts so you can better appreciate what he’s up to. The first question is why the 1990s (this film was produced in 1999). The second big question to think about is medium. This film is set in a cluster of half-built villas and that raises a whole issue of why that structure and why this medium. The third big issue or context is ecology or sustainability.
So just a quick run-through of these issues. First, why the 1990s? If you think about Chinese contemporary art, it can largely be characterized according to decades. During the 1980s, two kinds of impulses developed. One was the use of some kind of realism, or even photo-realism, to uncover some of the truths about the violence in the 1970s and the suppressed memories of the Cultural Revolution. The second [impulse at play in] the 1980s story is [the use of] a kind of modernist form to stage subjectivity, which was [another] big issue in the 1980s. Essentially you have this problem—realism was used to uncover those traumatic experiences but that form has its weaknesses. The flip side is that the turn to modernist forms, i.e. abstraction, somehow strays away from the real. The search for the real has always been a constant impulse in Chinese contemporary art. We all know what happened in 1989, which brought everything to a crashing end; a different dynamic emerged in the 1990s. China moved towards a free market and state-run capitalism, and at the same time, there was a kind of awakening, a realization that what went on in the 1980s was kind of naïve, an attempt to play avant-garde to catch up with the rest of the world with formal experimentation. But also a realization that this attempt fell short of coming to terms with the real. Again, the real is the subject of obsession.
Artists then gave up some of these assertive formal experimentations and tried to look at the real world. They tried not to be obsessed with the formal, but rather with the immediacy of experience. As a result, a lot of painters started to feel that painting itself is an artifice that is alienating them from real experiences. This is when they discovered the camera. They found a kind of immediacy that painting didn’t allow, and began to discover the real world with the camera’s candid eye. With that also came an interest in the medium. They initially used video to record performance art. Once you do the performance there’s a layering effect because you’re capturing the performance, then as a video it becomes something else and as a multi-channel display it becomes something else again. So I would call the 1990s a decade of medium [among Chinese artists] because they really discovered how one becomes aware of what a medium can do. Once you use the camera it recalls an early debate by Chinese artists and theorists at the beginning of the 1980s: when it comes to the ontology of film, some critics said that China was held captive too long by the theater, and that to search for true cinema you need to cut those ties. The catch phrase was ‘flow of life’ which is borrowed from Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). In the 1990s, the old debate about film versus theater somehow came back again, but after a decade or so they had a better sense of it. It’s not so much the artificiality of theater that bothered them; they discovered in their surrounding world that life is full of theater anyway.
What you will see in this film, this ‘documentary,’ is very much about theater, but theater that’s unwittingly found rather than directed and staged. In these half-deserted houses, you’ll notice that some of these open platforms look like a stage, and that real people start to play out their personal drama without being directed to do so. I’d like to call this ‘theater by serendipity,’ or ‘found theater.’ You can also see another layer of the medium being staged—the architectural form looks so barren and so minimalist that in a way it evokes the modernist or minimalist aesthetic of the geometric form. Again that’s a discovery by serendipity. [The building] wasn’t meant [to be seen] as a modernist form, but it happened to look like a modernist form. These messy things happen, which is not what modernism intended, but in fact here you have all these people who messed up the whole situation, as if to serve as some kind of implicit comment about the point of the modernist form in late 1990s China. And all that is to say that space is a real issue in this film, and the director wants to urge you to imagine alternative possibilities. When you look at this house, think about the modernist form, think about theater; he doesn’t want you to settle for one space. For the whole 40 minutes you glimpse other possibilities. That’s what the director wants, because he grew up feeling that he was fooled by some larger force. He is against control, which includes even his own control of the site. That’s why the film is called Living Elsewhere. It’s not just for these people in the houses, but also for those outside.
The third key question is ecology and sustainability. China is preoccupied with these themes, [and artists especially so]. This film is Wang Jianwei’s special take on it. What you have on the face of it is these half-finished houses, into which people on the fringes of society move, using these houses as shelter. Superficially, we could ask, ‘Is he just trying to say that overdevelopment causes environmental problems?’ Yes, that’s true, but I think it’s more than that. What he’s trying to show is that ecology itself outgrows its condition. Any ecological disaster results in a new ecology growing out of it, which is again discovered by serendipity. Maybe Wang started to wonder if China was always like that—there was never a moment of clean ecology but new ecologies that keep growing out of certain conditions. That is to say, if the medium is about space, this ecology is about time; he’s obsessed with how we can get into certain kinds of cycles. There’s a lot to think about so just keep the three key concepts in your head: the first is the 1990s in China, the second is medium, and the third is ecology. We can have a discussion about all this afterwards.
Wang Jianwei, Living Elsewhere, 1999, color, sound, Chinese with English subtitles, 40’05”. Video courtesy of the artist.
EW: One of the dynamics is between the grandfather and the child—there’s a sense that this is a cycle and the grandfather and grandchild bracket time. It becomes very poignant when the grandfather is peddling the bike and the grandson acts like he’s in a car, and the bicycle is parked in front of this house; it’s almost like enacting a car arriving at a mansion. It’s all very rich and suggestive. Any questions or points you want to discuss?
Audience Member: Are they expecting to live there year round or are they transients?
EW: We don’t know. Apparently they’re there illegally because some developer probably had this project going, and either the profitability was not there or the money dried up and [it was] just abandoned. These people just found the place and moved in, and you can see they had a makeshift use of these houses, so we really don’t know. To go back to the point that I made earlier, at the very beginning, [the director] sets it up like a scene, with this barren house and a woman crying. It’s theatrics but it’s real life; we don’t know why she’s crying and this drama was captured almost by accident.
Audience Member: How long do you suppose the filmmaker had to hang out before he could capture these moments?
EW: From what I know from talking to some documentary filmmakers, they actually develop friendships with these people so they get so used to the cameraman being around that they just ignore the camera’s presence. For example, there was another very interesting documentary titled Last Train Home (2009), directed by Lixin Fan, also set in Sichuan, which was awarded the prize of the Best Documentary Feature at 2009 IDFA. At a certain point the father and daughter have a fight and that was completely unexpected for everyone. The daughter raised her voice and yelled at the father, and then turned to the cameraman and said, ‘I don’t care that you’re here. It’s so awful, I’ll just say it.’ So it really broke the fourth wall, because up until that point there was an implicit understanding that they pretend that the camera didn’t exist. I found it very interesting that the woman started talking to the camera; she just had to let it out. It was very rare for documentary to have that moment where the camera’s presence was made known.
Audience Member: The setting looks surreal to me and totally forgotten by society. Where did [these people] come from? Where are they now? They would have had a household registration and maybe some land in their home villages, so why did they come to the city to be part of the floating population? It’s all unknown to me.
EW: Surreal. That’s a wonderful word you used; it is really surreal and I think that’s the appeal of it. These houses look so fashionable, at least in China. But they’re half-finished and barren and they almost project a modernist kind of architectural environment. It’s not cultured yet; once you have real decoration you would have the space for culture. You have the bare minimum, but it’s messy. They are probably migrants who were displaced from another building.
Audience Member: I find it fascinating how human beings will adapt to the environment. It’s almost like they’re living in caves. When the film begins you see how bare things are but as [the camera] moves to the different families you can see the kitchen, and how they laid out different things, and adapted to the environment. In one scene in particular, when they were cleaning the vegetables, you see how they have recreated their life on the farm. It’s a form of adaptation. The farmer brings his own wisdom in order to live on a bare piece of land with the bare minimum and survive in those conditions.
Audience Member: Is it that different from their existence on their farms?
Audience Member: But in this case they are uprooted. I see this film as almost a lesson on how to live in this situation. If you were being put on this land with very minimum resources, this would be how you would try to survive.
EW: This is one of the key interests of the director. He is very much invested in this notion of ecology, and he stated that there’s no ecology without ideology, which I find a little puzzling so maybe you can help me. We might need to parse that statement; I guess what he’s trying to say and struggles with is that we all now have a sense of what a good ecology is, and we all imagine that in China there was a moment of good ecology. He is probably saying that the whole ecology is caught up in adaptation within a given condition and you do what you can with it. Then something else happens and you adapt again. It’s a cycle of adapting to new conditions, and those new conditions are not necessarily desirable and might even be damaging to the environment. Certain policies and larger trends damage the environment, but also prompt miraculous adaptations that emerge out of helplessness. Here, they actually have a farm set up [where they] raise pigs and chickens and grow corn. The message for him is that it’s hard to [cast] judgment because these people have to live and they do what they can. It might be either a utopia or a dystopia—it’s a utopia because people leave them alone, they eke out this life on their own and there’s this moment of contentment, but it’s a dystopia in that you can see the father’s always away, you can see in this family that there is a lot of bickering and fighting. I guess his point is never to treat this space as one unified space, and he is always hinting at other possibilities. Some kind of utopian aspiration realizable elsewhere, or some kind of farm that got displaced by this new construction, the point is always that this is more or less normal, but it’s surreal. The norm becomes real and what we imagine as real is always backstage, never to be realized. That’s the paradox of this: it looks surreal because the real is surreal.
Audience Member: It’s like a space, a folded space where you’re travelling backwards in time.
EW: And forward as well!
Audience Member: They’re entangled together and they live in a space that they don’t belong to, a space which doesn’t belong to them either.
EW: The funny thing is that gradually this is going to become the norm because they have a farm, and if no one bothers them, this lifestyle, this pattern, this community is going to really set in.
Audience Member: It also seems like there’s a village forming, with other people living in different houses in this space. They’re a community. It’s informal but it’s becoming a community.
Audience Member: I don’t think it’s utopia, but I have the impression that in their adaptation with the environment they are on better terms with nature than with each other. For the first half I was so shocked by all of the cruelty of the people –the husband and wife treated each other really nastily–but as the time goes on you see chickens and pigs and everything and people have human interactions. I feel that those are more humane interactions than the ones between the husband and wife.
EW: Wouldn’t you say that’s an interesting set-up for [the audience] to glimpse utopian alternatives? Utopia does not exist after all; by definition it is not real, so in a way [this situation allows us to conceive of] the possibility of utopia when of course it’s not utopia? Do you see what I mean? You start to glimpse other possibilities.
Audience Member: Do we have economic exchange in utopia? Everything would be free in utopia; we wouldn’t buy things.
EW: But you were more intrigued by the harmony of it compared with the big questions.
Audience Member: I don’t know the whole background, but in the beginning, if we’re talking about ideology, I feel like there is something here that reminds me of Cultural Revolution ideology, with the class struggle and everything.
EW: You’re right, it’s set up to somehow evoke the memory of a certain theatricality. In other words the big argument is unmotivated narratively in the film, so it just happens to be a crude stage where a man and woman fight, and this drama is captured by serendipity. But I think that you start to have a glimpse of a more harmonious existence in the corn scene, but that’s just a glimpse you have of utopia, which of course doesn’t exist.
Audience Member: Do you think there’s a slight sense of nostalgia for something lost?
EW: No, because [Wang Jianwei] is known for being very unsentimental, in fact he is castigated for being too rational and too unsentimental, too unemotional. Put it this way: his feelings about the present conditions is that he always regards this as just one second on a long chain where past and future are in this cycle. I think in the film this is wonderfully captured with the old man and young child. You can see [the chain of events] both reaching back and pushing towards the future, [part of] a cycle.
Audience Member: This film seems to explore the history of the early 1990s when the economy was changing and the reform program prompted the building of these beautiful houses and these migrations into the big city, and how people were kind of caught up in that process. But while living this dislocated existence in these fancy houses, you can also see a little of the future. But the future has not arrived; the people are still living in their old economy. You can see that in how they live, so it’s a direct collision of the old way and new way. It’s pretty obvious why the new houses were built but now they are being used in old ways.
EW: I want to see if John or Jane has anything to say?
JD: I’m interested in his artistic language. Based on what I know of his earlier work, Wang Jianwei was trained as a painter, as a socialist-realist painter, and an extremely technically adept painter at that. Very early on in his career, Wang won great prizes in the national exhibitions for his highly realist work where there were touches of nostalgia, for example the one called Dear Mother about a soldier writing home to his mother. Later on his works become more surrealist, where he moves towards deconstructing the body and pulling it apart, but all the time he continues to be very technically strong.
Then you see this transition to another medium, the camera, and compared to some of the other films we’ve watched over the last few weeks, this one is quite rough to watch—it has very jumpy cuts, the handheld camera is very wobbly, etc. What is your explanation for this lack of ‘technical’ finish? Is it intentional? Because there’s a roughness to it that’s quite unlike his painted work. Or is this unevenness representative of his emerging engagement with the medium?
EW: That’s fascinating. I am interested in the tension that is being formed – one between the highly stabilized architectural form, which is so geometric, and the jumpy camera which is destabilizing. I think there’s something in that effect, that tension, that goes back to Distance (2009), an installation he did that changed his films. [In this installation] he used old Chinese furniture and piled them up to basically form a monument. The point he was making was that this started off as a utopian model but then in specific contexts the material takes over. The actual model, which is very neat and clean, starts to get very messy, and in a way I think this film is an extended use of that model. He wants us to see what would happen when this clean form gets caught up in the messy world, in China in particular.
Audience Member: It seems to me that this film is a pretty devastating critique of the Communist Party, in particular when you have the radio [program] come on celebrating the workers, which was for me the only intelligible dialogue (spoken words) in the whole piece, because I’m unfamiliar with the Sichuan dialect. I also thought that this was a very disturbing film to watch and it made me very worried for these people. But then I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re actually growing vegetables.’ It must have been over six months later. At that point you start to feel that they’re going to be alright, but it’s still a very desperate situation. For me it was depressing to watch.
Audience Member: I actually thought it was one of his most hopeful works.
EW: One thing he’s always been interested in is going up against control. He has an aversion to control. Even the thought that one dominant line of thinking would prevail over one’s work is hard for him to keep. So yes, the thing you picked up on obviously is there, but that doesn’t capture the whole picture.
Audience Member: The only other video of his that I’ve seen is the one where he has workers lining up to buy meat. It’s a happening and it’s a whole stage, and when a worker has been waiting for half an hour to buy a little piece of meat, a cadre sweeps in and ignores the line and buys the meat. And that is a pretty clear political statement; so I don’t think he’s without his attitude.
Audience Member: During the scene with the little boy sitting with the bicycle and the grandfather riding him around, all I could think of was this business of the little emperors and the One Child Policy.
EW: That’s certainly very true; he’s like a little prince. Well, there are many other points that we could discuss, but I think that we have run out of time. It has been fun and we’ve had a great conversation. Thank you very much.
JD: Thank you Eugene. And on behalf of AAA and the Department of Art History of Columbia, I want to thank you all for coming.
Wang Jianwei was born in 1958 in Sichuan Province, China. After serving in the military from 1977 to 1983, he studied oil painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now China Academy of Fine Arts) in Hangzhou, where he graduated in 1987. Beginning in the early 1990s, Wang shifted his practice to documentary filmmaking, performance works, video installations, and other multimedia productions. Wang’s work has been featured in exhibitions worldwide, including Gwangju Biennial (1995); documenta X (1997); São Paulo Biennial (2002); Venice Biennale (2003); ‘How Latitudes Become Form: Art in a Global Age,’ Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2003); ‘Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China,’ International Center of Photography and Asia Society, New York (2004); among others. He was the First Commissioned Artist for The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Wang lives and works in Beijing, China.
Eugene Wang began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1996 before joining the faculty at Harvard University in 1997. He was appointed the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art at Harvard in 2005. A Guggenheim Fellow (2005) and recipient of ACLS and Getty grants, he served as the art history associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Macmillan, 2004). His book, Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture of Medieval China (2005) received the Academic Excellence Award from Japan in 2006. His extensive publications cover the entire range of Chinese art history from ancient funerary art to modern and contemporary Chinese art and cinema. He serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for Advanced Studies, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the editorial board of The Art Bulletin.