A screening of Zhou Tao‘s Blue and Red, introduced by Christopher Phillips, Curator at the International Center of Photography. 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): I’m delighted to be here today with my colleagues John Rajchman, Beatrice Grenier, and Xiaofei Mo. John and Beatrice are in the Department of Art History at Columbia University and we’re delighted to have the opportunity to regularly collaborate with John and with the Department. We kicked off with a panel a few weeks ago on the topic of the documentary aesthetic in art from East Asia. Since then, we have screened a film from 1960s Japan, a video by a young Korean-born artist Sung Hwan Kim, and today we have the opportunity to view a video by a young artist from Mainland China named Zhou Tao. We’ll have a series of other screenings: Wang Jianwei is next week, also from Mainland China but of an older generation, and then an artist from Taiwan, Chen Chieh-jen, on the 21st.
I’m particularly thrilled to have Christopher Phillips here who will introduce this film today and provide a response after the film. We will then open it up to conversation and questions; this is supposed to be very informal. Christopher is a longtime friend of Asia Art Archive and from what I gather, also Columbia University, as he also does some lectures here. Christopher is the Curator at the International Center of Photography and has done numerous exhibitions on a regular basis. He has been one of the people in New York City who, in addition to understanding global and international art for a long period of time, has been looking at art from the non-West. We’re thrilled to have you here today and we look forward to hearing your remarks.
Christopher Phillips (CP): I’m happy to be here this evening and I’m glad to see such a strong turnout during Columbia’s exam week. I suspect I was invited to provide this introduction for Zhou Tao’s Blue and Red because, back in 2009 when we had our ICP Triennial exhibition, we included a short, humorous work by Zhou Tao. I had learned about his work through Zhang Wei, the founder of Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou, and his work fit perfectly in that particular exhibition. Since that time Zhou Tao has moved in a quite different direction, as we’ll when we watch one of his most recent works, Blue and Red.
First just a bit of biographical information: Zhou Tao was born in 1976 in Changsha in Hunan Province. He studied oil painting at the Guangzhou Academy of Art, but for the past 12 years he has worked primarily in performance and video, creating a series of works which incorporate elements of performance. Zhou Tao’s videos at first seem to have a documentary feeling, but as you study those works you discover that much of the action is rehearsed and costumed so as to suggest an unscripted everyday activity.
In the last four years Zhou Tao has created a group of four video works that I think hang together in an exceptionally interesting way. Those works are South Stone, made in 2011, Collector in 2012, After Reality in 2013, and Blue and Red in 2014. You can find all except that most recent work on YouTube and Vimeo, if you are so inclined. In these videos Zhou Tao records situations from different locales that he brings together through the magic of editing to create what he calls a kind of ‘third reality.’ We’ll see this very clearly in Blue and Red, which combines footage from both Bangkok and Guangzhou in such a way that often you have no idea which city you are looking at. You’ll also notice some fast cutaway aerial views of geological structures. Later we can discuss exactly what associations or references Zhou Tao might be making with these distant views. As you’ll see, his method is really quite inventive, even though he’s employing a kind of documentary style. There are no characters, no dialogue to speak of, no narrative. Zhou Tao employs long takes, using shots of 20-30 seconds that linger on individuals who may or may not know they are being recorded. The editing at first seems quite free form, although, by the time you get to the end of this 24-minute work, you’ll be starting to understand the unusual visual language that Zhou Tao is slowly teaching us.
Looking at Blue and Red and thinking about possible precedents for it in terms of Chinese video, I’m led immediately to Wang Jianwei’s Living Elsewhere, which will be screened next week. That’s a work from 1999 and 2000, in which Wang Jianwei shot about 60 hours’ worth of footage of a group of transplanted farmers who found themselves living and occupying an abandoned development of luxury villas on the outskirts of Chengdu. Living Elsewhere employs very long takes and limited dialogue, forcing the viewer to adjust to a greatly slowed-down sense of time. You follow individuals through their day-to-day routines, learn their gestures and start to understand how they experience their own lives. I remember the French curator and critic Catherine David calling that approach ‘micro-phenomenological’ when she showed Living Elsewhere in Berlin in 2000.
A work that shares the same sense of forcing the audience to surrender to an extremely slow process unfolding on the screen is the extraordinary 2003 documentary by Wang Bing called West of the Tracks. It’s a nine-hour epic documentary that takes you inside the dissolution of the old industrial factory system in Shenyang and introduces you to various individuals who are experiencing the decay of rust-belt China. A similar kind of slow and attentive observation can also be found in the work of Zhou Tao, although his works are much shorter, usually less than half an hour.
Blue and Red, as I indicated, was shot in both Guangzhou and Bangkok in 2014. Zhou Tao happened to be doing an art residency in Bangkok during the prolonged demonstrations and occupation of central Bangkok that led up to the military coup d’état in May 2014. You will see the tent cities of the protestors who occupied central Bangkok and flash cuts of military units on the edge of the tent city. You’re never really sure what’s happening, but you can sense a slow and ominous trajectory that leads to a scene of sudden violence at the very end of the video. At this point let’s watch Blue and Red by Zhou Tao.
CP: What can we say about Blue and Red? Let’s start with the title. It might refer to the pairing of the mysterious blue light that bathes so many of the scenes throughout the film with the blood-splattered individual we glimpse for a moment at the end. Blue and red can also refer to two of the colors in the Thai flag, or perhaps the colored T-shirts of two of the rival factional groups, pro and anti-government, during the demonstrations from fall 2013 up until the military coup d’état in May last year. Even if we can establish some associations around the title, nevertheless while we’re watching the video it’s hard to determine where we are and what we are seeing. And just what are those mysterious geological formations we see from time to time. I’m going to ask those of you in the audience for your thoughts. Xiaofei, I’m going to turn to you first, because you indicated earlier this evening that you’ve had conversations with the artist about this work.
Xiaofei Mo (XM): One thing that we can say for sure is that most of this film is shot in a public square or an outdoor public space. It’s interesting because we did a screening of Fang Lu’s video of a protest that was shot entirely indoors. It’s also interesting that Christopher mentioned Living Elsewhere because that film was also shot in an abandoned area in a no-man’s land. On the other hand, Blue and Red is a rare example of an artist working in an open public space and considering his role in a sphere where one observes the actions of others. Another thing to note is that the film begins with a very normal, long shot and you see the camera turning down. This is open to debate, but my interpretation is that the artist wanted the existence of a camera to be more obvious to the audience. I think Zhou Tao is quite conscious of where he stands as an artist and—if I could use a stronger word—of the ethics of the filmmaker in a situation like this. One more interesting anecdote is that the song that you hear is actually a very popular song in Thailand and the lyrics are about communists hiding in the mountains and missing their families.
CP: Let’s see if we can piece together ideas about this work, which at first glance seems very cryptic, as if it’s stitched together according to a pattern that even after three or four viewings I can’t quite make sense of. Zhou Tao has said in interviews that when he spends time in Guangzhou he is often reading and thinking and pondering, and that he found New York very distracting during the residency period he spent here. I think you can feel some of that thinking or pondering in the flow of the images in Blue and Red. That flow doesn’t seem accidental or random to me; it’s just assembled according to a logic that we can’t quite fathom yet. When I first saw the work I found it very watchable but also extremely irritating, because I couldn’t crack the code. Zhou Tao is clearly creating works that demand a lot of effort from the audience.
Audience Member: The first thought I had was about the set of binaries in this video. You commented on the issue of private space vs. public space; there’s also a binary of the neon light and the natural daylight, the urban setting and the natural setting, the horizontal setting of people sleeping on the ground and the verticality of the barricade. Whenever you see verticality in this video it’s either associated with violence or the police. You also see people sleeping on either mass-produced plastic sheeting or on advertising posters, so those were the sets of binaries I noticed. The emphasis on sleeping in this video is shocking and it really reminds me of Professor Jonathan Crary’s recent book—he’s from Columbia—called ‘24/7’ which is about the deprivation and invasion of personal space in late capitalism.
CP: Sleep deprivation is something I think we’re all familiar with.
Audience Member: It was really striking when I saw this. It reminded me of when I was traveling in China and would see those images all the time, in all kinds of public spaces. Not only in the city, but also in People’s Square or the train station, you would see people sleeping on the ground. But are they really sleeping? Is it really a comfortable state of being? I feel that this moment is really highlighting that–the constant oscillation between insomnia and a kind of insensitive hibernation.
CP: I’m sure everyone noticed that at the very beginning of the film there were repeated images of individuals and groups of people staring hypnotically at things off-screen; what they are we never find out.
Audience Member: I guess the idea of spectacle also ties in.
CP: I think those extended images of people stretched out and sleeping in obviously uncomfortable positions on the ground reflect the artist’s long-standing interest in the human body as a kind of material and introduces us to the idea of different experiences of lived time.
XM: It is a very interesting observation because the artist did talk about sleeping in an interview. The audience might find it hard to approach this film, but he found that it was difficult for him as an artist to approach the people and the protestors in the square, only when people were sleeping could he feel a certain energy from the ground.
Audience Member: Sleep is the epitome of personal privacy and space. It’s the last frontier against the invasion of 24/7 consumerism and the omnipresence of capitalism. I’m not saying I’m siding with that interpretation, just that all these binaries remind me of that.
Another Audience Member: When you mentioned verticality and horizontality what struck me is that some of the landscapes are rendered very hard to read. So many of the shots are very frontal and even made into surfaces. For example, the mud flats read as totally flat, almost optically instead of in terms of perspective. There are a lot of surfaces and the obvious instance of a landscape turned into a surface would be the walls of sandbags, or that totally confusing bubble which is just a pure surface. We have all these people entranced by surfaces and there’s a curious way that the whole film is quite absorbing, but at the same time it seems like my attention was skimming off of it or being deflected. To your point about accessing or empathizing with the protestors, I feel like there was no moment when I had deep access or empathy with anyone. There was no eye contact, people are always looking elsewhere so you’re constantly engaged but you’re also on the surface without access to any depth. I also think that what’s interesting about the film is that it refutes any deeper meaning, something behind the surface.
CP: I think that impenetrable surface is what encourages interpretation to do its work. That’s always my reaction to a work that seems to provide no access at all to interpretation; that just makes it more of a challenge.
XM: I’m so glad that you made this observation. The way that the artist thinks about the film is not so much in terms of the current politics in Thailand. He’s thinking about skin, both the skin of the body and the skin of the landscape, so he is interested in the surface and the flatness of the image. It’s also right that when he shows you the protestors there’s no eye contact or any kind of interaction between them.
Audience Member: In the beginning of the movie he really denied any sense of pleasure in watching it, there’s nothing going on at all. But suddenly the music came in, the landscape started stirring, and it was so pleasurable. The music made me feel that there was something there, something that you could draw from and feel something from. It spoke of the medium of video and what it can do to give pleasure or to take it away; the climax of that pleasure of seeing such a violent thing happen but also in being conscious of it.
CP: It was really interesting throughout the video that the main cues that indicate mood come through the audio track, not through the visual track. I thought the audio track was very tactile and was much warmer than the images.
Audience Member: What year was this filmed?
CP: Last year, 2014.
Audience Member: Maybe I need to see it several times but in the first take I had trouble absorbing it; I don’t know what it’s all about.
CP: I don’t think that you’re alone in that reaction.
Audience Member: I think that’s a failure of the artist. I don’t see a coherent theme.
CP: I wish the artist were here this evening. I think a lot of mysteries would be explained.
XM: Or more mysteries created!
CP: I will say that if you watch the three previous video works made by Zhou Tao you see that he’s developing his own artistic language–a kind of anti-narrative visual rhythm that’s very distinctive. There’s nothing else I’ve seen lately that creates such a sense of unease in me as a viewer. All the easy pleasures are refused but there’s still something there, something irritating, that keeps me watching and thinking. It’s too easy to dismiss Blue and Red and say there’s no meaning. Even though it may be intentionally cryptic and intentionally off-putting.
Audience Member: Do you think this is a little reminiscent of some Italian films in the 1960s, some before Fellini?
CP: In terms of Zhou Tao’s lack of interest in whether or not the audience likes the work, it reminds me of Godard’s militant films of the 1970s.
Audience Member: This is just an observation but for a film called Blue and Red I noticed that yellow was used a lot. You mentioned that the T-shirts the protestors were wearing could be a possible reference and I know that yellow is also a color of the pro-government faction in Bangkok at this time.
CP: I have to confess that I’ve never been able to sort out the shifting relations between those factional groups.
Audience Member: My understanding is that only red and yellow factions existed, but I did see this man who was painted blue and I was wondering what he represented in terms of his political views; he appeared only briefly. Also the red blood only appeared very briefly. For the most part I was struck by the yellow light throughout most of the film, given that yellow does not appear in the title. Also the first shot reminded me of the moon.
XM: In fact it’s probably a green tint. Maybe the projector is causing it to look more yellow today, but it’s actually more green-blue. The reference to the political parties is definitely part of the title but, as Christopher said, Zhou Tao is trained as a painter. While creating this film he made a lot of drawings and sketches which have been exhibited together with the work, so I don’t think he wants the work to be understood solely in a political way. He uses green, which was never a color of any group, maybe to resist interpretation?
Audience Member: Don’t you think that a lot of the confusion people face, including the artist himself, revolves around the question ‘What is good?’ What do you really want to do? Do you want to go this way; do you want to confront them? In the absolute chaos of a movement, to take a stand and ask ‘What are we doing here?’ is, I think, an element of revolution and life.
XM: So what stand do you take?
Audience Member: I know something about the situation in Bangkok; it’s so unbelievably corrupt and has been since time began—how do you rectify that? Here are these people trying to rectify it, so what are they going to do? They’re going to be just as corrupt as the other people. It’s not nice!
CP: Let’s take two more questions or comments and then continue the conversation informally. I see we now have wine and refreshments in the back of the room.
Audience Member: Returning to your comment on the fragmentation of elements and the frustration of any effort to understand this in terms of a narrative, I wonder if this is tied to the post-modern condition of existence that defies any sort of meta-narrative. At the same time, in certain places you have the mushrooming of multiple threads of narrative of which we all struggle to make sense.
Audience Member: I’d also like to add that, while this [practice] is much older than any of you here—you’re all very young here—in modern Chinese literature from the 1950s and 1960s, when a book or movie was titled by colors it usually represented a very deep philosophical or political irony.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé, edited by Hui Yu Wong.
Zhou Tao (b. 1976, Changsha, China) lives and works in Guangzhou, China. His subtle and humorous videos record interactions between people, things, and situations – touching on questions about the multiple trajectories of reality. Selected solo projects include Green Sun (Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, 2014), Zhou Tao: The Training (Kadist Art Foundation, 2013), Seek for Geothermal Heat (Times Museum, 2012), and 1234- (MIT List Visual Arts Center, 2009). His work has been shown widely at exhibitions and festivals such as The 61st International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (2015), New Directors/New Films (2015), The 7th and 10th Shanghai Biennale (2008, 2014), The 5th Auckland Triennial (2013), The 3rd ICP Triennial of Photography and Video (2009), among others.
Christopher Phillips is the Curator at the International Center of Photography in New York City. He has organized many exhibitions exploring Asian photography and video. These include the first major U.S. exhibition of Chinese contemporary photography, ‘Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China’ (2004, co-curated with Wu Hung) as well as ‘China and the Chinese in Early Photographs’ (2004), Atta Kim: On-Air (2006), ‘Shanghai Kaleidoscope’ (2008), ‘Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan’ (2008), and ‘Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide’ (2011). Mr. Phillips teaches courses in the history and criticism of photography at Barnard College, New York University, and the ICP/Bard MFA program.