Chen Qiulin: A memory of place

Chen Qiulin at the Hammer

My brother was in town a few weeks ago and we stopped by the Hammer to check out the work by Chen Qiulin. Chen’s work is obliquely documentary; recording some of the now-submerged cities and valleys of Sichuan, China through video of narratives enacted on the condemned landscapes.

Of primary interest to me in Chen’s work is how she presents the landscape as defining the events within it. Collapsing industrial buildings tower over people, shaping the actions they may take. It seems as if all they can do is wander through the landscape, searching for each other, searching for meaning in their actions. Indeed, they can do nothing to shape the land around them, or to prevent its disappearance. And we can only watch as they progress down a linear path.

I wonder how software and installation can be used to represent landscapes as charged as these, how they can engage viewers in ritual similar to those enacted by the actors/demonstrators in Qiulin’s work. Can we guide people through the environment as effectively as the bride and groom in Qiulin’s videos? Perhaps we need some sense of inevitability in our work; to see an the next step coming, even as we aren’t sure of what it is.

In Qiulin’s video, we follow the actors as they walk the path of their fate. In games, we may need a guide to help us, perhaps we are one of the many men carrying peonies to the lake, and so instinctively stay with the group. In an environment, we can limit pathways, like presenting viewers with a staircase leading up to an unknown plane. At what point do these constraints become meaningful, and how do they shape the narrative for the viewer?

This issue of imbuing work with substantive meaning or context is one I will be tackling in future writings. Simply using a dataset to create an image does not make the image about that data. A higher level of transformation is occurring in successful work, a level which I am trying to reach in my own practice.


shanghai skyline

We enter the city from the east, moving swiftly over hundreds of repetitive elements: cylindrical storage tanks, rows of crops, industrial cranes, and dilapidated houses. Once landed in Pudong, we all board a bus and begin the drive into the city. We pass trucks carrying myriad items, from fat pigs, watermelons, or seaweed to immense slabs of iron and what look like empty plastic oil containers. As we enter the city itself, we are engulfed by towering residential buildings, their facades aged, air-conditioning units placed in the patterns of living across their skin. The ground, when visible from the highway, consists of streets crowded with people playing cards and conducting their day-to-day business in crumbling courtyards with scattered piles of debris.

Our guide, Allie, felt obliged to keep us entertained for the entire ride. She enumerated aspects of travel in China. Basic warnings: don’t drink the water, don’t go out alone at night. Advice: eat the fruit, go all over the city, ride in taxis (they’re inexpensive).

It is approximately midnight in Shanghai as I write this, having just returned from a delicious Japanese meal with the design clique. The apartment we come home to is rather oddly appointed; in some ways it is grand, in others, oddly sparse. We have three separate bedrooms, a large living room, decent kitchen, and a balcony. However, we have two place settings, a single pot, and a single pan with which to prepare any meals in our kitchen. We also have two towels with which to dry our three residents.

I will make a phone call tomorrow to Dai Chen to see if I can meet up with her and the art academy sometime this week. My plan is to show some of my work to other students and propose spending a weekend together simply creating art from what is at hand. I just want to take the time to really dig in and make something together without having enough time to be self-conscious about it. I imagine this art could take the form of sculpture, drawings, found object composition, performance, and interactive media. While making the work, I hope to be photographing the process and also collecting original samples of work.
Destinations for personal travel: Suzhou, Huang Shan.