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.

The Desert: Three Themes

I spent last weekend in Wonder Valley in the Mojave as part of the Mapping the Desert symposium organized by UCIRA and the Sweeney Art Gallery. While there, I had the great opportunity to meet with artists from other UC campuses, and to encounter a number of aspects of the desert. These encounters led to early thoughts on themes the desert elicited from me during my stay: salt, the development of journey as a shareable artwork, and the not-so-serious Zombie Christians or doing what you ought not.


salt tree

The first thing that struck me in the desert was the salt-tree in front of our campsite. The tree—a tamarisk—had large crystals of salt coating its leaves.

Salt manifests wherever there is water in the desert, and plants growing in oases need to be halophilic to survive. I am interested in systems where halophiles could be operating benevolently on behalf of less salt-tolerant species, and in the exoskeleton that the halophiles produce as they grow under mineral-rich conditions.



Scrambling from rock to rock in Joshua Tree National Monument cemented the desire Pete Hawkes and I had to make the journey integral to some of our work. Michael Kimmelman’s essay on The Art of the Pilgrimage brings up how travel to see a work shapes your perception of the work; I think the travel itself could become the work. What better way to share a steep mountain climb than to lead someone on it? Naturally, we would like to have some additional payoff, some tangible work that people who engage in the travel ultimately contribute to. We’re working out the details.



Let’s not forget the crazies who live out in the desert, or the artists who impersonate crazies in the desert. Christmas-tree-like light-up crosses, keep-out signs, and ringing church bells that don’t belong to you. The bells peal loudly in the desert, trailing off into the open space, never bouncing back. Someone else hears and we all scramble for the car. It doesn’t start for a minute that feels much longer, when we finally drive off into the space, becoming a glowing light on the horizon.

More images from the weekend are available on flickr.