Striking at the core of human experience, Buddhism has taught us that change equals suffering as, frequently it is associated with the loss of something we value. In order to deal with the painfulness of change, rigid social structures (family, political, moral and religious systems) have evolved in an (often futile) attempt to preserve an increasingly ephemeral sense of order. These structures act not only as a bulwark against change, but also cushion the blow of such changes. Sometimes, as in the case of mortality, they attempt to make us believe that “bad changes” (i.e. death) may be followed by “good changes” (i.e. salvation). In this exhibition, five artists examine both our fear of uncertainty and desire for stability and ultimately find that even the most steadfast social systems are ridden with termites.
Swedish artist Per Hüttner addresses these issues from the angle of literature in his text-based work “3 Novels Dissected”. In it, he employs fragments of three works of literature from three continents, which depict characters struggling with various commonly accepted ideologies. The installation consists of three tables topped with sheets of glass each holding a lamp to illuminate the fragments of text trapped below the glass, some printed, some hand-written and interspersed with colored scraps of paper. The tables are a cross between a kind of arts and crafts workstation and the desk of an academic with books bearing post-it notes to highlight important quotes from the books.
The first book, Kafka’s The Castle, tells the story of K., a land surveyor who ends up in a small town only to find out upon his arrival that a clerical error has left him without a job. He slowly discovers that the town suffers from a strange affliction—an unflinching faith in the highly opaque bureaucratic structures which govern it. The novel can be interpreted as both a comment on the futility of bureaucracy and human alienation but also in religious terms as a quest for salvation — the bureaucracy standing in for a “mute”, unresponsive and arbitrary God. The character K. rebels against orthodoxy, engaging in various power struggles with those who are supportive of “Castle” rule.
While K’s struggle is of an external nature, Brazilian author Clarice Lispector explores the inner conflicts of an upper-class single woman who upon viewing the sight of a smashed cockroach has an epiphany that completely challenges her worldview in The Passion According to G.H. The protagonist of the novel, whose initials are a stand-in for the words “Human Kind” (in Portuguese).
Underneath the glass of the table Hüttner has placed the quote:
“The room seemingly refused to play the role of a static container; it takes on a living force of its own and virtually comes to impose itself upon its “owner.” As the room expands and contracts, G. H.’s identity is continually undone and remade through the progress of her narration.”
In this passage, we can interpret society as the room which, as it changes, exerts an influence on individuals—thus thwarting our attempts to maintain stability.
The third novel, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua depicts a character who is perpetually tormented by structures such as government and community, which create barriers to family harmony—the family which, as portrayed in the novel, is seen as a building block of society. Xu Sanguan is a poor peasant who sells his blood in order to get himself out of a number of financial binds and he struggles with the infidelity of his wife and the fact of his illegitimate son, discovers that family acts as a life raft in the chaos of Cultural Revolution China.
While in The Castle, the main character is challenging accepted norms, the situation in The Blood Merchant is reversed with the accepted structures eating away at that most basic of institutions—family. Meanwhile, Lispector is trying to tell us that all we believe to be real, no matter what system is perhaps just an expertly crafted illusion.
Taking us into the territory of the industrial, Norwegian artist Lise Yuen looks at another component of the economic system—the supply chain—by using a sculpture evocative of a railroad with a series of metal braces which support triangular pieces of glass propped up in equidistant rows. The effect is something like a landscape with the green-tinged glass pieces appearing like intersecting mountains fading off into the distance. And though evocative of nature, “Travel in the Mist” possesses a cold sharpness about it—the pieces of glass reminding us of how the once textured fabric of the city is, as a result of the proclivities of contemporary architecture firms, becoming a never-ending sea of tinted curtain walls.
The braces which support the glass look much like railroad ties and the whole sculpture is floating in a pool of oil as if the railroad ties have leaked their creosote to create a kind of toxic reflecting pool. We often forget that beyond the damage caused to the environment by the production of goods themselves, there is also the impact of their transport, especially in this globalized environment where one product may be initially composed of components from all over the globe and when completed, the whole thing is transported to various different countries to be put on the market. Of course, oil is what facilitates this manufacturing model. But oil, which is valued for its properties as a lubricant, is also slippery and in a sense unreliable as we saw with the energy crisis of the 1970s.
Yuen’s second work “Waves” also examines the fraught relationship between nature and industry through an installation made of a series of copper pipes procured from a nickel factory. Joined together at the center to form a cross, the pipes evoke images of a rudimentary graveyard with rows and rows of crosses, at the same time, they’re suggestive of the dense thickets of scaffolding which dot the landscapes of our developing cities. Yuen created the work in the form of a wave to elicit ideas about nature. At the same time, water is also a key element in the extraction industry and is used in copious amounts to separate the valuable metals from the rocks which contain them. But their attractive green patina (green like the color of a glacier-fed lake), is actually the result of the nickel production process. The installation implies stability in a formal structural sense — the weighty forms appearing unmovable — but at the same time the transformation of the copper reminds us that even the most solid of elements can easily be corroded or transformed.
This green wall of steel creates a weighty ridge that separates the exhibition hall in half, forming a sort of makeshift barricade—the kind one might see in the street fighting scenes of “Silence”. This barricade is like a fortress blocking out intruders and seems to be placed rather intentionally opposite Guo Qingling’s “Background”—a collection of oil paintings of female factory workers.
All dressed in bunchy blouses, aprons, and cotton arm protector sleeves, they are virtually devoid of any femininity let alone identity with their faces turned resolutely away from the viewer. Their poses and their uniforms identify them purely as “labour” inputs; the gestural brushwork implying movement and reminding us that in the factory “movement equals money”.
These migrant women often leave the stable system of family and community to work in factories which provide “stable” income—the much sought after “iron rice bowl”—that is until manufacturing moves to another, still cheaper developing country and the migrants are again in search of a livelihood.
Using his characteristically rhythmic aesthetic, Li Xiaofei examines both the human and environmental impact of the industrial system in his multi-channel video installation. In his videos we see the workers play the role of assistant, politely facilitating the work of the machines, pushing carts of coal, aiding in the docking of boats, all controlled by the rhythm of the factory, as evidenced by one worker who struggles to put on his uniform before his shift starts, cement carts rolling by hurriedly on either side of him. In one particular scene, we see workers exiting the mouth of a coal mine one by one, wearing various shades of black on their faces depending upon the amount of coal dust deposited on their skin. In a later scene, we see them, skin shiny and clean in new uniforms, relaxing on a beaten up vinyl chair while their old uniforms, faded, blues, greys, and greens, hang lifeless from a rack. This dramatic change from black to pink, lays bare the bodily impact of such work, forcing us to contemplate how what is seen as a mere “job” literally transforms the human body, not only in a cosmetic way but in a physiological way when coal dust enters the respiratory systems of these workers. In fact, this particular mine is one of the few illegal mines still operating in Hunan. Such mines are notorious for lax safety standards and though the mine has yet to experience a major explosion, many of this kind have been the cause of serious human casualties. The only workers willing to subject themselves to such tough and dangerous work are those in their 50s and 60s, past their prime so to speak, and with few more attractive options.
But the costs are not merely human in nature. In another scene which also takes place in a coal mine, a torrential rain turns the coal yard into an inky puddle—in fact, the elements, the sky, the wind, and the rain are reoccurring motifs in this installation. Li matches this scene of raindrops on a black puddle with footage from a cement plant producing accropode blocks where droplets of cement fall from a hopper into a mold and the fully-formed, perfectly identical blocks line up row after row.
The accropode blocks seem to take us full circle as the blocks are typically used as breakwaters, to prevent shoreline erosion which has become an increasing problem in coastal cities such as Shanghai in the wake of global warming. So that with increasing industrial activities, we must produce even more products to combat these problems (think of the solar panel industry), which in turn creates more environmental problems and so the cycle continues . . .
As a visual pun on the cyclical, Li Xiaofei has included one looped segment of a brilliant coil of copper wire, which turns in a hypnotic manner. Almost as if in response to this mesmerizing wheel, a young man (a low-skilled, uneducated unemployed young man from Shenzhen) remains perfectly still not even blinking into the camera. We wait and wait for him to speak but he remains mute, the artist’s camera holding him in at attention as if it were the factory foreman. When viewing the incredibly arduous and mind-numbing work that the coal miners must undertake one wonders if “work” is not some form of torture but at the same time lack of work leads to anxiety and a host of other mental illnesses.
Much of the work in the exhibition has a distinctly existential tone, often asking the question: “What should humans do? Or how should we behave in this frenetic era characterized by vast environmental changes, a shifting labour market, morphing family structures, and gender dynamics, and tumultuous geopolitical changes?”
Per Hüttner’s second work “Silence” depicts two women who seem to be somewhat paralyzed by these issues hiding behind books, taking comfort in the certainties of certain systems of knowledge (such as scientific rationalism) rather than confronting the facts as viewed by their eyes.
The video is set in a darkened library illuminated by nothing more candles placed in hurricane lamp holders. There is a vague sound in the background, which might indicate a storm as the darkness would suggest a power outage. The space seems like an emergency shelter, but it is only at the last minute that we discover protestors in the streets throwing objects in a pitched battle with police.
emergency shelter, but it is only at the last minute that we discover protestors in the streets throwing objects in a pitched battle with police.
The women who are the main characters spend most of their time performing obsessive-compulsive actions such as writing, erasing and brushing books with a dry paintbrush. It’s a kind of physical work on par with the factory workers, as their engagement with the knowledge seems to be purely on a surface level only offering them some distraction from the disturbing events occurring outside the library.
Hüttner cites Ingmar Bergman as an influence and indeed there are certain parallels between Bergman’s film of the same name. In Bergman’s Silence, two estranged sisters make a journey through a war-torn country, while Hüttner’s film was shot in Lebanon in 2014, which was seeing a spillover of the turmoil in Syria. As in Bergman’s film, the younger woman is more adventurous and keeps on pressing the older woman to leave the library, but the elder woman insists that they must “wait for a sign.” Their dialogue of sighs and glances is accompanied an increasingly maddening, “tick, tick, tick,” the sound of a black “maneki-neko” or “zhaocaimao” 招财猫colloquially known as a “money cat” moving its arm back and forth in a bid for wealth and fortune. At one point the cat ominously stops—a “sign” perhaps—but the elder woman still refuses to budge, stubbornly starting up the cat again in denial of the turmoil raging outside.
While Bergman’s silence is an exploration of the idea of religious faith, Hüttner’s film seems to challenge our faith in knowledge. We can’t help see these women as living in some kind of darkened ivory tower, unwilling and unhappy to face the reality which is raging outside the window, they do seem quite content to stay in their sanctuary, comforted by the certainties of the published word.
Those struggling with the unpredictability of the economy and of society frequently look to the spiritual to provide some kind of guidance, as a hope or an anchor of sorts. In her video “Jing’an Temple,” Jiang Dandan examines how something as steadfast as religion can still be strongly impacted by the forces of a consumer society. The work centers around the familiar symbol Jing’an Temple—a landmark that can be viewed from many vantage points in Jing’an especially since it’s facelift in 2010. Interestingly, the temple was built in 247 AD but moved to its current site about 1,000 years ago, despite being converted to a plastics factory for a brief period during the Cultural Revolution. An article in Shanghai Daily, displaying an unusual irony quips, “It is hardly a place for meditation these days.”
Rather it is a place for tossing coins into an oversized ding (food vessel), or for praying for good luck on one’s high school entrance exams. Jiang’s footage zooms in and out of the temple area focusing on the white-collar workers burning incense contrasting this to similar white-collar workers outside of the Réel shopping complex, window shopping or ardently texting their friends.
Splicing together shots of temple bells quietly jangling with images of giant LED screens featuring H & M swimsuit models, Jiang highlights the complete absurdity of the whole temple complex which seems to be desperately trying to compete with the shopping paradise hemming it in from all sides. In fact, after its 2010 renovation, it emerged ringed with shops and topped with Thai-style glittering gold roofs and a giant minaret upon where three lions grinning like crazed gargoyles are perched. Where did this architecture come from? Is it a testament to the generosity of the temple followers or is a crass attempt an attempt to attract new recruits? What it seems like is a desperate cry for attention, as religion is subsumed by a tidal wave of consumerism.
Nothing it seems is sacred, not religion, nor family, nor community not even knowledge itself. Uncertainty seems to be the only certainty we have — sadly it’s not a very comforting ideology.