Chen Xiaoyun. Walking over Branches and Sensing Time ( de )

IN-SIGHT. Photography from the Wemhöner Collection, Kerber Verlag 2012-10

If, for a moment, we let our imagination direct our will, and also accept that not even our own deaths have any long-term significance, then a falling branch becomes the source of a personal language. Inspired by the experimental art scene in Hangzhou, to the south-west of Shanghai, and by the Chinese video artists working there, Chen Xiaoyun (b. 1971) dropped out of his painting degree to work in the medium of film. He now lives in Beijing. His videos and his staged photographic works examine both metaphorical images and the emotional power of poetry.

By the end of the 1980s, Hangzhou had acquired special status in Chinese video art history. At that time the avant-garde artist Zhang Peili was presenting the absurdity of political authority in his videos, by, for example, repeatedly catching hold of a chicken, washing it, and then letting it go again (Hygiene No. 3, 1991).

Post-Mao-era artists like Yang Fudong, Qiu Zhijie and Yang Zhenzhong made reference to this tradition through their use of media and, of their own accord, they organised the first video art exhibitions, also in Hangzhou. In 1996 the 1st China Video Art was presented; this was also an inspiration for Chen Xiaoyun, and it led to his purchase of a video camera. In his short films and photographs, instead of directly criticising the contemporary political situation, he focuses on the aspect of self-reflection; this, however, in no way excludes the portrayal of social and political disparities.

Dried-out branches appear repeatedly in the scenes Chen Xiaoyun stages with his friends. In an interview he explains that this has a personal context: ‘In late autumn and winter I walk over branches that have fallen from trees every day, sensing their existence. By placing these in very diverse contexts, a kind of narrative Ariadne’s thread is developed. The branches become a language, the language of things.’ This ‘language of things’ enters into a dialogical interaction with the titles of Chen Xiaoyun’s works.

The photograph Give My Future to a Snake (2012), for example, makes a visual link to the experiences described by the artist. We see feet from the calves down, carefully feeling their way over a bough with many branches. The title, for its part, transposes this practical act onto a level that is wide open both philosophically and metaphorically. ‘I associate the last stage of life with a dried-out branch,’ continues the artist. ‘At the same time, it is not until this moment that the branch attains its independence from the tree.’

Chen Xiaoyun’s intensive processing of the phenomenon of ‘time’ finds its expression in Give My Future to a Snake and other works. The artist goes on to say that he is especially interested in non-linear narrative structures and the interweaving of diverse temporal levels. From a style perspective, he says, the aphorisms of Chinese classic writers provided him with inspiration; when it comes to theory, he is more focused on Western authors, and books like Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut and Cool Memories by Jean Baudrillard. The proximity to the fragmentary, associative language of Pessoa’s ‘accidental book of my ponderings’ – as the Portuguese author described his major work – is evident in titles such as It’s like Wandering in a Virtual Sense and Moving in Conceptual Barycentre, He Says a Short Trip in Fantasy Let Volitive Concession Lose a Moment of Calmness (2012). Even the original Chinese titles do not offer any clarification or contribute to understanding. Thus viewers of the corresponding photograph are sent on a journey into the realm of their own imaginative power, towards a contemplative oscillation between image and text. The artist has not defined where the centre of gravity of this rotating entity lies.

The photographs taken at the beginning of 2012 are being presented for the first time by Chen Xiaoyun in the solo exhibition ‘Zhuiku Tablet’ Annotations (ShanghART Gallery, Peking, 25 March – 2 May 2012). The artist explains that these are based on a fictitious text he has written: ‘I am trying to appropriate the expressive logic of classic Chinese literature here. The photographs themselves function as visual written characters. When an image is finished, its title becomes a footnote.’ It is hard to accept that not even one’s own death is worth being remembered: a harsh reality transposed by Chen Xiaoyun into a simple gesture, as he bends the dried-out branch until it breaks into pieces (Time Offers a Travel, You Become a Killer on the Road, No Death in Any Form Is Memorable, 2012).


IN-SIGHT. Photography from the Wemhöner Collection, Kerber Verlag 2012-10