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so artless, so interesting

greg hooper takes in video art at APT5


Yang Zhengzhong, 922 Rice Corns Yang Zhengzhong, 922 Rice Corns
IT’S BRISBANE’S BIG SHOW, THE APT. STARTED BACK IN 93 AND THIS TIME AROUND IT’S TWICE THE SIZE AND THE OPENER FOR THE NEW ‘WORLD CLASS’ GALLERY OF MODERN ART (GOMA). THE OPENING WAS HUGE, WITH SOME GREAT PROJECTION WORK OUTSIDE. IN THE SHOW PROPER THE OFFICIAL BLURB PUTS IT AT CLOSE TO 300 WORKS, 37 ARTISTS, PERFORMANCES, MOVIES, VIDEO, SOME OLD STUFF AND A BUNCH OF SPECIALLY COMMISSIONED PIECES. NOT A SHOW TO SEE IN ONE SITTING—THE CINEMA PROGRAM ALONE IS TOO LARGE.

There’s Jackie Chan in the GOMA cinematheque, a few dozen screens showing the rise of budgets and the progression of technical expertise. Amazing how slow the Young Master seems now. Also saw Weerasethakul’s The Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003; see page 17) which, with Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000; not at the APT), makes me keen to explore more Thai cinema in the near future.
Photography is everywhere—as object and as documentation. Along one wall are the large prints by Mu Chen and Shao Yinong of classrooms set up for a bit of mass re-education (Assembly Hall Series, Long March Project, China, 2006). They weren’t always classrooms, sometimes a bit of temple peeps in from the side. The images are formal, camera down the back of the room for a perspective shot of rows of empty desks. Up front some communist bunting and a red silhouette of Lenin, Mao and co. The tone of the photos is very flat, very ‘This is’. Similarly depersonalised, or at least without obvious intervention, are some older photos from Nasreen Mohamedi, black and white, lines in the wet road, a blobby ‘U’ that is strangely self contained. Not much, but enough.

Unsentimental is the theme for much of the show, particularly the video work. Over at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), Yang Fudong (Jiaer’s Livestock, China 2002-05) sets up two little cinemas side by side—in each one a bench for someone to sit on and a bit of standing room for a few others. In front of each screen, and flanked by naked fluoros, is a suitcase on a neat spread of dirt. Inside the case some little black and white handheld screens play repetitive footage that looks like it may come from the big screen footage or maybe from some outtakes. On the main screens the movies proper—short variations on or around each other. Actors, props, and scenes shuffle about. Same basic story, different outcome. There’s a guy in a suit pushing a suitcase uphill. Some people get killed for not very much. Flat observation on strange events. No idea why, but it reminds me of Polanski’s film Cul-de-Sac, which I haven’t seen for years.

More video over at the GOMA site with two works by Yang Zhengzhong. 922 Rice Corns (China, 2000) pits two chickens against each other in a race to eat rice. At the bottom of the screen the scores are kept ticking over. Voice-overs from a couple of commentators pace out the contest (shame I lack the language). The birds are devices for counting rice (Yang’s description) but I’m thinking of the nutty safety-in-numbers meaningless statistics and performance reviews that plague corporate (and bureaucratic) life in Australia. No rest until everyone is above average. On everything.

Next to the chooks is another work by Yang, and one of my favourites. As with the counting birds video, the presentation is uncoloured, without intervention. Set up the camera at a club, at a home, in the street. It’s people, one after another, looking into the camera and saying “I will die” (Do It Project, curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, 2001). Maybe they laugh, maybe they look a little wistful, but—no dramas—that’s about it.
Yang also has some photos which for me are not so successful. He presents people, in typical urban settings, balancing the treasures of modernity on their fingertips (Light and Easy, China, 2002). A car, a helicopter, an ultra mod city. The future as a happy, lightweight trick anyone can do. Sounds okay, but years of student photoshoppery has killed the montage for me.

Others also have a light touch, particularly Korea’s Kwon Ki-soo, whose cutesy cartoon character (Dongguri) runs up and down the walls in the children’s section of APT. Kwon has latched onto a graphic character form that is perhaps even more reduced than Keith Haring’s graffiti-ism from the 80s but just as productive as a cut-out rubbery figure, a sprightly chap in some cheerful paintings, or farting away in some great Flash animations.

Wang Wenhai’s massive Mao twins (Chairman and Emperor) are also cute and cuddly, after the fashion of monumental clay-like blobs (Mao Zedong and Mao Zedong, China, 2003). Year after year Wang obsessively reproduces Mao in numerous forms. That’s it. He is not the only obsessive on show. Out the back and a bit out of the way are something akin to huge miniatures from Yoo Seung-Ho. His works appear to be large inky washes, styled after traditional brush and ink Chinese landscapes. Up close they are made from the tiniest of characters, meticulously inked in with a graphics pen. It’s strangely admirable and pointless, like crossing a large ocean in the smallest of home made boats.

Another favourite video is from Vietnamese artist Dinh Q Le. Le presents a triptych movie, The Farmers and the Helicopters (2006), a document of the history and meaning of helicopters in a rural community. There’s footage of helicopters exploding forest (thanks Hollywood), and wartime recollections like, “We’d stand very still and the helicopters would go over then come back to look. If they came back a third time you’d run.” Time lets memories and feelings update to “the helicopter is evil” and a triumphal “I could go in a helicopter now.” The post-war generation is represented by Tran Huoc Hai who pieces together a working helicopter from leftovers and what he could pick up out of physics textbooks. “We don’t have to be scared of the helicopter, I want to show that Vietnam can use the helicopter to help people too.” The content reads like decades of trauma delivering a materialist and casual cargo cult. And again, the feel is unsentimental: views are held, memories recur, events happen.

Why so many videos, so interesting and so artless? (The APT is not for the post-processing fx junkie.) Perhaps it’s the rise of cheap and ubiquitous cameras. Home cinema was meant to be 5.1 sound, deck chairs in the lounge room and a few golden oldies from the Sony back catalogue. Maybe sometimes, but more likely it’s youtubing a stranger’s home movies while back at their place they watch yours. According to the BBC, 300 is the average number of times each person in England is filmed per day on CCTV. Dress up, go out, make a movie every day. The video image comes and goes. It’s a way of keeping stuff—in the phone, just for a bit, maybe longer on a drive, no more tricky or substantial than laughing at a number plate or downloading a movie of a man shoving golf clubs in a blender. Maybe it’s a reflection on history—stand back far enough and, if you’re lucky, events will go on without you. Regardless, ‘on video’ is now nothing.

The last work is from Shien Xiaomin (The Village Cameraman and His Son, Long March Project, China, 2001). Another documentary. An old guy, crinkle cut face, box camera, wooden tripod slung over the shoulders as he wanders the province recording the big events. Families, babies, weddings. Fifty years of black and white, misty edges, someone moves. That special photo when the light is just right.


The 5th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Dec 2 2006-May 27 2007

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 44

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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