Chen Qiulin: The Empty City

A Thousand Plateaus Art Space (Tiexiang Temple Riverfront, Chengdu High-Tech Development Zone, Chengdu, 610041), Sep 20–Nov 30, 2014

Unlike most artists, Chen Qiulin is not very adept at describing her creative practice, and tends to rely on a metaphorical juxtaposition of elements to tell the story of her work. There are, however, two commonalities to be found throughout her seven-screen video work, “The Empty City”—the changes in a locale and the disassociations of the individual. The video work was filmed at Chen’s childhood stomping ground, the Xishan Park in Wanxian County. By filtering out elements in the work which can trigger political associations (vintage military regalia, flags, etc.), viewers get an underlying sense of uncertainty and self-defensiveness permeating the artist’s subconsciousness. At times the artist almost seems to have built up a defensive wall around her memories. The video work is composed of several episodic fragments, in which Chen Qiulin appears not as a participant in the video’s narrative, but as a bystander and observer situated in another dimension. Thus removed, she narrates the drama of a once-familiar city in the third person.

Wanxian County (Wanxian) was once an ancient port along the Yangtze river, historically important as a trading hub. Later, most of the county was flooded in the Three Gorges Dam Project, and the Wanxian Migration Development Area was established in the city of Chongqing in 1997. The new area was named Wanzhou, and has been experiencing a steady boom in population since its establishment, along with modern architecture mushrooming everywhere. All of these developments have been absorbed into the layers of the artist’s memory. Born in Yichang City, Hubei Province, Chen Qiulin moved to her ancestral home in Wanxian County at a young age, remaining there until her university years. Much of her childhood was spent in the movie theater where her mother worked, after graduation, she also found employment at a movie theater in Wanxian; this is perhaps why her video works are often shot from such cinematographic angles.

In a collective sense, change and uncertainty are key elements sunk into the psyches of the generation born in the mid-1970s. They were born into the tail end of collectivism, but raised in the ideologically confused reality of the 1980s. Compared to the “Post-80s” generation, they experience a more intense desire for the sense of belonging formed in their childhoods; their self-expression when that sense of belonging comes under threat is also clearer and more individually colored. This can be seen in “Are You Sure It’s Still There?”, one of the seven videos; when the artist carefully records the carousels and dances in the plaza, the viewer vacillates between conflicting senses of extreme familiarity and unfamiliarity. As an observer, Chen Qiulin feels up every detail of a remembered childhood; the uniform she wears harkens from her father’s generation, and the toy gun in her hand is another memento of her youth and is intended to clash with her surroundings. The mask on her face only further alienates her from the events taking place around her.

We get a clear sense of distance from the film—the remembered city of her childhood is as far removed from reality as her uniform. Having faded from the collective memory, only individualized experiences remain, ethereally haunting the old riverside park. The busts on show are similarly ethereal, vacillating between the sublime and the void. The artist has sculpted the founding generals of China (He Long, Peng Dehuai, among others) out of recycled paper pulp. Ideologically speaking, viewers are perhaps already accustomed to the admixture of nobility, personal memory, emotion, and even the somewhat trivial (the origami, for instance) found in Chen Qiulin’s work.

Any attempt to recreate memories with the markers of one’s memory inevitably results in a memory which is altogether another creation—such is one of the most fascinating lessons of nostalgia. One can never subjectively return to the contexts that shaped oneself; this is potentially the suggestion of Chen Qiulin’s indirect discourse. The cultural phenomenon of nostalgia does not simply point towards the past, but contains within itself a certain perception and judgment about the future. In the video, new buildings, supermarkets, bridges, advertising models, and other urban symbols appear as representations of the status quo, but for the artist, perhaps they also represent a muddled existence in an in-between place for the artist—until one day they too ramble into the hazy memory of someone else.

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