ZHANG QING: PROPS AND TOOLS
LEAP 2016 Aug.
Chase Coulson Christensen
Lately, the question of surveillance doesn’t seem to remain in the collective consciousness. When he was likened to the panopticon, there was a lot of talk about mass surveillance, and quite a bit of backlash. Today, it can be confounding to see people preening in front of their smartphone cameras, mindlessly uploading and sharing the intimacy of their private lives and exposing their whereabouts to the eyes of world. The people’s perception of surveillance is that he is a natural part of the humdrum of daily existence—and it’s precisely because they attribute him to the commonplace that they turn a blind eye. This is why surveillance has once again bewitched the artistic eye. On an emotional level, he has been simplified and abstracted like modern flat design, yet there is still a need to revive and deepen the discussion, to again turn the subject intellectual through a new paradigm. There is a new degree of difficulty in the presentation of this controversy, which is a challenge that tests the ability to respond to present realities.
Artist Zhang Qing’s 2006 piece, Football Field No. 603, installed a three-person indoor soccer field in a one-bedroom apartment. On the girders and rafters sat six monitors on which spectators could watch a real match while simultaneously enjoying the same match, shrunken, on a video game system. Surveillance systems produced imagery on multiple channels in high angles and wide angles with a low-quality picture, while live picture and sound information were captured with no enhancement. The spectator was disconnected, observing the piece from afar. The athletes were no longer positive symbols of competitiveness in these cramped quarters. What was caught on camera was physical transmogrification, oppressiveness, and even vulgarity. In local dialects, the athletes cursed and ranted, kicking the ball through the windows of the home to let off steam, making one think of the techniques Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon used in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Through the use of 17 synchronized HD cameras throughout a 90-minute game, star player Zidane was caught on candid camera, panting, spitting, and making various gestures, deconstructing wholesale the mainstream image shaped through the media. Comparatively speaking, Zhang’s approach was not so palpably academic, because he cared more about the features of the surveillance camera medium itself; the multiple channels, high angles, wide angles, and low picture quality. In other words, from the very outset of the series, Zhang was not interested in using HD equipment to capture and deconstruct a hero or his greatness in fine, razor-sharp detail, but rather in relying on a commonplace setting and the visual characteristics of the surveillance equipment medium to bring out the ambience of big brother.
In the 2009 piece, Don’t Go So Fast, Zhang Qing installed ten surveillance cameras in a village in the Qin Mountains. Some cameras were installed at a distance overlooking the whole village, while others were pinned on clothes displaying imagery taken by pinhole cameras. Most were installed at fixed locations around the village. Zhang sought to turn surveillance into highly choreographed performance art. He directed people dressed in business attire to move across the village in a hurried and purposeful fashion, contacting each other occasionally, then
dispersing and continuing their frenetic bits of business. Their attire and behavior, symbols of urban identities that would normally only appear in the downtown areas of a major metropolis, were suddenly transplanted into the quaint, natural village setting. Because he scaled up the size and complexity of the shoot, spectators were spooked by big brother’s ubiquitous eye. The audience found that, when the video was projected on a wall measuring six by eight meters, the spatial structure of the village in its entirety could be envisaged across disconnected screens. In essence, the artist let the surveillance cameras play the role of connector, like the cogs that hold a machine together.
Besides monitoring behavior, what else can surveillance equipment catch? Zhang Qing applied the surveillance camera’s coarseness to the refined language of video art, which gradually broadened the physical experience brought about by the act of surveillance.
Zhang imbued his next two pieces, Learning from Tom Smith (2011) and The People’s Secretary (2010), with the intense flair of ideological propaganda, or, one might say, with a strong flair of commercialism. The story of two characters, one from the United Kingdom the other from China, unfolds before our eyes as seen through the omnipresent eye of surveillance. In an ironic twist, not only is the overall narrative more complete, it’s also made more flexible through the use of single-channel and multi-channel intercutting of surveillance cameras as they record the character’s every move.
In a recent solo exhibition, “Boundary,” a 2014 video piece, Sideway Peak, used the familiar narrative and technique of surveillance equipment, but its restraint was taken to a new level. We see a montage of the daily lives of people of small stature who have suffered discrimination. They recount the struggles they have suffered in life by way of narration. Usually, watching surveillance video, we cannot hear the internal monologue of the person being monitored; the artist’s camera played the role of a surveillance camera, letting spectators sympathize with the discriminated while also making them privy to the narration of those on the screen. Zhang Qing said that, during the shoot, those who were the objects of bias were always more sensitive to being watched, as if the other’s eyes were as sharp and gaze as pervasive as the camera. The surveillance camera was not portrayed as evidence of omnipresent power in “Sideway Peak”, but rather as a tool serving to support the fragile emotional state of the discriminated. This subconscious psychological phenomenon is evidence of the ubiquitous oppression of discrimination. This overwhelming oppression, relies on the ubiquitous gaze of surveillance, as well as the absorption of the pervasive surveillance in those being watched—together these two forces from both outside and within make up the overwhelming oppression.
From an apartment used for a football match to a village in a natural mountainous area, Zhang Qing’s early works constructed an unconventional living space through surveillance cameras, shaded with tinges of imagination. In his recent work, he has gradually constructed a psychological space for people in society. His work has not stopped to linger on a critique of the idea of surveillance. Through an analysis of surveillance, artists like Zhang return to him afresh, finding new explanations of life’s experiences. When oppression can be magnified by surveillance’s omnipresence, when people have become apathetic and complacent towards surveillance, and when critical discourse aimed at surveillance forms an image in the mind’s eye, what physical form can he take next? Zhang Qing has searched out, collected, and selected evidence of how surveillance affects modern society; through the very tools of surveillance, he has carried out repeated visual recombination, strengthening and transmitting a physical experience that is more complex than any intellectual system.