Yang Zhenzhong – Showcase
by Andrew Spyrou
Yang Zhenzhong is a Chinese artist based in Shanghai – a city in which one is never no more than 5 seconds from a screen – and is best known for his pioneering of video art in the region. In fact Yang is a frenetic creator, constantly moving from one medium to the next, working in the fields of photography and video but also sculpture and installation. Although his work invariably deals with serious contemporary issues, such as urban tension and crowd control, they often add a humorous element, treating the issues in a light-hearted way and making them more accessible and engaging.
I was born in 1968, growing up at the end of the C R, a time at which Chinese society was undergoing radical change. I was lucky enough to experience the change both as an involved participant, studying design at university, but also as more of a detached observer, not heavily involved in the transition. As both a student and an artist at the beginning of his career, I also witnessed the progression of Chinese contemporary art from the underground where it had wallowed in the 80s and 90s, to the legitimate position it holds today.
I was admitted to the Faculty of Silk Design in Hangzhou, a quiet city with mountains and a lake, where I realised that I couldn't adhere too strictly to a single medium, nor a single tool, unlike many of my contemporaries at the China Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing who were rarely encouraged to explore other technologies. I embraced the artistic profession with a sort of amateur mentality, and was therefore more prepared to engage with it with a relaxed attitude. I quickly began experimenting with photography, video and installation, often at the same time.
SHANGHAI AND ITS EFFECTS
Later on I moved to Shanghai, a place which can be both exciting and frustrating at the same time. During my first years there I felt tormented; It wasn’t just the urban landscape or the impact of noise that traumatised me, sometimes even breathing was difficult. Yet, although a metropolis attacks one's senses, as perhaps emphasised in a piece like Shanghai Face, where footage from a first-person camera wandering through the city is distorted through a tank of water, the charm of the city is also undeniable. It is essential to adapt oneself to the excitement and danger of the urban environment, studying how to move and how to maintain a quiet mental state in such complex and varied surroundings. Although I suggest one should embrace all features of the city, some of my work, like Let's Puff, in which a girl on one screen blows away the hustle of urban life on another, could be read as a comment on the city's failings that could be altered or altogether shunned.
I have found multi-media work to be both an interesting challenge as well as a struggle: it sometimes troubles galleries, who have found it hard to categorise my work. On the surface my work lacks consistency and recognizability, but consistency is actually very difficult to shed, and I feel artists should endeavour to overcome it and broaden their scope. In my studio I am constantly dealing with diverse technical issues, such as shooting photographs, editing videos, painting, making sculptures, finding an expert programmer or studying blueprints with carpenters. It wouldn’t be fun any other way.
MODES OF VIEWING
While a lot of my pieces may be interested in viewer interaction – like Summer 2009, a group of hanging photographs which, if viewed from one angle reveal a provocative image of girls in short skirts, and 'Trespass', which immerses viewers in a disorienting landscape – these are really just about setting up new modes of viewing. I want to upturn the conventionally applied principles of perspective: I convert 3D landscapes into a 2D illusion, the opposite of much other art.
While those artworks encourage the audience to explore beyond traditional viewing boundaries, other pieces present compulsory modes of viewing. Exam must be viewed through a peep-hole, revealing girls in their bedroom, reading Das Kapital, and Sleepwalking is Therapy III forces the audience close up against a large screen from which it is not possible to retreat. The dizzying movement of the camera, mounted on a flying drone, inspires tension and unease in the viewer. A wholly different piece, Pleasant Sensation Passing Through Flesh 1-3, a row of massage chairs hanging on a wall, but with their leather upholstry removed, can also inspire similar emotions, with everyday objects being visually fascinating and also frightening when pushed beyond their purpose.
AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION / ARTISTIC POLITICISATION
Although I might encourage the adoption of particular modes of viewing, I by no means prompt any specific interpretation of the works, and nor do I expect to control their reception. Crowd control is ubiquitous today, and it may be possible that I'm more aware of the situation in China because I live here, but I get the overwhelming feeling that in China certain phenomena are often intensified. Urban planning can be seen as the art of crowd control, and as citizens, we are now completely accustomed and totally dependent on this control, which seems quite contradictory to me. My piece Xi'an Zoo Bus Stop, for example, where I installed a fake bus stop complete with a completely incorrect and distorted city map, was conceived with the intention of highlighting the dysfunctional nature of the city. Without the participation of the audience, the work would not exist.
I think any artwork seems at its best when dealing with very serious issues of contemporary society, but it is not that art needs to be politicised; it is often politicised unconsciously, and any attempt to deliberately avoid such politicisation is futile. My piece 922 Grains of Rice, where I filmed 2 chickens pecking at / counting rice, started off as a playful piece, but could be said to deal with both the obsessive statistical nature of our capitalist lifestyle, or the competition inherent in lives the world over. While art has no power to solve society's problems, humour is a very important way of remedying this powerlessness.
For my piece I Will Die I travelled around the world asking people to say "I will die" in front of my camera. Those filmed displayed their uniqueness, from their different religious backgrounds, to their ages and personalities: optimistic and pessimistic, powerful or distressed, self-confident or shy, but at the same time allowed everyone to immediately realise that we are all completely equal.
Who I am is defined by what I have done, how I did it and what I said. If we want keep living, we must also continue to learn how to keep working.