Contemporary art is known to be subjective and cryptic, to say the least, which is why the promise of seeing Chinese video artist Chen Qiulin in a question/answer session was exciting enough for this film fanatic to gladly endure Los Angeles traffic for the chance to participate. But when the lights dim, two tall Caucasian men stride onto the stage. There are no likely "Chen Qiulin"s in sight.
Apparently the timid videographer's long-awaited question/answer session would not be realized that night for the sake of visa complications. But to soothe the twenty or so audience members scattered in the theater, Hammer curator James Elaine and poet-artist Stuart Krimko take the mic to present Qiulin's artwork and offer their best shot at providing explanations.
But first, a short hello from the artist herself via webcam. Not much is said besides "Ni hao!" because of the tragically lagging visual and the hopeless language barrier. However, obvious enthusiasm exudes out of Chen Qiulin as the porcelain-skinned pixie grins and waves from behind her black plastic frames. After a few more fruitless attempts at communication, Qiulin unsuccessfully stifles a yawn and excuses herself because of the time difference. Then the show really begins.
The progression of Chen Qiulin's video work begins with her first and most haunting: "Ellisis" (2001) which depicts a beautiful bride – Qiulin herself – applying make-up at a vanity mirror, while sitting in the rubble of a former Chinese city. A groom figure stands approximately fifteen feet behind her. He tenderly opens a box of ornatelyfrosted wedding cake, cuts himself a slice, and pelts it at the bride. The cake hits her with a thud. She makes no sign of noticing the dessert dripping through her hair or in her eyes. The groom's bizarre act of violence continues for sixteen minutes. Passersby congregate in the background, but they do nothing except chat or laugh at the spectacle.
"Ellisis" sets the mold for many of Qiulin's future works. They usually feature the conflict of two profound opposites: femininity versus masculinity ("Ellisis"), purity versus destruction ("Farewell Poem", 2003), modernization versus tradition ("River, River", 2005), or urbanization versus nature ("The Garden", 2007). The films are unapologetically gritty in their DV-format and although there are times when there is almost a distinguishable narrative, it is always disjointed in the most poignant way possible.
Although Chen Qiulin's voice unifies her work, it is also clear that her style has also matured considerably in the last decade. She begins expressing herself on a grander scale, working with sound designers or professional actors and tackling entire mountainsides or metropolises as the backdrops for her films. As she attracts more attention, especially in the international art scene, she takes advantage of the foreign audience by unveiling an otherwise hidden side of China.
As Elaine says, "[Qiulin]'s showing us a real China. You turn on your TV in China, you're not going to see this. The only thing they show you is the end of the rainbow, the gleaming towers. They show you this future that they proclaim is coming, but what we're seeing is the real thing: millions of people being displaced by a river rising, losing their homes, losing everything. You see the chaos of the dirt and the bricks and the construction."
One recent work is such an example of Chen Qiulin's creative maturation. "The Garden" (2007) follows two workers on a pedestrian journey through a busy city, winding their way through abandoned alleys and under the eaves of a towering skyscraper in consecutive scenes. They carry bundles of vivid magenta peonies in their arms as if they bear the only remaining rays of hope in the dismal city, but the peonies are artificial. Elaine describes "The Garden" as an indication of China's growing pains, "where the people don't quite know how it will develop because the old and the new are not quite meeting up."
Even with an abundance of Chinese landscapes, mass demolition, poverty-stricken workers, and Sichuan opera singers, the most impressive thing about Chen Qiulin's art is the urgency of her social critique. Her striking juxtapositions first highlight the brutality of our authoritarian world, then the angelic presence of a resistant minority rising above to fight against its blind oppression. Qiulin's videos are brimming with so much sorrow and poetry that they can be appropriately described as visual eulogies for a romanticized time in history. Not surprising, when the subject in many of her films are the dusty heaped remains of her hometown – her childhood, literally in ashes.
Despite the abysmal state of affairs presented in the theater that night, experiencing them left this viewer with a sense of empowerment. The world may be crumbling, but at least somebody else notices and she is screaming for help as loud as she can with non-dialogue films. And her name is Chen Qiulin.
Chen Qiulin's videos, including "The Garden", will be featured in the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, CA from September 29 to January 3, 2010. For more information, click here.