CHENG RAN in his studio, Hangzhou, 2017. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Aug 11 2017

The Madman can be Anybody: Profile of Cheng Ran

by Michael Young

Cheng Ran is one of China’s most intriguing contemporary young filmmakers. His work explores the existential angst of today’s youth in China. This might seem commonplace considering the number of contemporary Chinese artists who tread similar paths, including the auteur Yang Fudong, who was at one time Cheng’s mentor. But Cheng’s work is anything but usual. Influenced by literature (he is a fan of the American writer Jack Kerouac, and has taken inspiration from the father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun) as well as European and American art house movies (think Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch), his films are populated by seemingly unhinged characters who are sketched by the artist with the ease of a passing voyeur. They also possess a curious otherworldly dimension too easily codified as surreal, when in fact they are products of a sophisticated and unique cinematic language that Cheng has been developing since he first picked up a video camera in 2004. They are nonlinear and allow the story to unfold on multiple channels, as was the case in the videos presented in his recent “Diary of a Madman” exhibition mounted after a three-month residency at New York’s New Museum last year.

In May, I met Cheng at his studio, a two-storey house on the outskirts of Hangzhou, where he had been in residence for just one month. It was a hot day and he was dressed for the weather and sporting large, dark-rimmed spectacles beneath a shock of bleached blond hair. A tsunami of dark tattoos spread across his exposed flesh. Many of the patterns, if not all, were needled into his skin by his good friend and neighbor, the artist Wu Junyong. 

CHENG RANDiary of a Madman, 2016, 15-channel video installation with music by While We Still Have Bodies, dimensions variable. Photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio. Courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation, Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne, and New Museum, New York. 

His most recent film is Diary of a Madman, a collection of 15 vignettes made with support from the New Museum and Hong Kong’s K11 Art Foundation. Inspired by Lu Xun’s 1918 short story A Madmans Diary, Cheng’s work is an outsider’s view of marginalized New Yorkers and the habitués of the city’s hidden corners miles away from the tourist’s beat, where everyone speaks Mandarin and pigeons recite poetry. Rundown hotel rooms, stolen moments of love for both young and old, glass-covered beaches and the Staten Island ship graveyard form the mundane yet stylized cityscapes across which parade Cheng’s delirious cast. Into this melange, the artist inserts the mysteries of chance like parenthetical thunderclaps, and offers multiple endings that confuse with poetical ambiguities. “The madman can be anybody. It can be a couple making love in the hotel. A black young guy sitting on the bridge. An old guy in an apartment. It can also be myself,” the artist said.

Cheng was born in Chifeng in Inner Mongolia in 1981, and his worldview was formed during the 1990s by watching hundreds of bootleg DVDs. “I collected a lot of indie films and movies from the 1990s,” he said, referencing his assemblage of films that is currently numbered at 3,000 and still growing. “They helped my generation to learn many things about the world,” the artist pointed out.

CHENG RAN, Chewing Gum Paper, 2011, still from video: 3 min 48 sec. Courtesy the artist.

Cheng moved to Hangzhou in 2000, when he was 19, to study painting at the China Academy of Art. During his second year he realized that painting did not appeal to him and he dropped the course. “It was many years before I told my parents,” he said. The academy was the same one that five years earlier, in 1995, Yang Fudong had graduated from after studying painting. The two later met by chance and Cheng was able to wrangle a part in Yang’s five-part epic film, Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2003–07), that retells the third-century Chinese folk story of a group of individuals who withdraw from worldly troubles in favor of leading solitary lives. Cheng took on a role where his character drifts about, appearing vacant and full of ennui, which suited his insouciant and bewildered looks. “Fudong’s work opened my eyes . . . I realized that this is art and that this was what I wanted to do,” he said. He then worked for Yang as a gofer for five years.

Cheng’s early films were made entirely in his small Hangzhou apartment, and were virtually no-budget productions. “I bought a small, cheap, second-hand camera on Taobao for RMB 700 [USD 104], and I made my first video with this camera,” he said. Videos such as his five-minute The Summanus Butterfly (2010), where he pushes the image of a butterfly into the soft abstract style of delicate ink painting, and Chewing Gum Paper (2011), where balls of foil bounce on a drum’s surface, show Cheng’s search for an individual visual language.

“For three or four years I had no studio, no art space, no representing gallery in China. I just used all the stuff I had in my apartment to make a video. No one was interested in buying this work,” he said.

Since those early days, Cheng’s films have featured in numerous biennials and group exhibitions including the “On | Off: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice” exhibition mounted at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2013, and the 14th Istanbul Biennial that took place two years later.

CHENG RAN, Summanus Butterfly, 2010, still from video: 4 min 23 sec. Courtesy the artist.

Recent residencies have allowed Cheng to tackle larger and more ambitious films. Two years spent in Amsterdam in 2013 and 2014 resulted in his epic, nine-hour film In Course of the Miraculous (2015), which was later produced in China and relates three conceptually linked stories of real-life mysterious disappearances—British mountaineer George Mallory, who went missing on Mount Everest in 1924; the murders aboard the Chinese fishing trawler Lu Rong Yu in 2011; and the performance artist Bas Jan Ader, who disappeared while attempting a single-handed West to East crossing of the North Atlantic in 1975.

His next large-scale project will build on Diary of a Madman, which he now sees as the first part of a trilogy. Cheng filmed part two last year in Jerusalem, where he fell ill either due to recurrent bouts of anxiety, or from Jerusalem syndrome, the phenomenon where intense exposure to conflicting religions induces delusions or psychosis in visitors. This malaise will form an integral part of the finished movie, the third part of which will tell the history of Hong Kong through the eyes of street dogs and Hong Kong’s colony of black kites that soar above the tallest skyscrapers. “Nobody cares about these birds. I hope to show the memories and future of Hong Kong from these bird’s perspective,” Cheng said.

The mention by Cheng of animals landed us firmly back in the present; many cats slouched lazily around his studio. “I collect cats,” he exclaimed with a smile. “I have nine now, and my favorite is a one-eared four-year-old named Wally. The cats make me feel calm and help me control my anxieties without the need for medication.” I wonder if it is this sense of anxiety that inhabits the core of Cheng’s films, ever present but somehow concealed under a cinematic sheen.

Michael Young is one of ArtAsiaPacifics contributing editors.

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Wally the cat in CHENG RAN’s studio, Hangzhou, 2017. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacifc.