LIU CHUANG, Love Story No. 8, 2006–14, old books, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. 

HU JIEMING, Related to Happiness, 1999/2016, video installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist .
HU JIEMING, Related to Happiness, 1999/2016, video installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist .

That Has Been, and May Be Again

Para Site
China Hong Kong

Opened alongside Para Site’s 4th annual International Conference (6/21–23), “That Has Been, and May Be Again” is an exhibition honoring the multitude of voices that have arisen throughout 1980s and ’90s China, that speak to the search for a cultural and political identity during the country’s modernization. The diverse range of artworks represent the ambiguous, but collective aspirations that these artists share in translating the essence of change in today’s China.

In the corner of the exhibition is Love Story No. 8 (2006–14) by Liu Chuang, a site-specific installation of secondhand books written in Hong Kong and Taiwan during the 1980s and 1990s, which are piled atop one another on a platform. Some pages are open to show the scribbles and scrawls written and drawn on by different readers at various points in time. Circulated around the Guangdong province, these books were passed between young Chinese migrant workers. Some of these notes are enlarged to cover the walls of the room, immersing the viewer in everyday thoughts and musings of the new social class. Rocks of different colors—painted in gold, yellow, pink, blue and green—sit on the pages. As colorful paperweights, they enliven the room and pique curiosity, drawing the viewer’s eyes to examine the piece as not a pile of books, but as a collective entity formed out of these people’s experiences. The book covers are also rich in color, featuring images of new materialism: smiling and poster-like faces that model happiness in a consumerist society. They are also reminiscent of illustrated Chinese posters from the 1950s and ’60s; colorful and picturesque, Chinese texts frames the subject, creating a marketable image. Together, this selection of books showcases a new age of migration and entertainment, stitching a visual representation of the fluidity of working communities in southern China.

Hu Jieming’s installation, Related to Happiness (1999), lies at the heart of the exhibition. A video of the artist masturbating loops on a small TV that faces a self-playing piano performing a transcription of the artist’s heartbeat during masturbation. His heartbeat, depicted through an EKG pattern of the musical score of the soundtrack, is featured on a separate video screen next to the piano. Originally featured in the 1999 Shanghai exhibition “Art for Sale,” there is something incredibly lonely about this controversial piece, which explores the linear progression of the artist’s sexual pleasure through different forms of measurement and visualizations. The unconventional installation forces viewers to think of pleasure in an enigmatic way, where a narrative is formed by the arrangement of image and sound. Triggered by a motion sensor, the piano plays upon the viewer’s engagement, translating the artist’s individual experience into one that is shared through acts of consumption. In this way, Hu alludes to how consumerism has changed the means of communication and relationships in China, in which human interaction has been reshaped by technology, highlighting the irony of a more connected, but complicated network that is Modern China.

Other pieces that point to similar political and social paradoxes of China’s development is Jiang Zhi’s Fly, Fly (1997), Leung Chi Wo’s Silent Music Plane 1967 (2016) and Chen Qiulin’s videos Farewell Poem (2002), Colour Line (2006) and The Garden No.1 (2007). Jiang Zhi’s black-and-white video, which shows a hand flying through a cramped Beijing apartment like a bird, explores the desire to escape from and transcend a lifestyle of solitude and work. A new work by Hong Kong artist Leung Chi Wo consists of a flying paper plane that makes a circular course around a tripod. The paper plane itself is constructed from a folded 1967 LIFE magazine cover, which features an article covering Chinese violinist Ma Sitson’s escape from China. The piece, which plays the songs Long Live Chairman Mao (1966) and Yesterday (1965), replicates the tension of anti-colonial riots in Hong Kong in May 1967. In 1967, a year after the Cultural Revolution began, huge outbursts of anti-colonial riots erupted in Hong Kong. When the Chinese government tried to take advantage of the chaos as an opportunity to take over, they were counteracted by the Hong Kong colonial government, who blasted Western pop music over the Chinese Communist Party’s broadcasted propaganda. Meanwhile, Chen Qiulin’s videos juxtapose images of urban and rural ruins with that of the Chinese opera Farewell My Concubine, to highlight how the process of urbanization has shifted the social and cultural reality of many individuals, who, as a result, must leave their homes and village traditions to survive in a globalizing economy.

JIANG ZHI, Fly, Fly, 1997, still from single-channel video: 5 min 15 sec. Courtesy the artist. 

LEUNG CHI-­WO, Silent Music Plane 1967, 2016, LIFE magazine cover (2 June 1967), 1967-era five-­cent Hong Kong coins, sound recording of Long Live Chairman Mao (Central Ensemble of Songs and Dances, 1966) and Yesterday (Beatles, 1965), variable-­speed motor, media player, earphones, electronic controller and tripod, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. 

Deeply conceptual, the range of artworks in “That Has Been, and May Be Again” reflects a need to express and contemplate how the notion of the “Chinese identity” has transformed and evolved in the past few decades, particularly when complexities in the political, social and cultural realm have come to shape people’s experiences. For these artists, however, their works are not merely historical pieces that reflect change, but are also a means to challenge the binaries and ironies that dominate narratives about China, from the mainstream and peripheral, to the global and local. These artists, who may have pursued their practice in different directions, have nonetheless all redefined contemporary Chinese art. They engage with their country’s history, as well as the international art market through their impressive range of media and vast imagination. Not fitting into any existing category, these artists have succeeded in branding the unique and specific experiences of China’s transformation.

“That Has Been, and May Be Again” is on view at Para Site, Hong Kong, until August 21, 2016.