Installation view of SHEN XIN’s exhibition “Strongholds” at Lychee One, London, 2017. Courtesy Lychee One. 


Shen Xin

Lychee One
China United Kingdom

SHEN XINStrongholds, 2016, still from video: 71 min. Courtesy the artist and Lychee One, London. 

SHEN XINStrongholds, 2016, still from video: 71 min. Courtesy the artist and Lychee One, London. 

London’s Lychee One gallery offers an aesthetic environment for the two video works of Shen Xin’s solo exhibition. Rows of concrete blocks provide somewhere to rest while watching the projections on perpendicular walls; there is nothing else.

The exhibition borrows its title from a 71-minute video, Strongholds (2016), set in Scotland around Kagyu Samye Ling, the first, and once the largest, Buddhist monastery in Western Europe. In the late 1960s the monastery gained some notoriety in the United Kingdom because the unorthodox teaching of Chögyam Trungpa (1939–1987), one of the founding Tibetan meditation masters. In the hedonistic milieu of the ’60s, Trungpa was the Jerry Lee Lewis of Buddhism, drinking alcohol, smoking and seducing his female students. He later expounded a meditation methodology, Shambhala, named after the mythical realm in Tibetan scriptures, a place—more spiritual than actual—where an enlightened society could grow. Trungpa, glimpsed momentarily in archival photographs flashed on the screen, was an advocate for spiritual growth ingrained in daily life—Shen’s video concerns itself with mind and body, the bond between inner life and the world.

The film is a hybrid of documentary and romance, observing two Dutch women visiting the monastery to hold a dance performance in front of the temple. This performance is witnessed in the opening scene, establishing the muscular empathy of the two characters. Their intimacy is outlined in a first-person voiceover in which Emma, one of the two dancers, describes the need for support in coming to terms with her sexuality.

The work proceeds as flashbacks of the two women’s earlier rehearsals, often outdoors in the empty Dumfriesshire landscape. Their relationship is seen through the lens of the five aggregates of Buddhism—matter, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness. These elusive concepts are subtly integrated throughout the work’s relaxed performances. Perception, for example, is explored in an extended and inconsequential scene in a gift shop, finding different favorites among the tacky knick-knacks. Emma chooses a surprise present but the gift backfires. The incident and its consequence, a temporary fissure in the couples coexistence—let’s call it going off in a sulk—can be recognized as a meditation on consciousness and volition, the loosing or gaining of wisdom.

Their interdependence is seen at a distance by a surveillance drone acting as a third character, a witness and mediator. It accompanies them, keeping an eye on their quasi-spiritual journey. In one scene, the drone is seen lying beside them as they rest outside by a brook, it follows them from above or watches them through the window at night, its reflection and the buzzing of its rotor blades insist on its proximity. The camera’s position is reminiscent of the preliminary scenes from adult films, when everyday life is primed to slide toward irrepressible carnality. The couple’s close affection produces a warm essay in complex feelings as well as a reflection on ethical living.

Throughout the video, texts from conversations on Dharma (righteous Buddhist practice) internet chat-rooms flash up on the screen; those seeking purification request support, others offer it. The juxtaposition of the text exchanges and the main subjects’ sensitive interaction suggests that the awkwardness of their interaction is a quest for universal unity, the Buddhist concept Itai Doshin (Many in Body, One in Mind).

SHEN XINStrongholds, 2016, still from video: 71 min. Courtesy the artist and Lychee One, London. 

The adjacent video, Provocation of the Nightingale #1 (2017) is a more cerebral encounter between practical and spiritual ways of living. Two women sit close together on the floor of a dark theater space. One, dressed in gray, is manager of a commercial DNA testing service; the other is a Buddhist teacher of meditation, dressed in a terracotta robe. Their conversation glides between the latter’s insights such as, “Stop thinking, let your thoughts go,” and the manager’s attempts to wrestle practical applications from pure spiritual living. It is a flirtatious encounter, each trying to speak to please the other as they search for a common ground in their differing perspectives. The camera gently explores the bodies, as if seeking the impulses, emotions and energies they contain. Occasionally the nature of the filmed conversation changes and focuses on gentle loving gestures, irresistible touching. Lips are closed and the conversation appears to continue telepathically.

Despite the scenarios, concerned with the minutiae of Buddhism, Shen’s practice also addresses the actuality of contemporary living in the framework of Accelerationism, the theoretical approach to late capitalism that sees the political economy moving into an agitated activity phase, that makes evolution inevitable. Robin Mackay, one of the editors of #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader (2014) comments that modern capitalism dissolves “hereditary social forms and restrictions,” and becomes “the engine of exploration into the unknown.” Some theorists propose the end of overdriven production and consumption will be a return to simpler and more spiritual ways of living. The title, “Strongholds,” has multiple implications, evoking fortification, doctrine and acts, symbolizing the force of holding on. Shen reminds us that love too is an overwhelming impulse, an experience beyond nationhood, family or creed. Love facilitates understanding, free of borders prejudice and hegemony. Love is a practical example, simple but transcendent.

SHEN XIN, Provocation of the Nightingale #1, 2017, still from video: 22 min. Courtesy the artist and Lychee One, London.
SHEN XIN, Provocation of the Nightingale #1, 2017, still from video: 22 min. Courtesy the artist and Lychee One, London.

Shen Xin’s “Strongholds” is on view at Lychee One, London, until March 5, 2017. 

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