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Contact Lenses

Three Art Films on the Chinese-Western Encounter

Will we all become “Chinese?” International New York Times correspondent Didi Kirsten Tatlow ironically asked recently. The question plays both on our fears over China’s economic power and on reflections on the NSA files released by Edward Snowden, which triggered the argument that “we” in the West have long been “Chinese” when it comes to data collection and state surveillance. Ironically, “Chinafication” has its contemporary roots in both East and West. Perspectives matter. Experts warn of another Asia financial crisis in this new Asian century. “It is easily forgotten that the East-West conflict takes place within the parameters of European thought and within European-influenced categories of values,” journalist Urs Schoettli wrote in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

The West is trying to find a new approach to Asia, while Chinese intellectuals and artists keep a critical eye on their country. Western companies expect Chinese customers to buy their products; Chinese parents expect their children to be successful. Western politicians expect the Chinese government to listen to their values.

How can we deconstruct the stereotypes each side holds about the other’s fears and expectations??

The three artists who made these videos use reenactment, role play, Brechtian theater, and Chinese shadow play, as well as corresponding speech, gestures, and body language, to expose fears, to condense social realities, and to interrogate economic interests. Public opinion is presented as a humorous monologue, social dramas are flattened into shadow theater, and a political speech on economic collaboration is recited by a child.

Rainer Ganahl, “I hate Karl Marx,” 2010

This video work by Rainer Ganahl is a reaction to the tendentious tone prevalent in German media coverage of China. A young woman, dressed in red shoes and a red coat, in fluent Mandarin denounces an iconic bust of Marx. The public space in Berlin’s Karl Marx Alley becomes a temporary stage for resentment. Referring to German angst, “I Hate Karl Marx” acts out an imagined Chinafication of Berlin, the whole country, people’s minds, and culture. In this video caricature, the addressee remains silent. Rainer Ganahl (born in 1961 in Bludenz, Austria) lives in Shanghai and New York.

Cao Fei, “Shadow Life,” 2011

The artist applies the technique of Chinese shadow theater, a traditional form of story-telling that has recently regained attention among video and performance artists. In this context of retrospection and reflection on something genuine and recognizable in Chinese artistic traditions, Cao Fei stages the puppets to comment on tensions in recent struggles. This commentary mixes with Cao’s childhood memories of the annual Spring Festival Gala on CCTV. The video consists of three distinct vignettes. The sequence entitled “Transmigration” shows workers and farmers moving through a forest of upwardly stretched arms. “A remake of a 2000 Russian pop hit serves as the sound track to this part—a farcical rejoinder to Mao’s cover of Marxism-Leninism,” explains the artist. Shadow play was invented in the Han Dynasty to bring a dead concubine back to life. So, historically, it relates the living to the dead. In “Shadow Life,” anonymous puppets—hands and arms—act out conflicting interests, instructions, and expectations using an old medium and yet without recourse to nostalgia.

Cao Fei (born in1978 in Guangzhou, China) lives in Beijing.

Li Songhua, “Keynote Speech,” 2005

In this video, a little boy reenacts a speech delivered by former Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Fortune Global Forum in Beijing in 2005, the theme of which was “China and the New Asian Century” (Xi Jinping gave the congratulatory message at last year’s meeting). The forum is a business networking event for multinational and Chinese CEOs, sponsored by Time Warner.

Li Songhua and his wife spent weeks teaching their four-year-old son to recite the speech. How does the child’s voice change the perception of the text? How is he actually capable of reading such a complicated text? What does it mean in terms of ideology and education? Says Li, “It’s very much like recitations of the classics in Chinese antiquity. Kids can recognize the figure of the characters, and can pronounce them, but they don’t understand what the words mean. But adults believe that what a child memorizes will awaken in him some day when he is grown.”

The film plays on clichés about Asian parents obsessively drilling their children, favoring repetition and imitation over understanding and independent thought. But by treating the political text as a piece of cultural heritage, Li Songhua ironically subverts its message.

Li Songhua (born in 1969 in Beijing, China) lives in Beijing.