Gao Yuan: The Omen

26 October - 25 December 2019

Capsule Shanghai is pleased to present artist Gao Yuan’s solo exhibition “The Omen”. After her debut with “Eternal Return” in 2017, this is the second presentation of Gao Yuan’s work at Capsule Shanghai. The exhibition consists of two parts: her latest animation Cloud of the Unknown, and a selection of paintings the artist has used as backgrounds in the short film.


After the six-year process of making her milestone animation film Lunar Dial, Gao Yuan has set sail on another ambitious project — creating her first feature-length film. The short film on view in the exhibition, entitled Cloud of the Unknown, is not only a preview of the theatrical film in the making, but also an independent and complete work on its own.


Gao Yuan applies in Cloud of the Unknown the same working methods that she has previously set up in Lunar Dial. Once again, the original paintings constitute the visual vocabulary and the settings of the short film. The scenes in Cloud of the Unknown appear to be — to a large extent — stripped off the social narratives and real-life references replete in the painted scenes of Lunar Dial. In comparison, Cloud of the Unknown gravitates towards the atmospheric, with finer brushstrokes and brighter hues. If Lunar Dial evinces wanderlust of a nocturnal nature, Cloud of the Unknown softly glows like the twilight between daytime and darkness.


Drawing inspirations and motifs from her personal experience, Cloud of the Unknown starts from a hypothesis, as well as a real sensation Gao Yuan experienced: “once it was different from ever before, when I woke up, the moment of falling into sleep still felt vivid, as if my whole body had evaporated in an instant.” Does our body still exist when we fall asleep? How do we reconcile the person known as “I” in our mind and dreams, with our body—our flesh and bone? 


In Cloud of the Unknown, we follow the dream of the main character in a montage of bizarre settings and symbols: a violin with broken strings, a room on fire, vacant streets, infinite staircases; a pair of flying hands guiding her (and us) through thorns and bushes, pulling out endless multiples of herself, and finally gazing back at us.


Cloud of the Unknown feels consequently like a lucid dream — a dream in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming, with their consciousness lingering between dream and reality. Are dream and reality two parallel worlds? Perhaps it is only in the twilight zone between the two worlds that Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream — the classic allegory we are all too familiar with — can be broken down. To borrow Richard Linklater’s query in his iconic animation film Waking Life (2001): ‘are we sleep-walking through our waking state or wake-walking through our dreams?’ Gao Yuan’s animation provides a perfect medium, one that hinges on both dream and reality. Its intermediary quality owes much to the language of film itself. Her work offers a beautiful conjecture that film and dream can be one and the same. How else can we explain that according to our biological rhythm, a complete sleep-dream cycle is 90 minutes, exactly the same length of a regular feature film?


The stuff that dreams are made of do not come easy. Underpinning the illusory dreamscape in Cloud of the Unknown is the artist’s solid work. Going against the industrial operation of mainstream animation productions, Gao Yuan consciously decides to navigate through the numerous stages of the process on her own, including writing the script, drawing the storyboard, painting the scenes, animating, and editing in post-production, while closely collaborating with long-term partner Anita Pan — composer, sound technician, and now also actor in Cloud of the Unknown. Each of Gao Yuan’s arduous projects is like a unique time capsule relating to a specific period of her life. Manifold temporalities are condensed in each capsule: the duration of the accomplished animation and the intensive labour behind each frame of the animation are intertwined with the calendric rings of life itself, making each work a vast repository for all that has grown within.



Text/ Lai Fei