In the distance, some inebriated people are seen between the sky and the mountains from dawn to dusk. We faintly hear songs they love coming out of their earphones. Dressed in unsophisticated attire, they do not look like urban elites. Seen through the camera lens, they are lonely and have seemingly forgotten that their bodies and actions are being recorded live. They are enjoying the pleasure of being overlooked by the world and by themselves.
The above describes Yao Cong's ten-channel video, The Square Reserve. In the summer of 2020, Yao Cong visited the small town of Alxa in Inner Mongolia and met with locals on the streets. They are accustomed to this place, yet seemed somewhat restless as if longing for a life beyond the mountains but unwilling to give up the embrace of their hometown. Yao Cong told them that he loved to have fun in nature and wanted to organize an "event" to dive into the wilderness to refresh the mood, drink beer as one pleases, and run or shout without any setbacks. Two weeks later, ten people signed up, and they arrived at the Helanshan Mountain Nature Reserve. Among the men, women, and children, there was only one non-local participant. The rules they agreed upon included having a square green mat set up in the dry river channels with beer available nearby. Each participant could listen to a song of their choice; once the "event" begins, Yao Cong would turn on the camera and climb to the other side of the riverbank to hide, leaving the place to his friends, drinking.
Yao's love of nature is more than just a cue for sentimentality. Filming The Square Reserve marked his second visit to Alxa. In 2020, he and his friends drove along the road from Alxa Left Banner to Ejinaqi twice to photograph Gold Words. In the photos, white sheets covered unidentified bodies, only exposing hands and feet or revealing the silhouette of a human figure. The phrase, "AN ARTIST WHO IS NOT BASED IN THE GOOD PLACE IS NO ARTIST," was embroidered in gold on the sheets.
Nature, where the vitality of life releases, is also where it meets its demise. Many ancient Chinese poets, after being dismissed from their official positions, wrote their most brilliant poems in exile, which proved the dialectical state of fluctuating life energy present after returning to nature. In China, where its people share a strong tie to their homeland, the history of exiling officials to the wilderness as a form of punishment traces back to as early as "Banishments that mitigates the five 'principal' punishments" in the Book of Documents – Canon of Shun. However, whether voluntarily or not, those poets eventually escaped from the whirlpool of power, and consequently from the supreme, majestic, absolute center. If flies dance beyond the clouds, it is perhaps better to stick to the ground for a restful moment. "An artist who is not based in the good place is no artist" may sound persuasive for one to engage in the world, but it indeed reveals an ironic facet.
During his second visit to Alxa, Yao Cong also shot the video Count. In this piece, a woman wearing impeccable makeup counts non-existent banknotes against the heatwave, causing her to sweat down her pores and wrinkles that resemble the tawny stone mount of her immediate environment. Is she the busy bank teller who imagines herself reveling in a distant scenery, or one of the locals trapped in the scorching rock pile who imagine themselves to be tellers in an air-conditioned place? This piece takes us back to the dilemma presented in The Square Reserve, in which one faces the beguiling imaginary "good place," where staying or fleeing (whether from the village to the city or vice versa) would inevitably be regretful and hard to let go. When you visit a "nature reserve," can you let go of those regrets? After all, in this day and age, anything "natural" - including the human nature that longs for release - has been reshaped.
Text: Yang Zi