ARTFORUM Exhibition Review | Fleeting Memories and Written Notes

ZHOU XUESONG, ARTFORUM, February 11, 2017

The works of both Qin Jin and Chen Dandizi are delicate, sensitive, introspective and strongly narrative-oriented. Yet the two women artists have adopted quite different approaches towards analogous issues. Qin evidently directs at politics and is more personally involved in her works. In comparison, the works of Chen are more sober and aloof, making it difficult to infer her own viewpoints. The similarities and divergences of the two, perhaps a snapshot of the distinct world-views of two generations of women born in the 70s and the 90s, are evident in the show Fleeting Memories and Written Notes.


Qin's work deals with the relations between life instincts and the will to power. In Old Stories Retold (2016), she reproduced a blackboard bulletin which is commonly seen in primary and middle schools in China and reformulated the story of the legendary hero Qiu Shaoyun, who famously sacrificed himself for victory in a battle. Qin's version of the story has filtered out the mundane propaganda for collectivism, offering a meticulous and even poetic portrait of the man's life as an individual. Using wheat stalks, a biblical symbol for sacrifice, and burning clouds, a sign for prosperity in folklore, this portrait is shrouded in religious piety, even more profound than collectivism. As political metaphors, the red flag and the sun symbol in the blackboard, as well as the golden photo frame on top are aligned with the hero's story, whose truthfulness is questionable, hinting at some novel propaganda technique, subtle yet more alarming than the outdated overt and rigid way.


As a counterweight, Qin's video Twenty-nine Years Plus Eight Months and Nine Days, 2006 - 2009 offers a record of how she repeatedly runs the hot iron over various articles of clothing of her family and friends, until these garments become flat, brittle and brown. Along with the video, the garments are also on display as monuments. This artwork can be interpreted as a Zen-like aesthetic rendering of the daily labor of women, as well as a silent protest of the artist to the assigned role of women in family life. Is endurance and giving rooted in our instinctive willingness to sacrifice? Is this instinct often subject to abuse by power, in family life, in the nation and in the state? This dilemma between voluntary sacrifice and its exploitation by power is often embodied in various works of Qin.


In contrast to the personal involvement of Qin, Chen Dandizi tends to transform narratives in literature and film in her creative work. She has rearranged vignettes from Godard's Masculin Féminin in her piece Gender Analysis: Opinion Polls (2016), without flavoring them with any other images or texts. The original film features Paul and Madeleine, a young man with left-wing passions for revolution and a young woman enchained by consumerism. Taking the scene with the two of them in a cinema, Chen has placed Paul on the left and Madeleine on the right, with Paul's monologue after his two-month social research running in the middle. Randomly shot pictures of places in Paris where people gather are shown, such as streets, cafes and metro stations; Paul was collecting opinions on various topics: "What do you think about mini-skirts? How do you react to an accident? If your lover left you for a black, would you mind? Do you know about the famine in India? What do you know what a Communist is? Do you use birth control pills or a thing in your vagina?"


In Chen's narration, Paul first appears to be closely observing Paris in the 1960s and then closes his eyes in disappointment, whereas Madeleine plays with her hair as always, a bit curious but even more indifferent and ignorant. This narration echoes with the theme of the original film: the divide of values between men and women, even of society as a whole. The artist has also selected some of Paul's questions and printed them on long thin incandescent tubes installed in the same exhibition space as the video. To make out the texts, viewers have to endure the white light. Even nowadays, some of these questions are still as piercing and uncomfortable as the glowing light.



Zhou Xuesong's essay, translated from the Chinese by Eva Zhao and originally published on ARTFORUM website.