ARTFORUM 500 Words | Gao Yuan On "Eternal Return"

LI BOWEN, ARTFORUM, April 14, 2017

Gao Yuan's solo exhibition Eternal Return at Capsule Shanghai presents an entity the animated work Lunar Dial juxtaposed with the numerous paintings that constitute this body of work. Many of the paintings in this exhibition have double functions: they are merely the tip of the iceberg covering the lengthy and repetitive process of preparation of the animation. Yet they are also independent works that evolve within their own contexts by showing figures, objects, and scenarios that are associated with one's emotions and lived experiences.


Gao Yuan: "My original conception of Lunar Dial, or in other words the presupposition of conditions, was to dismantle and re-array coincidental inspirations, generating related yet non-causal scenes which resemble a series of individual one-act plays. Yet during editing, even as early as the conceptual stage, I realized that my original plan could not be executed perfectly. Since every frame has its own direction and atmosphere, any two frames put together would either repel or draw to each other. For all pairs to dovetail, each piece has to adhere together; a coherent field would take shape, and things, events and characters in the animation would (appear to) acquire meanings. Changes in action and emotion would also form an indistinct thread, causing the indefinite and disintegrable web-like structure that I initially envisaged, to disappear. The freedom of digression and the tendency to crash to the end intertwine; even though there is no one single optimal option of alignment, my choices were still limited. This is the reason why Lunar Dial is a fictional piece; its structure was not designed but discovered.


Ironically, animation as an art form is in itself a great synthesis, as it usually comes into being through unequal collaboration. When collaborating, not everyone is granted enough freedom for his or her creativity, and as a matter of fact, no one is truly free. All original sins of industry as a whole can be found in the animation business as well. It is labor and resource intensive. It employs a great deal of flow line production that simply buries the painstaking effort of the collective under the name of the production company or the director. Due to the division of labor, one single individual could never have a complete grasp of the entire artwork. In the case of Lunar Dial, I cooperated with Pan Li only for the audio part and did the rest by myself. I chose to work alone for the undivided power to make decisions regarding my work and for cost reduction. I also chose to work alone for ethical deliberations: if I was just a director in the traditional sense, and did not immerse myself into the exhausting repetitive manual labor of animation production, I would not have gained a comprehensive understanding of animation and would not have been able to reflect upon the fundamentals of animation as an art form or as an industry. I made a goal of learning insights in renovating the production process of animation. In my future plan to make a full-length feature film, I hope to find a relatively positive way of collaborating under pressure. Of course, I know I am likely to fail, which motivates me even more to try.


Heavy as the workload was, shouldering all these responsibilities on my own propelled me to fully experience what it's like to split myself into different roles. When painting the backgrounds, I was a common landscape painter. Actually, I can barely call myself a painter because when I started six years ago, my skills were still quite rudimentary, so ultimately I consider myself more of a self-taught apprentice. I sometimes spent days, half a month, or even an entire month on one painting, and gradually broke away from photographical source material, so that backgrounds could emerge as a space to be filled. Paying homage to the real world, I wished for the background to appear more substantial and graphic than reality. I felt that only through full observation of reality could I set the stage for the unlikely, making it appear likely. This simplistic goal, however, was regulated in the painting process by what may be called 'expressive', caused by my brushstrokes and deviated observations. When I was painting the backgrounds, I was not exactly sure what I would stage in each frame. In the end, some paintings never made it to the film; some were only used as scenery shots without much else. I also painted a lot at will. Some of these painting were integrated into Lunar Dial, and photos and videos were used as well. When a piece of artwork has a certain degree of complexity, it can contain a lot of branching themes.


Only after three years of background work did I start on the main event: the animation itself. I went through a lot of pain in this phase. For the shot with the waves, I drew forty-one pictures, each of which took at least four hours. It was summer and I had to wear gloves to prevent sweat from smearing the paper. Every time I took up the pen, I had to push myself, thinking: it's for the sea, it's worth all the effort. Yet one loop for the sea waves to move away from the shore and then roll back lasts for just a few seconds, and the entire shot is less than a minute. This is the reason why an artwork of less than fifteen minutes' duration took me six years to finish. As is usually the case with any animation, the gap between the length of the film and the time I spent working on it was so massive that it almost seems ridiculous; as a result, I have acquired a strong nihilistic sense for time. Meanwhile, I feel I have touched upon the core of 'infinity' - every transient detail has become clear; there are no longer secrets for every moment and every thing; a picture that only lasts a tenth of a second can be completely grasped after drawing it once. One can gain anything when one has nothing. This terrible feeling is perhaps a punishment for my wild ambition to create an all-encompassing artwork. Yet I still find it worthwhile as now I know about the essence of the world as seen by an individual human being, even though my own life is limited. I guess from now on, wherever I am, I will never fuss over missing or overlooking anything.


A lunar dial is an ancient device for measuring time. It works on similar principles as a sundial, but using it is far more cumbersome, since except for days with a full moon, it does not directly tell the correct time, but instead requires a number of calculations based on the specific date. I had not known that such a thing existed when I first chose the title, thinking I had created a new term. I had a picture with the same title and it depicts an audience facing waves (a prototype for the wave shot) with a boxing glove holding a lily flower. To find a title for the animated film, I reviewed all the titles of my work in the past and looked up the word 'lunar dial' on the Internet. Only then did I find out about the existence of this device and that an example of it, along with a sun dial and a star dial, is installed in the Heaven Temple of the Forbidden City. I felt compelled to use it as the title to my film for its relations to the moon, time and night, for its 'imprecision' and its shadowy, easily neglected existence. 


Besides the paintings and paperworks from Lunar Dial that are featured in the solo exhibition Eternal Return at Capsule Shanghai, we also adopted some new arrangements on the exhibition design according to the gallery space and the language of animation. For instance, the temporary graffiti that I painted on the large windows of Capsule Shanghai is actually a reproduction of the work I've done on the copy board in the making of the animation - "copying" the view of the outdoor courtyard. Every piece of the window glasses takes a different angle in representing the exterior view; the flying bird projected onto the canvas imitates a scene from Lunar Dial, which gives the audience an illusion of an animated painting; the bathroom space presents a remix of the Lunar Dial animation and its accompanying sound. The moving images projected onto the wall from two projectors create a double-exposure effect, and as for the music component, the soundtrack brings together the sounds that resemble or correspond to certain instruments. The fusion between the looping sound and moving images creates an unpredictable combination of the sound images that reduces the possibility of any repetition. Such experimentation, therefore, offers an alternative take on Lunar Dial; the floor of the room where Lunar Dial is shown is covered with pine needles - a tradition of my hometown. The unique smell and texture of the pine needles enable the darkened room to communicate with its exterior surroundings, and enhances the harmony between the artwork and nature-friendly spaces like Capsule Shanghai. At the same time, the sounds exuded from the bathroom (to the west) and the video room (to the east) resonate with each other and in doing so, activate the entire space, forming a montage-like relationship between sounds and images in a tangible reality. Because of the crucial yet unnoticeable nature of the sound in animated art, we will invite Anita Pan and thruoutin to the gallery towards the end of the exhibition to hold a spontaneous live performance of the soundtrack of Lunar Dial using the reoccurring motifs in the animation in order to underscore the importance of music in the making of this animation."



Li Bowen's interview, translated from the Chinese by Eva Zhao and Meng'er Chu, was originally published on ARTFORUM website.