While the title of the Soap Factory’s latest exhibition, “Shaping the Qualitative Phase of Contemporary Chinese Art,” may sound academic, the photography and video works that make up the show are actually a visceral excursion into the trends coming out of the Beijing scene. The exhibition, a collaborative residency project with the University of Minnesota and Beijing Artists' Village, is curated by the U's professor Thomas Rose, who also co-curated the salacious, politically provocative Guo Gai, Meng Tang, and Slinko show in 2011.
When entering the first gallery at the Soap, you encounter Metropolis Spring, an immersive video installation by Liu Xuguang. You’ll find that you are actually a part of the piece, as the projector is located low enough that it creates a shadow of your body on the screen. With a faint sound of water, your shadow mingles with the blurry footage of a fountain. Interestingly, this creates the sensation of somehow being there. The graininess of the video allows an imaginative impulse to take over, evoking whatever fountain lies in your memory.
Meng Xianglong’s series of three films is similarly hypnotic. Projected via three different projectors, creating a panoramic effect in an installation room at the end of the exhibit, Xianglong’s work invites the audience to be a part of the world she creates. The first, Perfect Movie, is the longest at just a bit over 21 minutes. In it she finds interesting juxtapositions between outdoor and indoor behaviors. There are people lounging outside amid traffic noise as if they are in their living rooms. Redemption comes next, and features a man crawling painfully across a stage as debris is thrown on him. Finally, Wonderful Performance shows a gathering of mildly happy looking people touching each others' faces with curious wonder.
Xianglong captures a fascinating liminal space between presentation and pedestrian behavior in her work. There's also a quirky sensibility and knack for high drama, even if it's absurd.
Zhang Jinghan’s Identity similarly ponders performance, exploring the ways that individuals express gender. With a soundtrack of whimsical keyboard and xylophone music, the eight-minute dance video features four performers engaging in patterned, deliberate movements that don’t so much change but find new meaning depending on their clothing. The two seemingly female and two seemingly male performers exchange places, trying out new garb as an expression of a new identity.
In Liu Danshu’s Impermanence, a group of adolescent girls, dressed in black sundresses and white shoes, explore a site of dilapidated buildings, torn down by war or simply neglect. They rip photographs off the walls as onlookers from the rubble watch. At another point they are tied together with their braids. They nap, they cry out in pain, they mark each other with calligraphy, and they paint graffiti on the building.
In the end, the five-minute film is a kind of ritual, with the young bodies of the girls dancing in a rite of renewal amid neglect.
Miao XiaoHui’s Summer Solstice, meanwhile, has a more narrative arc with archetypal character. But like Danshu, the work is rife with the symbolic. The story surrounds a prodigal daughter who has returned after years of absence. At home she meets her sister, who has dutifully looked after their father following the death of their mother. The father is sickly and rarely speaks, and the returning daughter struggles to communicate with him. The dialogue is disjointed (it could simply be the translation of the subtitles), but where the film succeeds is in its lingering shots of the pastoral home, which has suffered years of neglect, and the filmmaker’s introduction of the surreal, as memories of a past life pass by the father and daughter in a captivating last shot.
“Shaping the Qualitative Phase of Contemporary Chinese Art” also includes a series of digital prints on fabric by Liu Qianyi, called Touch of Life, that feature a naked pregnant lady lounging about with plastic bags filled with air. The pristine photographs are especially interesting juxtaposed against the dingy walls of the Soap Factory.
Finally, there's Gnimuy Aij’s Random, a visual software projected on a screen that features thousands of blue and green dots that alter slightly before your eyes, as well as a strip of numbers that seem to correspond with the changing visual image.
In all, it’s a lot to take in and experience, and definitely worth checking out.