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Friday, July 29, 2016, 00:13

Into the wide unknown

By Chitralekha Basu

Graduates of China Academy of Art, Hangzhou explore how real and make-believe co-exist in the internet era at a show in HK’s Hanart TZ Gallery.

Into the wide unknown
Pirate, video installation, Feng Chen. (Photos provided to China Daily)
Sixteenth-century English poet John Donne’s assertion, “No man is an island”, seems to have been turned on its head in these cynical times. Most urbanites today often end up living like a little world unto themselves even in a crowd, adrift in the blue screens held between their hands, cut off from the ebb and flow of other lives around them.

A large section of humanity is completely immersed in the virtual world, living in a space where the distinction between real and make-believe gets fuzzier by the moment. The urban man’s increasing sense of isolation and rapid de-familiarization with the people and places he thought he knew serves as the take-off point for most of the artworks displayed at the Annals of Floating Island show, now on at Hanart TZ Gallery. Refreshingly, the two curators and the eight artists featured in the show have refrained from getting too dystopian in their take on man’s existential crises. Born mostly in the 1980s, these alumni of China Academy of Art, Hangzhou seem more interested in finding newer tools of artistic expression to register the drastic and un-settling changes taking place around us.

The show, says Zhang Cheng, emerged out of the dialogues he and co-curator Song Zhenxi would have with the participating artists. “These young mainland Chinese artists share a sense of uncertainty in the age of information, in the virtual world of the internet and in a consumerist society,” says Zhang. At the same time, she adds, “Although we are constantly drifting through an ocean of uncertainty, we retain the element of hope in order to navigate through the seas.”

Around the globe in 86 days

Team Guo Xi and Zhang Jianling took the metaphor of charting the seas quite literally. They went on an 86-day trip around the globe on a luxury cruise liner. Before setting off on the journey they had made 12 projections about things they will hear and see on the journey, publishing these in the newspaper. These included stuff like, “I will meet a young man in a suit, wearing a moustache” which somewhat bizarrely came true on the very first day of the journey, when the ship’s manager of entertainment turned out to be wearing one. Guo and Zhang had bought a false moustache before boarding the liner, just in case. The item is now an exhibit, alongside the photograph of the moustachioed man they met on the boat, showing him, teasingly, only from waist downwards, sitting cross-legged in pin-stripe trousers.

“The shopkeeper said the moustache was made of real hair, but I am not sure because it’s made in China,” says Zhang, drawing attention to one of the many delicious ambiguities experienced along the journey that added layers of meaning and poignancy to their ambitious project “to take a trip from reality into fiction”.

True to its title, Guo and Zhang’s The Grand Voyage is jaw-dropping in its scope. Their display at Hanart is a compilation of 10 ideas, each, in turn, an assortment of several items spread out across the gallery’s high-ceilinged exhibition space, painted dull pink. This, however, is only a small fraction of the task the duo have set themselves – 10 of a projected 1,000 visual narratives that Guo and Zhang plan to build by taking the cues from an equal number of Chinese characters. Until now the exhibits feature sculptures, writing, photographs, video films, an illustrated notebook as if it were kept by a woman fugitive, an artists’ replica of a published memoir kept by a former prisoner at Alcatraz, an Oreo cream biscuit, half-eaten from two sides, among hundreds of others.

The duo seems taken up with the number pi (3.14159). Sections of the number sequence in pi appear alongside the exhibits, underscoring the ideas of infinitude and randomness lying at the core of the project. It’s a tribute as well as a challenge to the transitional world’s resistance to be pinned down and quantified. Even as Guo and Zhang recognize the infinitesimal vastness of the space-time continuum, they have tried to freeze and document the tiniest and most transitory instances of their connection with units of space and time during their travel.

It seemed clairvoyant that they were on the boat on pi day (March 14, 2015, at 9 hours 26 minutes and 53 seconds) – a moment which added more poignancy and meaning to their journey.

Into the wide unknown
Tales of the Broken Tower , Gong Xu.

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