The Ecstasy of Time: Reframing the Medium of Knowing by Li Bowen

Translating the human to the digital. 

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Zheng Yuan, The Game, 2014–ongoing. Digital still.

Curated by Hu Bin and Yuan Fuca at He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, The Ecstasy of Time: Reframing the Medium of Knowing is another large-scale group exhibition dedicated to showcasing a generation of emerging Chinese artists who have been recognized in recent years for investigating the spatial and the temporal in relation to the digital, for utilizing virtual- and augmented-reality technological advancements, for exploring the conditions and prospects of the Anthropocene, and for engaging with current political conditions. The more-than-a-dozen artists—mostly born in the 1980s and educated abroad—both resolutely and casually shift their attentions from the ideological and the grand to the minute, the everyday, and the individual.

As an exhibition that takes its hint from a certain Heideggerian idea of temporality, The Ecstasy of Time contains a large number of time-based artworks—animations, videos, films, and sound installations. The commissioned performance-installation piece by Alvin Tran, Emma Kim Hagdahl, Yu Jing, and Wendy Xu, titled Prosecuting Sweat, Neon Dreams (2017), sets the tone and atmosphere. Starting from the first room of the exhibition, each of the spaces soaked in neon red house different parts of this thematic work. Although at the opening of the exhibition the performance aspect of the piece dealt with the theme in a rather literal way by invoking the shape of a clock and the idea of lapsed time, the commissioned piece in its totality works brilliantly in terms of structuring the exhibition conceptually and spatially.

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Zhang Wenxin, Memory Caustics, 2017. 4K color animation with sound. 6:47 minutes. Dimensions variable. 

Among the first works are Zhang Wenxin’s Time Bonfire (2016–17) and Memory Caustics (2017) along with aaajiao’s I Hate People But I Love You (2017). The animation/screen-shot pieces narrate in similar ways the origin and structure of time by incorporating and internalizing archaic and alien elements such as the motif of fire; perpetually collapsing (digital) spaces; hypnotic, trance-like sounds; a faceless extraterrestrial figure; and a rather real AI personality. Lin Ke’s He Didnt Even Know He Was Watching the Sunset (2017) dwells in the artist’s favorite environment of the online game Second Life, and teases the tourist-like local audience by timing the work with camera-shutter sounds.

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Fang Di, Barbie World, 2012. 8:18 minutes. Video, installation, metal, natural terrarium sand, wood, nylon line, rubber. H: 14 inches; W: 14 inches; D: 14 inches.

As one navigates the large and at times disorienting exhibition, it becomes clear that the anthropocentric, or at least a reflection on this problematic tendency, is a shared concern. Liu Yefu’s videos AD, Proposal I, II & III (2017) use the language of the commercial to subvert the imagery of the political and of popular culture by producing cruel advertisements that involve bloody, violent scenes. Both works by Fang Di—Triumph in the Skies (2017) and Barbie World (2012)—deal with perverted erotic desires and revolve around strangely sexualized human figures. Chen Zhou’s Life Imitation (2016) reiterates themes touched upon by Liu Yefu and Lin Ke in a cinematic fashion. 

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Guo Cheng, Mouth Factory, Chewing Drill, 2012. Apparatuses, videos, images.

These lively and at times deadly figures anticipate the emergence of the uncanny or the unheimlich, another master word of Heidegger’s. Whether warm, friendly, or hostile, creepy creatures lurk in the exhibition spaces that are, more often than not, pitch-black and even off-putting and ostensibly dangerous. As a result, the audience can potentially become conscious of the fact that it does not properly belong here in this otherworldly space. These haunting, ghostly figures are confined in screens and projections, fortunately. In contrast, the sculptural pieces in the exhibition—including Guo Cheng’s various Mouth Factory (2017) apparatuses that serve as important objects of transition, through which the aforementioned two-dimensional figures enter reality (the realness of which is in turn suspended and questioned here); Liu Jiayu’s laser-beam kinetic sculpture, The Solidification of the Undercurrent (2017), which threatens to cut the audience into pieces; and the overwhelmingly sentimental and poetic texts found in parts of Prosecuting Sweat, Neon Dreams—operate in a way that is vastly different from the human figures’ web of activities found elsewhere in the exhibition, and in turn give the audience a chance to become activated.

And that’s exactly what the audience does, endlessly taking selfies. The exhibition is overwhelmingly popular as an Instagrammable show in a city that is infamous for its coldness and lack of affinity regarding contemporary art. The spatio-temporal nature of the selfie is a totally different subject—or is it? The exhibition that is to the local public simultaneously incomprehensible and immensely aesthetically pleasing perhaps pertains exactly to the twenty-first-century heroic act of taking a selfie by creating a space and making a dwelling that is by definition uninhabitable—a Derridean twist of the Heideggerian legacy. As total and structural as it is, the exhibition is casually conquered by the omnipotent selfie. Positively or negatively, perhaps this has to do with the fact that the exhibition does not manifestly care for bridging the gap between a certain contemporary art—that is very international in nature—and the local life that is, ironically, known to be metropolitan. Perhaps those who welcome the arrival of the Anthropocene are right in thinking that time is out of joint.

The Ecstasy of Time: Reframing the Medium of Knowing is on view at He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen, China, until March 31.

Li Bowen is a writer based in Beijing. He co-founded the Wyoming Project in Beijing in 2017.

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