EX: 1/30/2012
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2012.12.06 Thu, by

“Zero”: Zhu Jia solo exhibition

ShanghART Beijing (261 Caochangdi, Old Airport Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China, 100015) Nov 23 – Dec 16, 2012

It doesn’t matter at what point one begins watching “Zero.” There is no narrative thread (the presence of one would indeed be a surprise in much contemporary video art), no apparent end or beginning, no trigger or closure. The camera is trained always on a single, attractive young woman. She is seen sitting in a sun dress teasing her hair in the breeze, a blue ocean behind her to the left as if to advertise a holiday; slow motion emphasizes an affected pleasure in the experience. The scenery is later rolled away by attendants. Elsewhere, she smokes, facing the camera, against a backdrop of nameless apartment buildings, or walks towards the lens along an unfinished road between concrete flyovers, away from a view of city blocks, chimneys and a cooling tower. A more filmic air is conveyed through scenes in which she is clad in a pleated black dress with white collar, her hair planted in 1950s waves (apparently the go-to guise for non-contemporary characterizations). In this performative attitude, she stands in the dappled light cast from branches onto a wall, or motionless in an anonymous modern stairwell. At one point, she looks at her own reflection in a spot-lit room, as if upon a stage; at another, faces the camera with hair slightly dishevelled and asks (her voice inaudible, the words subtitled), “Are you finding reasons for what you have done?” There are other dislocated pieces of dialogue — “I still can’t understand…”…“Shall we talk about something else?”… “My life is not only now.”

This slow-moving collage of scenes is not unengaging. One has the sense of continuity, yet without sequence. The sensation becomes like a narrative in itself moving vertically, rather than progressing horizontally though time. One is reminded, too, of different ways of seeing. These fragmented scenes appear more like the products of a glance — spare in content and with almost static compositions akin to photographic shots — yet they are presented in drawn-out fashion, as if objects of the gaze. Wanting is the depth of curiosity, wonder or pleasure that usually attends this manner of looking, for these scenes are shallow, often frontal and not without vanity, pivoting around an attractive character and carefully crafted views of the sea, a stage or urban vista. The compulsion to continue looking at them seems to stem from this visual and temporal disjuncture, as the expectation of a culmination quickly evaporates.

Zhu Jia’s work has long been concerned with urban states both social and physical, using video to create pieces that emulate and perpend the multifaceted existence of contemporary cities. “Zero” is described in the exhibition’s introduction as emphasizing the gap between the recollection of memories and “the virtualized construction of today’s reality,” and how this affects one’s judgment.  The marriage between subjectivity and temporality or “timescapes” discussed in a recent response [1] to John Berger’s essay “Field” [2] is particularly useful relative to video (as a time-based art), and the contemporary city — the site of multiple realities and successive, glancing interactions not unlike the encounter with digital information. Berger in his essay uses the example of stopping to look at a field, ignoring for a moment one’s own activity and time in order to notice those unfolding within the realm of the field. In so doing, one opens oneself to the possibility of other times, freeing perception from the obligations of response and engagement which so much of contemporary life, flooded with information and stimuli, demands. As such, to gaze upon a specific “timescape” other than one’s own is a highly subjective act that denies the onrush of the singular time frame of the virtual world. This manner of focusing attention quietly upon some other scene therefore becomes an “experiment in freedom” [3] and a source of self-identification, because “The fragmentation of attention diminishes the quality of our presence, and we are never fully in one place. Without attention we are lost.” [4]

Might these ideas be applied to Zhu Jia’s work in “Zero”? We are also told in the introduction that “the work reflects an introspective attitude towards the conception of ‘self.’” Could these strange gazing frames, which arguably offer us little more than would a glimpse,  imply, in the manner Berger suggests, the dissolution of attention, and in turn the effective displacement of the subject. The girl seems rootless indeed, posing and pausing within shots that inscribe fairly generic sites. These are the non-places of contemporary life — particularly in China, where contemporary cities, having sprung up so fast and in tandem with historical erasure, tend to look much the same.  We cannot place this woman in the frame; her reality is a simultaneous, self-conscious one of different guises and states — she often faces the camera directly as if appealing to its gaze, always aware of herself  (a reflection of the omnipresent media “eye”) yet ultimately dis-placed, just as the scenes framing her are somehow de-placed, lacking reference or definition. The “timescape” of the environments she is in might as well be that of the video, spliced and vertical, and without progression.

Thus does “Zero” evoke the contemporary city and human subjects at stake within it. It is a reflection which bleeds into the environs of the gallery after one leaves and along the massive roads that strike between hundred-fold apartment blocks in Beijing — and other cities beyond it. Zhu Jia’s latest work subtly explores the blurring of distinctions between individual and collective timescapes, glimpses of the city, the dis-placed contemporary gaze and the individual subject whom it is no longer able to distract, and who dissolves against its backdrops.

[1] Jeppe Graugaard, “In the Field of Time”, last modified November 3, 2012, http://www.redrawingthemaps.org.uk/blog/?p=262#respond

[2] John Berger, “Field,” in About Looking (New York: Vintage, 1992).

[3] Jeppe Graugaard “In the Field of Time”.

[4] John Berger, “Field”.