ZHU XIAOWEN: DISTANCE BETWEEN
Arthub Asia Screening Presents: Zhu Xiaowen, DISTANCE BETWEEN
3-channel video, 2012, 25 minutes, 15.12.15 — 14.01.16
DISTANCE BETWEEN is a 3-channel video previously shown as an installation at the Dumbo Arts Center, New York and The Arcade Gallery, San Pedro. For the first time Arthub will screen DISTANCE BETWEEN online. Xiaowen’s work ostensibly addresses the topic of long-distance romantic relationships. The interviews, filmed with 6 subjects, recount individual stories as confessions, beginning with the innocent excitement of growing intimacy through simple means of text messages and phone calls, to the complexity of Skype, examining the inherent properties of the medium. The project begins by interviewing couples involved in long distance romantic relationships; taking this source material, the artist mixes spontaneous interviews with reenactments by 6 subjects based on quotes taken from actual interviews. The material was then re-configured and re-contextualized by the artist. Using staged scenarios, designed stenography and cinematography, the piece encourages the viewer to re-examine their notions of the Documentary Interview and to ponder the boundary between fact and fiction. “Long-distance relationships” is used as a subject to open a discourse about self-identification, individual perception of home and travel, personal value of family and marriage, ideology of life and understandings of the issues of love and trust.
Xiaowen Zhu is a documentary filmmaker, media artist, curator and writer. Described as a visual poet, social critic, and aesthetic researcher, she uses video, photography, performance, installation and mixed media as platforms to communicate the complex experience of being an international person and to wrestle with the notion of a disembodied identity.
For the occasion of the screening, Arthub’s Francesca Girelli has conducted an interview with the artist below. Francesca Girelli (FG): To introduce the online screening of DISTANCE BETWEEN on Arthub’s website, I would like to start from the notion of experimental documentary. In your practice you have used this definition to address the ways in which you span between video art, documentary and the grey areas in between the two. What is your take on that? Zhu Xiaowen (ZX): It’s a really good question. I should start with a bit of background introduction, as my education in China was actually focused on the more conventional film television production. I learned how to make documentary films or videos for television or film channels, but I guess I just wasn’t satisfied with that very linear narrative. Perhaps because I’ve always considered myself a critical thinker, I have tried to pursue different ways to recount a story from reality. In the same way as in literature, you can have news reports or essays, but also critical essays and writings that generate from a much more personal point of view. This different point of view was what I was interested in.
When I moved to the States and got a Master of Fine Arts in Art Video I began being very cautious about the ways in which video art is categorized, professionally and academically. In America, for example, the terminology is very specific. How I see it, you can’t use the word video art without referencing the origins of artist videos in the 60’s, which were works created by painters, conceptual artists, installation artists who just happen to be able to use a video recorder. It wasn’t something stemming from cinema, it was stemming from art, and that is what I consider video art within a historical context. In that sense, video art doesn’t seem enough to describe what I’m doing now, in today’s context. Nowadays a lot of people who work across art and film, as I do, are categorized as artists working with moving image. That seems to me a more appropriate way to describe this kind of practice, but still, depending on the project, the definition might not fit properly. In some cases I call my work experimental documentary because the purpose of it is to reflect reality from an artistic point of view, which is what adds an experimental quality to the equation. Also, in terms of references, I don’t necessarily draw inspiration from other artists’ works, but from everything: from film, from film history, from art, and also from literature, philosophy, perhaps sometimes from Buddhism— everything is a bit mixed up. FG: DISTANCE BETWEEN is a work about long distance relationships, but more at large it also delves into communication dynamics in today’s society. Were these ideas triggered by your estrangement from both your love and your own country? Could you give us a bit of introduction to this project?
ZX: Definitely. I made that wok in 2012 as my graduation project at Syracuse University. At the time I had been living abroad for a few years, and I was experiencing a long distance relationship myself. I just happened to meet a few other international couples and I realized that we were all living very similar situations. Nowadays it’s just so common for people to experience that, everywhere. It has become the story of our time, of our generation, and of course we can’t talk about it without investigating the role that technology plays in it. I was fascinated by the mediated message in people’s relationships, between lovers or between families. FG: The movie features interviews in different settings. Were you filming every person in their own environments, their homes? And if not, how did you choose the settings? ZX: The project started as a research project for which I interviewed 13 international couples in Europe, America and China. Most of them had international long distance relationships; it was not about short distances as Beijing/Shanghai, but it was the kind of international, different time zones distance as Shanghai/Paris, or Australia/Germany. I asked those couples several questions about their love stories, but also their frustrations and the deepest reasons that had led them to be apart from their families and lovers. Then I transcribed all those interviews and highlighted the similar experiences encountered by the different couples.
What surfaced was mostly frustration towards the distance experienced through technology, and of course issues of trust as well. I explored the question and definition of love and how it doesn’t have to be necessarily physical but, at the same time, cannot be completely spiritual. The reason why those people had left home was a personal search for something, something they hadn’t found back home. Maybe it was about excitement, or about a necessary step in the advancement of their career. In other cases it was something they were running away from. In that sense it was really interesting to summarize the diverging and similar points. Then I constructed a script based on those experiences, and I shaped them into six characters, three guys and three girls. I invited six out of the 13 people I had originally interviewed, and kind of analyzed each character further. I didn’t want the work to be a straight on documentary, what was interesting for me was the mediated part. I wanted to transform the online-communication-based mediation into a mockumentary kind of project. While listening to the different stories, I wanted the audience not be able to tell the difference between the real part and the fictional one. In terms of set-up, a lot of those people were students obviously living in student apartments, which didn’t look that interesting. I tried to picture every character in a framework shaped by what they were pursuing, creating a backdrop that could depict the life they would have had in the near future. One of the girls, for example, she was a designer who was about to graduate and move to New York. So, as a location for her interview, I found a designer/artist’s loft in New York. I was trying to emphasize what she would have become but wasn’t quite yet.
FG: So you were trying to embody what they were originally seeking for through the locations, and ultimately the reasons why they had left their home countries in the first place… ZX: Exactly. There was this Chinese girl-–she was an artist as well–-whom I filmed in a farmhouse in Upstate New York because, when I interviewed her, she said her ideal life would have been living in a farm, having twenty animals and ten kids. So in the film she appears in this farmhouse, sitting by a very old style kind of fireplace. Basically I created each setting according to the characters of the scripts, but never going too far from the real identity of the people appearing in the video. FG: The estrangement from homeland is also a facet appearing in Oriental Silk, a project you have recently premiered in Shanghai, at the Aurora Museum. What triggered this work? How did you come up with the original idea, and how did you develop it?
ZX: I started this project in 2013 and filmed most of it in 2014. Back then I had received an artist’s fellowship to develop a work in Los Angeles after I graduate from Syracuse University. It was the first time in my life I had the freedom to create without any direction, any distraction from school or any specific academic demand. I was provided with a studio and an apartment, and didn’t need to worry about anything other than making my own project, a rather special situation for a young artist. LA was a completely new environment for me. I grew up in Shanghai and then moved to New York; I also lived in Europe for a bit, so I’m used to dense cities. If you put me in Paris or Tokyo I can be fine and able to find my way around because the structure of those cities are very similar, but LA was completely different. It’s very flat, very spread out, if you don’t know anyone, if you don’t have a car, it can be hard to get around. It took me a while to actually understand how to get to places and how to meet people, which is something very important for me since I don’t see myself as a studio based artist. I’m much more interested in all levels of communication between people and society, most of my projects having an interest in the documentary side of things. So, just once I started driving I could really begin exploring the city. One day, as I was driving around in Beverly Hills area, I noticed a shop with a big sign: Oriental Silk. The font composing the sign immediately caught my attention. I don’t know the typeface name, but it’s a very stereotypical one, the same often used for many Chinese fast food restaurants, and I thought it gave the shop a very retro feeling.
I stopped my car and as I stepped in I was immediately fascinated by the space. It had a particular aura that it’s hard for me to describe. It was of course a personal feeling, something one could either feel or not, but in that moment I felt I belonged there. The way everything was arranged in the store reminded me of Shanghai in the early 90s, when my mother used to take me with her to fabric shops. Back then a lot of people, mainly ladies, would commission tailored dresses for the summertime, personally choosing the fabric, which was often silk. The shop in LA reconnected me with memories that had been sleeping for a long time. Those memories don’t reflect the identity of Shanghai or China anymore, but when you encounter something similar in a faraway country, where you don’t expect it, it triggers a rather special feeling. Then I started talking with the shop owner, Mr. Wong, who is also a very interesting person. He was born and raised in America and, although he doesn’t speak Chinese, he feels more Chinese than most Chinese people I’ve met in my life. He could have been a character from one of the old novels I used to read, early 20s and 30s 20th century literature. He transmitted that feeling because of his manners, very peaceful, very polite, but also a real intellectual, a truly knowledgeable person. Mr. Wong is also a good listener, and he definitely has a lot of time, which is another thing missing in China nowadays where no one seems to have time. So, this is how it began, and of course after that I went back several times, occasionally purchasing a few things from him. I liked all of his fabrics, but I didn’t really know what to do with them.
Then, slowly, he started telling me more and more stories about the shop, which made me realize there was so much more behind it, such as the struggles of the first generation of American Chinese immigrants who tried to realize the American dream. At the same time this was also a story about the following second generation, able to achieve a status among or beyond the so called middle class, but at the same time interested in preserving Chinese culture and heritage. On the other hand there were global market issues to be address through the business difficulties faced by the shop, and the import-export trade with China in the context of the decreasing quality of goods compared to 20-30 years ago. For a small business owner like Mr. Wong, who wishes to preserve a certain quality but is unable to afford higher prices, the only possibility of survival would entail a radical change of direction, which is something he is unwilling to do. All of these topics seemed very interesting and relevant to me, I thought a story could be carved out of them and presented as a documentary.
FG: During the presentation of Oriental Silk at Aurora Museum you mentioned Mr. Wong is potentially afraid by the thought of visiting China, because of the differences between reality and his own idea of it. I imagined that maybe this could be something you have felt as well to some extent, having been based out of the country for quite a long time and not planning to move back, at least in the near future. Do you ever feel you’re missing out the ongoing flux of things, or fear the impossibility of going back to what was familiar to you? ZX: Mr. Wong’s idea of China is to some extent very romanticized, as he has never spent much time there. His travels to China were usually business trips or family holidays, and since his parents have passed away he doesn’t have strong reasons that could bring him back to China. I think he mainly misses his parents, and his idea of China is associated with their story. If he came back today, without that familiar link he wouldn’t be able to emotionally ground himself. I reckon that’s the reason of his fear. I was born and raised in Shanghai, and I still manage to visit China every year. Every time I come back I feel the urge of going back to four or five places I would always go to, whether it’s a small family owned restaurant or a boutique shop. Most of these places are still there, and hopefully they will remain there for the next few years even though everything is so rapidly changing. But of course, the Chinese title of the film 《乡绸》 [xiang chou] literally means silk from hometown, and its pronunciation is the same as in the word nostalgia, 乡愁 [xiang chou]. Mr. Wong is a very nostalgic person, and I very much resonate with his nostalgic feeling, even if, at the same time, I don’t necessarily feel that I’m missing out on something.
Having this distance, this physical and geographical distance with China, actually helps me to think and reflect more on what does this all mean. I don’t have any immediate answer; I can’t summarize it in one statement obviously. But every time I come back, because I have that distance, all those changes are very obvious to me, whereas they are unnoticeable for those who live in this space every time. What is normal to people who are based here can be strange and fascinating from the point of view of an outsider. These are the things I can draw inspiration from.
Find out more about Zhu Xiaowen’s latest video work Oriental Silk here.