Cold Nights at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing

By Tom Mouna

Chen Zhou, Blue Hole (still), 2017, H D video, 26 min 3 sec. Courtesy the artist and UCCA, Beijing

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 
15 September – 17 December 

As a conceptual frame for the newly produced artworks in Cold Nights, each of the four artists was assigned a character from Ba Jin’s novel Cold Nights (1947) –the wife, husband, wife’s lover or husband’s mother. Ba’s story describes the disintegration of a family in 1940s Chongqing and is commonly read as a metaphor for that period’s brutally felt sociopolitical shifts. The curators, Boliang Shen and Zhanglun Dai, have two guiding intentions: to collaboratively rewrite Ba’s work, creating a new text within the exhibition space, and to get the artists to utilise the novel as a model for reflecting on contemporary social realities. 

Nabuqi, ‘performing’ the mother, installed a line of mirrors on the spaces’ outer walls at eye level, meaning it is always possible to see at least one of the exhibition’s works; a flashing light intermittently fills the otherwise dimly lit space, highlighting the works’ reflection in the mirrors. With the conservative mother character in mind, the continuous, almost invasive presence of these works throughout the space seems like a reminder of the weight of tradition.

Liu Shiyuan’s complex video includes bees pollinating plants, mid-twentieth-century cartoons of young girls admiring boys’ biceps, ticking clocks and a group eating free oysters on a Danish beach (part of a government scheme to quell invading foreign oysters). Liu highlights the changing nature of value and our constantly shifting control over meaning. The video is paired to the novel’s wife: a foil to the antiquated mother, she is a relatively modern character, seemingly in control of her destiny, who elopes with her lover. Yet Liu’s video seems to suggest that in contemporary society our roles, specifically those of women, remain constrained. As the video’s title suggests, The Best Is Yet To Come (2017).

Li Ran’s black-and-white video Night of Patmos (2017) represents the wife’s lover, whose depiction in the novel is less direct, often represented by comments from others, his existence composed of multiple fragments. Li’s video similarly weaves disparate elements together – improvised scenes from biblical plays; a voiceover recounting a mountaineering trip in which the participants turn fanatical; and photographs of 1950s and 1980s theatre plays – to reflect the lover’s narrative presence. Yet beyond disunity, the motivation for Li’s choice of video content is not evident.

Chen Zhou’s video Blue Hole (2017), interpreting the husband, follows two fashionably dressed actors fruitlessly searching for their companion in a deserted forest. The lonely husband’s inability to communicate with his wife and mother in the novel is transposed into a contemporary moment. The atemporal environments the characters evolve in also seem to reference videogames, pointing to the virtual world as a melancholic hole that Chen sees us turning to for companionship. In an accompanying text the artist describes living in Shanghai, emphasising that the latest technologies and urban fashions cannot inhibit loneliness within one of the world’s most populated cities.

The exhibition relies too heavily on the novel while offering very little information on its content: without fuller knowledge of it, the viewer finds it difficult to conjecture the extent to which the artworks are connected to each character, and to what extent they comment on contemporary society. As these two poles are the show’s curatorial foundation, I was left grappling for meaning somewhere between them.

From the Winter 2017 issue of ArtReview