The exhibition 'Slow Rushes: Takes on the documentary sensibility in moving images from around Asia and the Pacific' was shown recently in Vilnius, Lithuania. Here Monika Krikstopaityte looks at how this work was received and understood by an audience whose world sensibility is so far removed from that of the artists who produced it.
In the centre of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, there is a living utopia: the Contemporary Art Centre (CAC). Actually. it is a small community of people immersed in art, who also are internationally interactive. The existence of this 'utopia' made the project 'Slow Rushes' possible. There are probably no more than 5000 people in the whole country of Lithuania who truly understand the CAC art projects. A paradox is that the tiny old town of Vilnius is swarming with highly sophisticated personalities educated at universities and academies, and it may give a very good first impression of the country. Bear in mind that this is an intellectually concentrated spot: small and pungent like a peppercorn.
The exhibition 'Slow Rushes: Takes on the documentary sensibility in moving images from around Asia and the Pacific' curated by Rhana Devenport, was timely. First of all, because in Lithuania we know almost nothing about the contemporary art of Asia and the Pacific. Secondly. because in our own contemporary art we miss having a developed, strong and suggestive form.
Knowing only the name of the exhibition, I was prepared for films in black and white featuring marching crowds, the stony-faced Mao, and bouquets of red carnations. Propaganda had been called documentary for so long, that willy-nilly in our memory they have grown to form one body. In postregime countries the propagandist images have gradually been replaced with an especially popular type of image-the unmasking image. Therefore, another image type I expected was the trembling camera chase of kitchen-sink life: amorphous and prolix. The crowd of young people I saw at the opening was impressive. But I was wrong about the content of the exhibition. To my biggest surprise, I found complex and elaborate, high-standard works of art. On the other hand, most of these works can hardly be labelled merely 'documentary'. First of all, the artists have really elaborated on the form of the presented art works. The documentaries have no desperate narcissism of 'recording for the sake of recording'. The visual discourse is perfectly comprehensible; though the feeling of the need for deeper knowledge of the work to enable its full understanding is always present. But the works offer plentiful levels of perception and sensations even for those who are too lazy to delve into the historic circumstances. Asia and documentary are there, but why without poverty and mass-horror?
The countries of Asia and the Pacific seem as distant as the moon. Even weather forecasts of these countries are not presented on the Lithuanian television. The most frequent touch points are cheap goods in big supermarkets or the distant echo of explosions on television news. And also there is the space of our imagination, as big as the globe, filled with erroneous knowledge. So what had made this high standard art possible? Long-term relations: to Australia, the Asian and Pacific countries are near neighbours (like Poland or Germany are to Lithuania), they have become better known through art exchange processes lasting more than ten years. Besides, the curator, an Australian, Rhana Devenport, intended to select prominent artists. To become prominent in the countries where freedom of thought and expression are at times restricted by political force and centuries-long tradition, one has to master figurative language. The result is an astounding form that turns into a shield protecting the existence of an artwork.
We ourselves, exotic Soviet citizens to the rest of the world until quite recently, had to call our silent memorials for the dead by names like 'Maternity'. Our brain is trained to search for hidden meanings, so for many people the exhibition was highly engaging.
I would describe most of the works as documentation of personal time and thoughts. In these works time is abstract and cyclic. Edited conversations exploit real-life situations to create an equally credible document of inner truth. Myths about legendary robbers, monologues about human relations, re-enacted soap operas, fictitious stories with reality prodding out, images of a city in a mirror and behind it smithereens, dreams. The most exact definition for all this would be documentation of thoughts. My thoughts about the world construct the place I live in.
In Urban Army Man, Australian TV Moore filmed a man dressed as a paratrooper running down a street in Sydney. That city soldier is a real person, this is his daily life, he believes in his action. He lives in a different Sydney. Or perhaps even in another city. Such a striking difference of perception reminds us where the universe begins.
Yang Fudong from China is creating films based on his dreams. Backyard - Hey sun is rising is as strange as all dreams. Here also, the most important act is observation. The meanings are far from clear, but the state of mind is close to perception. This could be my dream too, though I probably would not dream of swords. And hardly any real dreams have such a fine rhythm and integrity of form.
Untouchable, a work consisting of three projections, by Australian David Rosetzky is truly compelling. Even the most impatient viewers were seated on the soft couches, while on the screens almost nothing was happening. In this work, each screen projects a frozen drama of two people. The people are simply sitting or standing, and the text keeps moving through different scenes and different lips, acquiring distinct weight each time. The text is human and disturbingly familiar: maybe heard in our personal lives or lives of our acquaintances, maybe just in our minds. A feeling creeps in, that a pure soap opera is extremely close to reality. I try to shake the thought off, like a strange dream. Are we really so shop-soiled, watched from outside? All of a sudden, the characters in the screens start dancing simultaneously. This surreal element evokes no surprise in the audience, as everyone is already astonished. The artist has masterfully arranged the rhythm in the work: while seismic action of mind is taking place on one screen, the characters on the other two screens are waiting. As if the screens were interacting personalities.
The project of impressive dimensions by a Japanese born artist living in Vietnam, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba Happy New Year- Memorial Project Vietnam II is the commemoration of the cruel events in Vietnam [the Tet Offensive that occurred on the Lunar New Year of 1968]. The sight of a traditional ritual dragon being dragged over the bottom of the ocean by divers raises tension. The rising bubbles, the pigments dissolving in the dance, immerse the audience in the atmosphere of uncontrollable danger. Yet, the masterful soundtrack swaddles up the images, turning the sight into a civilised adventure. Even without knowing what is behind the artwork, it is possible to savvy violence: to sense it subconsciously. At times, knowing the facts often blocks any desire to sense.
The work of Chen Chieh-jen, an artist from Taiwan, was closest to my initial image of the exhibition. His film Factory is constructed of mass scenes of old and new documentary material. The old documentary shows young and happy Taiwanese women rushing to their new workplaces, working passionately and eating lunch together cheerily in the vast canteens. Having asked the women workers to return to the factory after many years, Chen films it in his own way. The new material, and the contrast between the old and the new scenes is overwhelmingly powerful. Factory shows the same women, now old and slow, with ashes in their eyes that used to burn with fire. The scene where several dozen workers are sleeping on their sewing machines with faded blue robes covering their bodies is the most moving image of dying I have ever seen. This scene could only be rivalled by the representation of the Sisyphean effort to thread a needle. The strength of this image lies in the slow observation; slow as eternity; leading nowhere and cyclically returning, because there is nowhere to go.
This show, harnessing the documentary sensibility by artists from Asian and Pacific countries markedly changes the understanding we have of documentary. It reveals that anything can be the object of documentary; even an intangible sensation, for instance, the affective relation to the treatment of Maori in Lisa Reihana's photo studios in New Zealand. The exhibition did not disprove my poor understanding of these distant countries, but has enriched it considerably. What unifies all the participants of the project is the sensual atmosphere created in their works and the idea that expression is bound to ritual by some inner logics. The Australian artists are no exception, and what I mean by this is the position of the artists who are behind the screens. They make no statements and no claims, they only tell and feel the his/story. The inner adventure comes to an end. Having learned something, one can choose to repeat the cyclic journey. Isn't such a rehearsal of inner experiences the living tradition?
Monika Krikstopaityte is a writer and journalist based in Vilnius.
Slow Rushes was shown at the Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius in 2004, 10 September-31 October, 2004. Curator: Rhana Devenport. The artists included in the exhibition were; Chen Chieh-jen (Taiwan), Emil Goh (Malaysia/Australia), Kim Young Jin (South Korea), TV Moore (Australia), Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba (JapanNietnam), Lisa Reihana (New Zealand), David Rosetzky (Australia), Song Dong (China), Wang Jian Wei (China), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand), Judith Wright (Australia), Yang Fudong (China).