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In-Depth

Also available in:  Chinese

HAO JINGBAN, Forsaken Landscapes, 2018, still from two-channel HD video: 33 min 21 sec; 18 min 50 sec. Courtesy the artist and Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong. 

HAO JINGBAN

When silent motion pictures were first introduced to mass audiences in Japan in the late 19th century, the task of a benshi was to preface the contents of a film and narrate the plot during the presentation. It was a paradoxical position that inevitably required benshi to lend their own readings to what was happening on the silver screen, though the conventions of the art form also emphasized “faithfulness” to the movies. 

Preoccupied with how we use language to fill in effaced and contested histories—particularly that of Sino-Japanese relations, which remain volatile today—and the possibilities of stripping away the intended messages of an image, Beijing-based Hao Jingban invited one of the few contemporary practitioners of the benshi tradition, Ichiro Kataoka, to collaborate with her. Hao edited a selection of propaganda films produced by the Japanese-run Manchukuo Film Association depicting the landscape of Manchukuo (Manchuria), the Japanese Empire’s puppet state in northeast China and Mongolia from 1932 to 1945. For some, this period represents a failed utopia, while for others it elicits memories of unspeakable violence. Carefully navigating these images, and with measured cadences, Kataoka animated the clips with a script based on his research in Japan’s National Library of Congress, during a performance at Hong Kong’s Blindspot Gallery. Footage of the live event subsequently formed half of Hao’s two-channel video Forsaken Landscapes (2018) and was displayed in the same corner of the gallery where it was recorded. 

The second projection is an interview between the artist and Kataoka, during which the latter muses on the parallels of the “foreignness” of the benshi to the cinematic form and the Japanese occupiers to Manchukuo, as well as his own pronoun usage—he alternates between “we” or “I”—during the conversation. Kataoka’s monologue evidences the difficulty of positioning oneself in relation to the past, but also attests to the powerful intersection of individual voices in recovering silenced historical accounts.  CHLOE CHU

CAN YOU DIVIDE THE CLOUDS, 2018, still image of sketch animation video: 40 sec. Courtesy Arario Gallery, Seoul/Cheonan/Shanghai.

NALINI MALANI

It sounds like a mythological fable: four figures try to divide a cloud, each desiring their own portion of the vaporous territory. Unable to come to an agreement, they violently tear at the mass with their hands, but their efforts are futile. In the end, each is left with nothing, and the cloud—nebulous and undefined—has dissipated. 

This modern folktale, part of a stop-motion animation series that Nalini Malani calls her “#MalaniNotebooks,” distills into a 40-second video humanity’s penchant for possessiveness and division, as evidenced in historical events such as the Partition of India, which the artist herself experienced as a young child in 1947 and that haunts her photograms, reverse paintings, shadow-play installations and videos. Drawn on Malani’s iPad, Can You Divide the Clouds (2018) is a fleeting philosophical rumination, expressed in an exercise—as in the daily drawings or paintings of artists—that she shares with her followers on her Instagram account. 

Here, the jerky movements of the stop-animation frames illustrate the struggles of grasping at something that is at once hyper-ephemeral, amorphous and recursive—Earth’s natural cycles dictate the flow of water from cloud to rain to sea and back to cloud—and evoke the compulsions of greed and fear that drive us to perform acts of invasion, separation, segregation and isolation. The anonymous figures attack the murky cloud, which represents a false illusion: although it appears tangible, it is nothing more than moist air, suggesting our delusional tendencies in enforcing borders, zones and boundaries that are, but for political control, arbitrary. Conversely, the murkiness expresses an unknown corruption hypnotizing the figures and the unseen displacement of millions of people. Dashed in the center of the cloud are pink lines, evoking the British Empire’s demarcations of its colonies, protectorates and mandates on world maps—a reminder that tensions still reverberate on postcolonial soils today. YSABELLE CHEUNG

BLUE, 2018, video projection on glass with color and sound: 12 min 16 sec. Installation view at “Ghost:2561 Blue,” Gallery Ver, Bangkok, 2018. Photo by Miti Ruangkritya. Courtesy the artist and Ghost Foundation, Bangkok.

APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL

There are proliferating surfaces in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 12-minute single-channel film Blue (2018). It begins minimally, showing a woman (Jenjira Pongpas Widner) lying under a blue quilt in the dark, preparing for sleep. Sounds of nocturnal insects and distant barking dogs fill the night. The film cuts to a shot of a painted theater backdrop—illuminated by a lone globe lamp and framed by a pair of banana trees—showing a road running along the shore toward a setting sun. The canvas is rolled up by a squeaky (but unseen) mechanism to reveal another scene of a palace garden. The woman opens her eyes—whether from insomnia or a state of dreaming isn’t clear. The lamp in front of the garden painting flickers, as the image of the sunset is unrolled in front of it again. As the woman lies on her back, a crackling flame begins to burn in her chest, as if the film itself has become a screen for another image. She rolls over as the fire catches and grows, seemingly inside the surface of the blue blanket, or within her somnolent state. 

When Blue was shown at Gallery Ver during the Ghost:2561 festival in October 2018 in Bangkok, it was projected onto a reflective and transparent screen. From that surface, it appeared to multiply around the space onto the highly reflective polished floors, and then again onto the walls themselves. As every surface became a screen, the bright flames of the film spread around the darkened room. As it builds to a roar, the fire accrues transcendent associations with the transition of spirit into an immaterial yet manifold state, ideas that echo both spiritually and politically throughout Apichatpong’s films. Formally, Blue exemplifies what film theorist Giuliana Bruno calls a “screen-membrane” that turns architecture and art into “pliant planes of moving images.” Yet Apichatpong gradually reveals the mechanism of the film itself, with a shot of a transparent screen-surface between the blazing fire and the theater backdrops. The film’s final image captures the bonfire’s flames, their reflection and behind it the woman’s blue-blanketed form appearing like an apparition in the darkened forest of dreams. HG MASTERS

SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT AND THE LEADER, 2018, detail of multi-channel HD video installation with color and sound, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and ShanghART, Shanghai/Beijing/Singapore.

ARIN RUNGJANG

In Arin Rungjang’s video installation Shooting an Elephant and The Leader (2018), large screens are arranged around the viewer in an immersive figure-eight formation. In one part of the installation, three synchronized videos show frontal, lateral and posterior views of a man’s head as he sings the Quran’s Surah Ya-Sin, while in another, five videos portray an elephant walking, kneeling and lying down within a bare, white set. The sense of context-less intimacy arising from seeing the man’s moving lips or the weathered, gray skin of the elephant up close is visually mesmerizing but conceptually abstruse. It recalls a remark by George Orwell in his 1936 essay “Shooting an Elephant,” about working as a police officer in colonial Burma: “A story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.” 

The final screen creates this distance through presenting text from Orwell’s essay—a possibly apocryphal account of his killing of the giant animal to save face in front of Burmese onlookers—intertwined with the tale of Wahduze Ali, a Bengali man who was born stateless in Myanmar and sex-trafficked to Thailand. The work becomes easier to decipher as we learn, for instance, that Ali’s song is less a performance than a testament of endurance, as he was eventually offered refuge in a mosque on the condition that he sing verses from the Quran. It is also revealed that his trafficker is the “Leader” in the work’s title, but in this portion of the installation, Ali is the only person ever in the frame, out from the shadow of his exploiter. 

Performativity and survival similarly intersect in Arin’s depiction of the elephant, which continues to huff and flap its ears while playing dead, occasionally motioning to get back up before lying down again. The living elephant becomes a symbol of remembrance for the victims of colonial oppression, including the animal killed by Orwell out of a twisted sense of paternalistic duty. While Orwell’s story is told from the perspective of the colonizer, Arin’s work is dedicated to the experiences of the formerly powerless, who reclaim visibility and dignity through the artist’s lens. OPHELIA LAI

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