Looking at Zhu Yu recent video-performative works in collaboration with Rahman Hak-Hagir I find them relevant and interesting not just from the frame of contemporary art theory, but also and particularly as a further exploration of the important Brechtian concept of Verfremdungseffekt, also known as “distancing effect” or “estrangement device” or “alienation effect” applied to the performing arts.
Brecht first used this term (originally derived in the Russian Formalist notion of the device of making strange, which Viktor Shklovsky claimed as the essence of all art) in an essay on “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” published in 1936, after he saw a command performance of Chinese Opera by Mei Lanfang in Moscow the year before in which he advocated for a different approach in Theatre practice that discouraged involving the audience in an illusory story-telling and in an emotional and empathic identification with the characters. Instead, he thought the audience required an emotional distance to reflect on what was staged in critical and objective ways, rather than being simply taken out of themselves as conventional and therefore non-progressive mass entertainment would do.
In the contemporary scenario in which both photographic and video images are subjected to a previously unknown effects of acceleration, consumption and saturation, it becomes very difficult for artists to find the means to suspend, subvert or even just question both the medium they are using and its capacity to create works which would not just be barely ingurgitated and digested by the new info-image-power regime of instantaneous and ubiquitous communication. Even performative actions are generally conceived and absorbed within huge technically complex productions highly relying on special effects and virtual dimensions to generate intense experience which are more and more “immersive” and less and less “intimate”.
In this sense the specific accuracy Zhu Yu and Rahman Hak-Hagir use to build their video performance and their capacity to articulate the different aspects: the visual, the performative, the time length, the sound and the image editing, results in something which keeps our attention because it is not trying to mesmerize / hypnotize or seduce us, but rather for the opposite reason, because anytime the sequence begins to gain an easily seductive pace, quality and rhythm, some kind of dissonant element drops in and prevent us exactly from “being carried away”. When the videos tend to lyricism, suddenly they are interrupted by an element which alters the visual and/or sound register and pushes us to ‘reboot’ our glance and all our emotional, mental and intellectual status. This is not achieved by simply introducing an external or non-linear image or sequence, or through a Beckettian use of the absurd, but in a subtler way, by maintaining a half-continuum in the development of the actions while in ‘How to explain a forest to a dead tree” for example the initial input of the title—clearly a reference to Joseph Beuys famous performance ‘How to explain art to a dead hare’ —develops in a powerful image of nature with an equally strong natural soundtrack until Zhu Yu enters the scene carrying a plywood board and starts introducing it to the living trees with a certain intimacy in an atmosphere that already introduces ambiguity and distance by not clearly suggesting where and if the humor and the quote-game is indeed bypassed or not by the quality of the environment where the action takes place. Then, as the scene unrolls, sequences of a live concert of Baby Dee are inserted between the action in the natural landscape.
The register and rhythm of the parts is not the same and this is underlined by the sensible and disturbing use of sound, which is one moment as a film background soundtrack, but then it gets almost too loud, then it changes again and becomes live-recording of live-singing. The clip also ends exiting the ‘artwork’ mood and delivering few spontaneous after-moments just at the end of the shooting which were purposely or not purposely uncut.
Through this complex and carefully elaborated editing process of sound images and linear and non-linear narrative we cannot really identify too long with any of the proposed registers but are instead pushed to constantly ask ourselves what is this? Which perspective is this work adopting? Which message is it carrying, when obviously the first and immediate one is important but clearly not just the point? By preventing us of the possibility of choosing one single way to deal with the work, Zhu Yu and Rahman Hak-Hagir establish and interesting and inquisitive disturbing effect in the viewers in which the boundaries between the conscious and the unconscious, the individual and the collective, the artist and the audience are in a constant state of negotiation, exactly like the micro and macro politics of today’s information and surveillance age.
By applying this alternate rhythm of construction and deconstruction as a key strategy to this and other videos (such as Male Body Machine and Game of Kings) ZhuYu and Rahman Hak-Hagir seem to cultivate the intention to turn their works into critical-thinking devices which are not conceived through a simple selected tunnel vision or through a distillation of signs and signifiers, but instead as disguised collage or rather familiar elements and messages in which the seizures, the trimming and overlapping solutions and the re-adjusting (instead of the sequences) are in fact the sources of interference and estrangement.
Behind the first aesthetic layer and the choice of themes, messages and metaphors, Zhu Yu and Rahman Hak-Hagir focus on the relationships between the various elements that compose a film, an action, a sound and their purpose and alter them in a way which is not obvious and which is not counting on easy forms of stimulations or shocking effects but on more effective and interesting under-currents that are capable to play with cultural and critical elements using a definitely contemporary and intelligent language.
Their work provides us the opportunity to try and re-invent that ‘conscious critical distance’ from what we see and what we live that the recent hyper connected post-truth information age has almost made impossible.
Alessandro Rolandi, Beijing 2019
About the artists
朱渔 | ZHU YU
Zhu Yu (March 8, 1981) was born in Liushi Town, Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province. She is based in Beijing, and graduated from the Video Art Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in July 2008. Currently she lives and works in Beijing and Wenzhou. Zhu Yu uses video, installation and photography as her primary mediums. As a result of growing up in Wenzhou, Liushi, a unique, small town in China thats production, and processing account for 90% of electrical appliances; and, for which social, and political, alienation of the region, beside its trajectory of transformation, for the past two years, Zhu Yu’s works has become increasingly industrialized. The crowd, as well as the misplaced memory of the children on the production line, are the raw materials of her work, extracting the existence of nothingness, maneuvering away from reality, analyzing their mysterious roots in the past, and their present mechanical, networked shadows. Or, reversing this phenomena.
拉赫曼·哈克·哈吉尔 | RAHMAN HAK-HAGIR
RAHMAN HAK-HAGIR (May 15, 1972) is an Austrian-born Vienna based half-afghan conceptual and performance artist focussing on the conflicting priorities between individual and social environment. He is a founding member of the international artist collectives, known as #WE and THE OTHER SOCIETY.
Artist Statement: “It always was the privilege of comedians to illuminate the king and his court by clues and messages camouflaged behind symbols. My conceptual performative work contributes to all these anonymous jesters who served social evolution and human cohesion across history.”
About the exhibition
Dates: Dec 14, 2019 – Jan 8, 2020
Opening: Dec 14, 2019, 17:00
Venue: BACA Art Center | Nook Gallery
Courtesy of the artists and BACA Art Center | Nook Gallery.