Where Does the Anxiety Come from?—The Route from the Burrow to the Peach Colony

TEXT:Emily Zhou    DATE: 2021.1.19

“I have completed the construction of my burrow and it seems to be successful.” At the very beginning of “The Burrow” written by Franz Kafka, the protagonist, a burrowing animal, seemed to have finished building its burrow, in which it can enjoy temporary tranquility and comfort. However, this mole-like animal is soon tortured by the extraordinary rational voice of the self, as the threats and hidden danger outside the burrow are constantly recognized by it. With dramatically clear thinking and judgment, even though it had stored enough food and strengthened the barriers, the shelter cannot provide external peace for it. Instead, it worried about the threats posed by “the enemy” from the other side of the burrow and ended up with self-doubt and anxiety. In the endless panic, the creature is more like a slave of the burrow, fearing the instability in the false imagination. The unfinished novel ends with the expression “but all remained unchanged”[1], which just reveals that silence is illusory, stability is temporary, and security is a kind of “pleasure that we cannot bear”[2].

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Wu Li (1632-1718),“Green Mountains and White Clouds”, Handscroll, ink and colors on silk, 25.9 x 117.2 cm. Image from the Internet

The Peach Blossom Spring was a fable written by Tao Yuanming in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, which depicts a fisherman who accidentally discovered an ethereal utopia where the people lead an ideal existence in harmony with nature, unaware of war, turbulence and changes in the outside world for centuries. In the subsequent re-creation of the theme of Peach Blossom Spring, Wu Li's “Green Mountains and White Clouds” in the early Qing Dynasty indicated that the path of Peach Blossom Spring abruptly stopped at a standing stone monument and the scroll that should lead to wonderland guides the viewer to enter a cold and creepy scene. The stone monument stands between reality and a beautiful illusion. Amidst the survivors’ complex and realistic dilemma faced by transitions in dynasties, all the utopian visions finally come to nothingness, and the boundary between reality and illusion meets and reverses at the stone monument in the space of the scroll.

Wu Li (1632-1718), Details of “Green Mountains and White Clouds”. Image from the Internet

“The Burrow” and the “Peach Colony” are two keywords in this exhibition “Archiving the Spaces of Anxiety” curated by Shen Shuyu. Among the many cultural, philosophical and social metaphors derived from these two concepts, the interrogation of internal and external, self and “the other”, reality and illusion, utopia and heterotopia is mapping and interweaving in both real space and the imaginary space. In Chen Shuyu's view, “the Burrow” is the starting point of this exhibition, but the “Peach Colony” will never be the end. From “The Burrow” to “Peach Colony”, there is an imaginary path, rather than the only path. In this exhibition, she expects to use the visible physical parts of the artwork to construct the exhibition space, to accommodate the “invisible” sections, and to inspire the audience to explore their own paths.[3]

Exhibition View

In this case, through the architectural construction, physical space division and transition, as well as the logical connection of works, the exhibition invites several artists to present thoughts about space, memory and archives based on their own cultural context and social experience. In the transitions and overlap of physical space, the audience is expected to explore the pleasure of wandering. But at the same time, it seems that many people are beginning to breed a sort of “anxiety”. In the spread of such "anxiety" emotions, I am also trying to sort out a “path” that I have developed from this space in the exhibition.

Exhibition View

The Maze, The Darkroom and The Balcony:

The Boundary Between the Public and the Private

In the spring of 2016, Andreas Gedin encountered Chongli’s shop, where it was fenced in by hoardings decorated with photographs and paintings, during his artist residency in the Institute for Provocation (IFP). Later, Gedin has realized that all the photographs showcasing the group photos of Chongli and others in various public spheres. It is interesting to note that all these photos focused on the same character, which amazingly gives birth to a sort of private element among group photos. In this case, Gedin tried to juxtapose this piece of “temporary installation” of Chongli and Merzbau in Hannover constructed by Dadaism artist Kurt Schwitters, and made a series of comparisons and connections. In Gedin’s point of view, whether Merzbau or Chongli’s shop, they are both “spatial installations in which the boundary between art and dwelling (or shop) has been dissolved.” [4] Meanwhile, Chongli’s old photos have gradually faded as time passed, they archived a specific historical period from a personal perspective, which reminds Gedin of American writer Jesse Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965). Kosinski adopted an autobiographical writing style to echo and depicted the reality he has experienced, which could be understood as “creating concrete fictions in that which we usually call the real world.”[5] Based on these discussions, the notions of “The Balcony” and “The Darkroom” were proposed in a special sense, exploring the boundary between the private space and the public sphere in different historical periods and cultural contexts. By doing so, Gedin re-interpreted Chongli’s “temporary installation” and its deconstruction.

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Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau, around 1923-1936(also known as 1920-1943 depending on how it is recorded), mixed materials, installation. Schwitters commissioned photographer Wilhelm Redemann to produce a photographic documentation of the Merzbau when the installation was presented in the 1933 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York [6]. These three black and white photographs are now the only archive material and have constituted the foundation of people’s knowledge of Merzbau. This is one of three photos. Image from the Internet


 Andreas Gedin, “Birdman”, Courtesy of the Artist.

Andreas Gedin, “The Balcony, the Darkroom and the Guinea Pig in Hannover”, Details, Courtesy of the Artist.

What is interesting is that in the “maze” installation jointly designed by Chen Shuyu and WAY Studio, Chen Shuyu once again intervened in Gedin’s creative experience by curating. In the dark maze, the audience walks up the spiral staircase, encountering old photos and paintings. They could explore videos placed deep in the recessed space and are asked to listen to the monologues in a “cave”. All of these experiences show strong privacy. In the maze without light, people cannot even stagger in the narrow and grotesque passages and they are forced to “share” privacy with others.

Hu Wei,“The Proposal for Public口口 (Encounter)”, Courtesy of the Artist.

The top of the stairs leads the audience to the “exit” of the labyrinth—it is a balcony, which is considered to cross the ambiguous boundary between the private and public spheres. The moment people stepped on the balcony, all they could see was the “square” presented by Hu Wei. In “The Proposal for Public口口 (Encounter)”, Hu Wei investigated the square in his hometown. Behind the removal of the monument in the center of the square is a review of a macro-historical period. The archival materials displayed in the showcase, monuments and fountains in the city are reconstructed by 3D printing, these have confirmed the occurrence and existence of this period of history in the most traditional way. However, in the context of the video image facing the balcony, besides the macro-historical background, by switching the camera focus and changing the angles, Hu Wei seems to be trying to extract a vague universal image, which is suitable for a wide range of public spaces and collective memory. But at the same time, this sort of universal sense also coincides with individual memory and it is difficult to capture. As the voice-over in the video addresses , “it has no clear appearance and is unclaimed.”

In the labyrinth, darkroom and balcony, the audience repeatedly experienced the transition between the public sphere and private space while pacing. In this area, the boundary between “public” and “private” is like a very thin and tight string. The overlap reveals privacy, sharing secrets and privatizing collective memory to create a strong sense of instability.

From “the Burrow” to “the Peach Colony”:

The Imagination and Reality of the Utopia

 Papertiger Studio, Performance View of “The Burrow—Body(heart), Head(brain), Society(under-world)”

On the brightest and wide corridor of the OCAT Institute, Papertiger Studio places six mirror-reflected triangular prisms to create a theater-like space, inviting the audience to enter and participate in the interpretation and development of the play. The viewers can observe themselves and their surroundings in the mirrors, which clearly presents the position of oneself in the environment.

Who is “the other”? In Kafka’s “The Burrow”, “the enemy” surrounds like a ghost, creating tiny movements on the other side of the wall, making the protagonist on this side of the wall terrified all day long. Or “the enemy” may just be the voice from the bottom of the protagonist, speculating about the never-seen “threat” that always follows. “The Burrow—Body(heart), Head(brain), Society(under-world)” created by Papertiger Studio intends to reflect “the other” in the contemporary cultural context. With the development of artificial intelligence, organ transplantation and the application of other technological means, the human body structure and function are being alienated and the intervention of technological means also affects the human position and situation in society.

Liang Shuo, “Scenery”, Courtesy of the Artist.

The area next to “the Burrow” is designed as the route towards “the Peach Colony” by the curator. Artist Liang Shuo’s “Scenery” was presented on the wall of a row of four pocket-style continuous pillars. Looking back at Liang Shuo's solo exhibition “Liang Shuo: Scenery” in Beijing Commune in 2019, we can also recall such a circuitous path of the viewing route. The concept of “scenic spots”, in the eyes of the artist, represents people's understanding of landscapes today. It spans natural landscapes and urban spaces. The establishment of scenic spots inevitably means the direct intrusion and transformation of natural landscapes through artificial, commercial, and consumption means and a series of problems such as space, aesthetics, and ideology occur from this.

Exhibition View20.JPGLina Selander, “Diagram of Transfer No.1" and “Diagram of Transfer No.2", Courtesy of the Artist.


Lina Selander, “Diagram of Transfer No.1", Courtesy of the Artist.

What spatially echoes the circuitous path of Liang Shuo's works are three groups of video works by Lina Selander. “Diagram of Transfer No.1" and “Diagram of Transfer No.2" are placed in a semi-transparent spiral viewing area suspended in the air, which explores issues such as the paradox of controlling and being controlled, discipline, social order, the direct relationship between man and nature as revealed in the image field. Next to the semi-spiral viewing area are the two screens of “When the Sun Sets It’s All Red, Then It Disappears”, in which the understanding and the rift between knowledge that rely on “seeing” and reality are discussed.

Maj Hasager, “We Will Meet in the Blind Spot”, Courtesy of the Artist.

The last piece of this exhibition features Maj Hasager’s “We Will Meet in the Blind Spot”, which tells the story of the Filipino immigrants in the Esposizione Universale di Roma. Supervised by Benito Mussolini, this utopian city was designed and conceived with fascist aesthetics. It was not built until 1960 and was gradually developed into a new wealthy area in Rome. Hasager put the public memories of the city portrayed by many documentaries and films made by Italian directors, together with this group of immigrants who regularly meet in the basement of a church in the city center, into her video work.

The video records the leisure time of this group, exploring how the private memories and lives of Filipino immigrants can be integrated and extended in this city with a strong historical memory from a personal and private perspective. What people can see are the traces left by the historical memories and the changes (or development) in the city, but what cannot be seen is how the people who live in the city place their memories and stories during such a change. From this perspective, the topics discussed in the exhibition seem to review the connection between “public” and “private”, “history” and “memory”. However, the fields involved have expanded to more than a city or a culture.

策展人陈淑瑜展览介绍.pngCurator Chen Shuyu introduced the exhibition.

The overlapping of different spaces and the idea of “space in the space” are scattered in every corner of the exhibition in the form of work images, archive reconstruction and scene establishment. The route from “the Burrow” to “the Peach Colony” designed by Chen Shuyu still leaves many confusions to be explored. In the process of viewing and reviewing the exhibition, by reading the related and further reading materials, I was involved in a de-coding reading and interpretation. In the previous article discussing “2019 Research-based Curatorial Project: Shortlist Exhibition”, I mentioned that for curators, the research-based exhibition may be regarded as contemporary art to create and be developed. Today, the viewing and understanding of research-based exhibitions undoubtedly propose a higher requirement for spectators. In confronting a piece of contemporary artwork, it opens with a wide range of interpretations, the viewers are invited by the creator to explore their own routes based on several clues and some background information. The viewers are expected to interpret and connect the works and theme of the exhibition with the help of clues and further readings. In such an unclear decoding and exploration process, the exhibition itself has been unconsciously transferred to a space of anxiety. From this point of view, it matches the theme of this exhibition precisely.

 Exhibition View

Text by Emily Weimeng Zhou

Edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Image and related materials courtesy of the organizer except for special annotation.


[1] Franz Kafka, “The Burrow”. The first English translation, by Willa and Edwin Muir, was published by Martin Secker in London in 1933.

[2] Curator Chen Shuyu’s Statement at the opening ceremony.

[3] Edited by Exhibition Text.

[4]-[6] Andreas Gedin, “The Balcony, the Darkroom and the Guinea Pig in Hannover”, translated by Chen Shuyu, 2020.

About the Exhibition:

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“Archiving the Spaces of Anxiety——From the Burrow to the Peach Colony”


Venue:OCAT Institute

Curator:Chen Shuyu

Participating Artists:Andreas Gedin, Hu Wei, Papertiger Studio, Liang Shuo, Lina Selander, Maj Hasager