We have learned to measure the distance between Auckland and Shanghai in kilometres (9,376) but by other measures (cultural, philosophical, social) the span is still evasive. Show me the containers that ferry meaning between these places…
Composed of works (some authored individually, some mutually) by a collective of Chinese and Pākehā artists with crisscrossing biographies, this exhibition presents myriad fragments of Shanghai life. It switches between voices; between perspectives and scales; between drab reality and harboured dreams for the future. So how are we—so far removed from the waters of the Huangpu and Yangtze Rivers—to interpret this Calvino-esque mirage of Shanghai?
Relatable images prepare the way. The talk of transporting golden sand in the work Xiao Pudong reminds me of Oriental Parade’s beach, carefully sifted into Wellington harbour using borrowed Golden Bay sand. Shipping containers stacked on the dock in Let the Water Flow dial up memories of containers and their cranes behind the painted red gates at the Port of Auckland. Perhaps there’s a distant chance these containers are bound for New Zealand, echoing the export trajectory of these artworks… In this way, they seem to stick awkwardly out through the fourth wall, drawing attention to the mobility of these images themselves, as art products.
It is Mr. Kang, whose philosophical sound bites overlay one of Let the Water Flow’s five channels, who dredges up the motif of the shipping container from subtext to the textual surface. After rejecting Hegel’s characterisation of China’s lack of relationship to the ocean as a myth, he tells us, “the key development for global trade is the container…”1 “Containerisation”, as the innovation is known, saw the standardisation of the shipping container and the reduction of messy goods into modular units that can move seamlessly between scales and contexts. The ship, the railroad, and the semi-trailer truck: all connect to transfer these units from one locality to another—even if these localities are worlds apart. So, to return to Field Recordings; the staging of these works so far from the terrain traversed by their subjects speaks most audibly of their own mobility, and the fluidity of ideas within the channels of global contemporary art practice—described by art historian T.J. Demos as “mobilizing the image as much as imaging mobility”.2
What allows these ideas to move between localities and scales: the artist’s studio, the non-profit art space, the biennale? How do these ideas appear legible on foreign soil?
\The naming of this collective as “Field Recordings” signals a documentary posture, and these works operate as a mode of documentary practice. As Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl have remarked, “documentary practices have made up one of the most significant tendencies within art during the last two decades.”3 Documentary has presented itself as an implicit lingua franca for the socio-political concerns that saturate biennales and earnest art spaces alike. Though not (necessarily) clad in a corrugated steel skin, contemporary art sees fragments of place and personhood imported and exported to dispersed regions. Presentations of international subjects, such as this exhibition by Field Recordings in Auckland, are predicated on an understanding of art, and the artist, as mobile—in many cases, more mobile than their subjects.
Implicit in this mobility is the belief that these works are capable of carrying within them some spark of humanity that can connect disparate subjects. This might be the poignant feeling stirred by the thought of a grandmother narrating the change in seasons, as in Tracey Guo’s work, The Nine Days. Or perhaps we are stirred by the crane driver’s (the character we follow through Xiao Pudong) dream of living on a farm and breeding snakes—reminded of our own fantastic yearnings for the future. Certainly, these works are rich with social import and steeped in cultural and historical context, but these refrains are like the hard outer shell of a chestnut; interesting but merely interesting. Cracking them open reveals vulnerable, nourishing innards; a difficult and fleeting (mortal) humanity.
This is to say that audiences are not so much styled as consumers, but as subjects too. The curator Okwui Enwezor has formulated the notion of vérité to describe the variant of documentary practice that thrives within the context of contemporary art. Whereas he sees conventional documentary as engaged in a kind of fixing (by presenting non-negotiable facts), he sees vérité as creating “a possible space for an ethical encounter between the spectator and the other, a space in which truth is not an abstracted mot d’ordre, but instead, as Alain Badiou proposes, a truth process.”4
What Field Recordings presents here is documentary in fragments, loosely reassembled. As the artists themselves have said of this work, “the archive needs to be remade to be useful.” But who is doing the remaking? In their presentation of fragments that are varyingly specific/general and narrative/abstract, Field Recordings encourage readings of their work that are not fixed, instead urging the exhibition’s audience-subjects to remake the work for themselves, embarking on a truth process of their own making. Unlike conventional presentations of video work that designate an ideal or intended viewing position through the provision of seating, this exhibition (with its combination of overarching -scapes and close-range details) alternately draws the body of the audience-subject in and pushes them away, ultimately leaving decisions of narrative assembly up to them.
In recent years, threads of connection between Aotearoa and Asia’s contemporary art milieus have thickened into rope. The Asia New Zealand Foundation has been a consistent sponsor of travel and exchange, and even small and mid-sized art institutions have brought work by Asian artists to their respective local audiences. The 5th Auckland Triennial, curated by Hou Hanru, mined a burgeoning vein of exportable contemporary art practice, fortified by a belief in the legibility of international practice to an Auckland audience. The legacy of “biennale curators” such as Hou Hanru and Okwui Enwezor is built on this transferability—and on their commitment to themes emerging from the increasing mobilisation of people, culture, labour, ideas, and capital. Crucially, they have facilitated moments of encounter not only between the traditional centres of the Western art world and its peripheries, but between places that were both once considered peripheries.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the general anxiety toward China that currently ripples beneath the surface of New Zealand society stems, in part, from a lack of concrete understanding about a place that is, in many ways, seen as an opposite Other.5 Similarly this exhibition’s undercurrents are almost elusively grand: “the tenuous relationships workers have within a globalizing economy”, “The problematic reality of China’s economic development”, or “a Chinese understanding of the relations between man and environment, life and water”. I would add to this that any illegibility has not been aided by the fact that historically our view of Asia has been continually refracted through the lens of dominant empires, namely Britain and the United States. By some sort of Stockholm syndrome, even the notion of the “Asia-Pacific”—through which we peer outwards to Asia, and which we utilise to knit together our respective regions—is imbued with economic and military connotations traceable to a paradigm of American expansionism.6
But as Field Recordings observe, “margins are not just found on the periphery”. Their work traces a litany of junctures big and small, domestic and international, economic and geographic. The result is a complicated portrait irreducible to a clear-cut morality tale of power and privilege seesawing with subjugation. In vérité, narratives inherited from dominant powers are present but not determining. Vérité offers a means of relating periphery to periphery, by opening up a space for truth processes to unfold—and in the absence of the clear moral imperatives that conventional documentary seeks to impart, vérité is driven by individual empathy.
For while Field Recordings’ work engages social and cultural themes, we pin our encounter with the work to its human subjects: Mr. Kang, the silver mine workers, the crane driver nicknamed Xiao Pudong, and the unnamed characters from whose apartment windows we catch glimpses of the waterways. Enwezor has argued that human rights has eclipsed class struggle as the “organising instrument” to which contemporary art orients itself—locating ethics as the central question of contemporary art. At the heart of vérité is an “interplay between fact and truth”; the audience-subject is encouraged to confront the conditionality of truth “as a process of unraveling, exploring, questioning, probing, analyzing, diagnosing, a search for truth or, shall we say, veracity.”7
In this way, this type of practice goes beyond the testimony of conventional documentary. Vérité suggests that perhaps the most fruitful interpretations are the ones that turn inwards, embracing and embarking upon truth processes of our very own. Whereas a World Vision campaign begs of you pity or guilt for the Other, vérité instead urges you toward recognition. It could be said that vérité encourages a search for the Self, whereas documentary encourages only a detached, external search for the Other—the merely interesting shell of the chestnut.
Homi Bhabha has framed this recognition in another way. Writing about the photography of Taryn Simon, he describes a recognition conditioned by precarity and survival, in which we are “fraught with awareness” of our own “internal disjunctions, where rationality and affect cross paths, and leave anxiety and ambivalence in their wake.”8 These are the sparks of humanity listed earlier; the flesh of the chestnut. This is the moment in the truth process when we cross over from asking ourselves “what would we do for these people?” and begin to ask, “what would I do, in these same circumstances?” As Bhabha writes, “The question is not Who is she?… The question is What has become of her?”
We wonder about the fate of Xiao Pudong, and hope that he achieves his dream of farming snakes, because it doubles as a signal of the possibilities for our own lives.9 And the thought of the artist negotiating her grandmother’s memory of the changing seasons becomes doubly poignant—we come to recognise that climate change chips away at not only the stability of the environments around us, but also the certainty of our ancestors’ wisdom in the face of our own precarity.
What will become of us?
1 With an eye on the patterns of art history, shipping containers are, it seems, a motif not only within this work, but of contemporary art’s search for understanding vis-à-vis global capitalism. The theorist and artist Allan Sekula, has described them as the “very emblem of capitalist disavowal”, and the image of containers seemingly propelling themselves across the Atlantic (so efficiently overladen is the ship that it disappears beneath them) in Sekula’s work The Forgotten Space, has remained with me since it was shown at The Film Archive/Artspace as part of the 5th Auckland Triennial (curated by Hou Hanru in 2013).
2 T. J. Demos, The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary During Global Crisis (Duke University Press, 2013), xv.
3 Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, The green room: reconsidering the documentary and contemporary art, Volume 1 (Sternberg Press, 2008), 14.
4 Ibid, 15.
5 “China is enormous where New Zealand is small; it has a poor human rights record while ours is a source of relative national pride; and it is ancient when we are young.”
K. Emma Ng, Old Asian, New Asian (Bridget Williams Books, BWB Texts, 2017), 49.
6 Rob Wilson, “Imagining ‘Asia-Pacific’: Forgetting Politics and Colonialism in the Magical Waters of the Pacific. An Americanist Critique” in Cultural Studies, 14 (3 April 2000): 562-592.
7 Okwui Enwezor, “Documentary/Verité: Bio-politics, Human Rights, and the Figure of ‘Truth’ in Contemporary Art,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 4–5 (2003–2004): 11–42.
8 Homi Bhabha, “Beyond Photography” in Taryn Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII (Rizzoli, 2012), 7.
9 Bhabha writes: “Survival here represents a life force that fails to be extinguished because it draws strength from identifying with the vulnerability of others (rather than their victories), and sees the precarious process of interdependency (rather than claims to sovereignty) as the groundwork of solidarity. We are neighbours not because we want to save the world, but because, before all else, we have to survive it.”
EMMA NG is a writer and curator from Auckland. She previously worked at Enjoy Public Art Gallery in Wellington, where she oversaw a program of exhibitions, publications, and public programs. Emma has written for a handful of publications and is the author of Old Asian, New Asian, which was recently published by BWB Texts. She is currently based in New York City, where she has just graduated with a master’s degree in design research and criticism from the School of Visual Arts.
我们已经学会了用公里测量奥克兰和上海之间的距离(9376公里),却回避了用 其它的(如文化、哲学、社会等)方式测量之间的跨度。请示范给我看我们将如 何在两地之间传输思想 ……
此次展览的作品是由中国和新西兰的艺术家采用纵横交错的传记形式共同制作而 成,展现了上海生活的无数片段,展览在各种声音之间,在观点和规模之间,在 乏味的现实与对未来的憧憬之间切换,那么远离黄浦江和长江的我们,将如何诠 释上海的这种卡尔维诺式的海市蜃楼?
叙述性的影像为此铺平了道路:作品《小浦东》(2017年)中所描述的运输黄沙 的情形使我想到了新西兰东方湾的海滩:尼尔森金海湾的沙子在精心过筛后运往 惠林顿海港。《让水一直流》(2016)作品中堆在码头的船运集装箱勾起了我对 奥克兰港那红漆门后无数集装箱和吊运起重机的记忆。也许这些集装箱将会有一 定的机会运往新西兰,并与作品中这些进出口的轨迹产生共鸣,在此作为艺术的 产物,它们好像是通过第四堵墙笨拙地伸了出来,将人们的注意力吸引到影像本 身的流动性上。
康纳利先生的哲学精选录音与《让水一直流》中的其中一个影像频道重叠,他从 隐含的文本中把船运集装箱的主题挖掘出来并呈现给观众。康先生摈弃了黑格尔 所描述的中国缺乏与海洋的联系的迷思,他告诉我们:“全球贸易的重点发展是 集装箱……”1,“集装箱化”作为人们已知的一个创新概念,见证了船运集装箱 的标准化,杂乱的商品被压缩进了可在各种规模和背景之间进行无缝移动的模块 装置中。船只,铁路和半挂车:所有这一切交通方式相互连接,把这些模块装置 从一个地方运送到另一个地方──即使这些地方天各一方。 回到“现场边”这个 话题,通过采访对象讲述他们自身流动性的呼声,讲述全球当代艺术实践渠道中 思想的流动性来展现作品的舞台与它们穿越的领域是那么的遥远──历史艺术家 T·J·迪蒙斯将之描述成“调动影像和反映流动性一样多”2。
把这个创作团队命名为“现场边”,标志着一种纪实的姿态,作品采用一种纪实 手法。玛丽亚·林德和喜多·史戴尔曾说过:“纪实手法在过去二十年中已成为 艺术领域中其中一个最主要的趋势”。3 纪实已成为表现社会及政治问题的一种 含蓄的用语,而社会及政治关注的问题同样渗透在双年展和策展为主导的艺术空 间。尽管当代艺术不(一定)套在像船运集装箱一样的波纹钢皮里,然而它把地 方和人物的断片看成是从不同的地区引入并出口到不同地域的东西。就像奥克兰 的“现场边”举办的这次展览那样,展现海外人物基于这样一个理解:艺术以及 艺术家是移动的——在很多情况下艺术家比他们作品中的人物更具移动性。
这种移动性隐含着一种信念——这些作品本身具有能够连接不同人物的人性的火 花。这可能就是那种想到一位奶奶叙述季节变化激发的那种凄美的感觉,就如果 子暄的作品《数九》(2017年)表现的那样。或者也许我们被那位起重机司机(《小浦东》中的人物)的梦想所触动,他梦想生活在一个农场饲养蛇,也令我们 联想到自己对未来的美好憧憬。当然,这些作品十分富有社会意味,文化和历史 背景浓厚,但是这些限制就如栗子坚硬的外壳,很有趣,但也仅仅是有趣而已。 敲开坚硬的外壳,露出的是脆弱、富有营养的内核,一个艰难且短暂的(终有一 死的)人生。4
也就是说,受众不仅仅被表现为消费者,而是被表现为主体。策展人奥奎·恩维 佐创立了“真相”这个概念,用以描述在当代艺术背景下蓬勃发展的纪录手法 的变体。尽管他把传统的纪实手法看成是参与一种不变(通过展现不可妥协的 实事),他将“真相”表达成:为观众和他人之间的伦理相遇创造一种可能的 空间,在这个空间里真理不是一个抽象的暗号,而是阿兰·巴迪欧所提议的一个
“现场边”在此所呈现的是松散地重组在一起的断片纪实作品。艺术家们自己这样 评论这个作品:“档案需要重做以便使用”。但是谁来承担这个重做的任务?“ 现场边”在展示各种既具体又普遍,既叙事又抽象的断片时,鼓励人们不要将 他们的作品看成是固定不变的东西,相反,他们敦促此展览的观众/主体自己重 制这个作品,并开启自己制作的真理过程。有别于常规的视频作品,其呈现方式是通过提供座位,设定理想的或预期的观看位置。该展览(结合了总体风格和近 距离细节),交替着把受众-主体的身体拉入,又将其推开,最终将叙述性重构 的决定留给他们。
近几年,新西兰与亚洲的当代艺术环境发生的千丝万缕的联系汇成了绳索,亚洲 新西兰基金会长期为艺术工作者的交流活动提供旅差费等资助,即使是那些小型 和中型的艺术院校,也通过本院校的亚洲艺术家把作品分别带给当地的受众,由 侯瀚如策划的“第五届奥克兰三年展”开创了一个蓬勃发展的可输出的当代艺术 实践,增强了奥克兰受众对国际艺术实践易读性的信念 。侯瀚如和奥奎·恩维 佐策划的“第五届奥克兰三年展”的传统建立在这种可转移性上,同时也建立在 他们致力于表现因人口、文化、劳动力、思想和资产的日益流动而出现的各种主 题。至关重要的是,他们不仅促进了传统的西方艺术中心与其周边地区的交流活 动,而且也促进了两个曾被认为是周边地区之间的互动。
我曾在其它地方说过,新西兰社会表层下隐藏的对中国的普遍忧虑,部分根植于 对这个在诸多方面被看成是另类的地方缺乏具体的了解5。同样,该展览的主题 在规模上不可能庞大。“全球化经济中工人之间的紧张关系”,“中国经济发展 中的现实问题”,“中国人对人与环境,生活与水的关系的认识”,我想补充一 点,历史上我们对亚洲的看法不断受到英国和美国等主要大国的影响。根据某种 斯德哥尔摩综合征,即使我们在面向亚洲,与我们各自的地区结为一体时,所采 用的“亚洲-太平洋”概念也充满了美国扩张主义的含义,带有明显的经济和军事 色彩。6
然而,正如“现场边”观察到的,“边缘不仅仅在周边地区看到”。他们的作 品探索了大国与小国、国内与国际、经济与地理等一连串的交汇点,结果是一个 复杂的肖像无法缩减成一个表现权力、特权、征服的清晰的道德故事。“真相” 中,从主要大国继承下来的叙述有所存在,但并不是决定性的。通过为真理过程 打开一个空间,在没有传统纪实寻求传播的明确道德的前提下,“真相”提供了一种将两个周边地区联系起来的手段。“真相”受个人的同情心驱动。
尽管“现场边”的作品涉及到了大规模的社会和文化主题,我们与作品的联系,是通过与作品中的人物联系:康先生、银矿工人们、绰号叫小浦东的起重机司 机,以及那些从其公寓窗户我们可以瞥见水道的无名人物。恩维佐认为,人权 已经使作为“组织工具”的阶级斗争黯然失色,而这种做法却是当代艺术的发展 目标——把伦理道德定位为当代艺术的中心问题。“真相”的核心是“事实与真 理相互作用”,它鼓励受众-主体在面对真理条件时,把它当作“揭开、探索、询 问、探究、分析、诊断、寻找真相或者说准确性的一个过程” 7。
因此,这种做法超出了常规纪实的证词。“真相”认为,也许最有效的诠释是那 些转向自己,拥抱并开启我们自己的真理过程的诠释。虽然世界宣明会的活动祈 求你对“他人”有同情或愧疚感,但是“真相”却敦促你去认可。可以说“真相” 鼓励寻求“自己”,而纪实只鼓励对“另一方”进行独立的外部搜索——仅仅是 栗子的有趣外壳。
霍米·巴巴用另一种方式定义了这种认可,在他撰写有关泰伦•西蒙的照片的文 章中,他描述了一种以不稳定和生存为条件的认可,在这种认可中,我们对自己 的“内部分离”充满意识,理性和影响相互交叉,沿途留下焦虑和矛盾。8 这些 是先前提到的人性火花、栗子肉。真理过程中,这一刻不是我们问自己“我们要 为这些人做什么”的时候,而是开始问:“在同样的情况下,我该怎么办?”的 问题。正如霍米·巴巴写到:“问题不是她是谁?问题是她变成什么样了?”9
我们对小浦东的命运充满好奇,希望他实现自己在农场养蛇的梦想,因为这更加 预示了我们自身生活的可能性,想到这位艺术家描述她的奶奶对季节变化的记忆 更令人心酸——我们开始认识到,气候变化不仅消弱了我们周围环境的稳定性, 而且削弱了我们的祖先针对我们的不稳定性所具有的智慧。