Panorama: Visual Theater and the Politics of Surveillance
In June 2017, at the Arrow Factory art space in a small hutong lane in central Beijing, Yang Zhenzhong carried out the individual project Fences. He sealed off the space, which only measured fifteen square meters to begin with, leaving only a fenced-off window on the street-facing wall, which fused together with its surroundings, looking completely ordinary. In all likelihood, no one noticed that the window used interrogation room glass. Looking into the window, the viewer saw only their own reflection and the street behind them, and could not see anything in the room, but everything outside could be seen from within the room, and so he placed a camera in the room facing the window to collect everything that passed through the window. Yang Zhenzhong had subverted the surveillance structure of the jail interrogation room. Usually, the surveiller outside the interrogation room can clearly see the entire interrogation process inside, while the interrogator and interrogated cannot see outside, but Yang Zhenzhong installed the glass in reverse, turning those outside into the object of viewing or surveillance (or the prisoner), and the inside into the viewer or surveiller.
This is not the first time Yang Zhenzhong has used the materials of “fencing” and “surveillance.” (1) To be precise, Blackboard (2008) and Fences (2013) were the predecessors to this work. At first, he embedded a mirror into a blackboard, and installed a layer of iron fencing atop it. When the viewer sees the work, it is like they have been locked away in a prison of black fencing. The 2013 Fences was a step up from Blackboard. The viewing logic remained unchanged, with only the structure and size of the installation differing between them. In this project, which bore the same name as the one carried out at Arrow Factory, this visual structure clearly took a turn toward increased complexity, even absurdity. If Blackboard and the 2013 Fences merely relied on the mirror structure, the version of Fences enacted at Arrow Factory is a mirror within a mirror. From the outside, it retains the structure of Blackboard and Fences (2013), except that he installed a surveillance monitor in the nearby “Hardware Store” Cafe. When looking at the monitor (or when seeing it presented as a standalone video work after the fact), the viewer can see themselves being surveilled. Thus, this previously “surveilled” person is actually the viewer or the subject being viewed. In other words, it would appear that the monitor itself is the viewing subject, but the true viewing subjects are those people being surveilled or watched.
Also worth noting is another installation, Watching Store, from 2006, which is rooted in the same surveillance structure. He installed six hidden cameras a small shop near the exhibition space, and connected them to a group of video screens in the exhibition space. The exhibition was only held for five days, during which time the shop was left unattended. The viewers could watch everything that happened and changed in and around the shop through the screens. Then, in Fences at the Arrow Factory, he installed surveillance monitors in the “Hardware Store” Café, a nearby space likewise filled with a sense of everyday life, making the surveillance less prominent. The structure is virtually identical to that of Harun Farocki’s video work Serious Games [I–IV] (2009–10). Of course, this is itself reality, because the ubiquitous camera has long been the norm in city life. George Orwell’s “Oceania” is no longer a fiction, but the truth.(2)
By resetting the position of the viewer or the surveillance subject, Yang Zhenzhong has laid out a complex visual puzzle, a “Theater of the Oppressed” a la Augusto Boal. Boal holds that whether it is Greek tragedies, the comedy of Machiavelli, or even the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht, none of them truly liberates the viewer. The subject is still the theater, and the theater is still in the thrall of existing political mechanisms. Even Brecht, who consciously set out to change this, was limited to intervening in the masses, and did not care about the masses intervening on their own. It is rooted in this reflection on history that Boal proposed the “Theater of the Oppressed.” He treats the viewer as the subject of the theater, with the goal being to resist and rebel against this control mechanism. Here, the theater is no longer an object of viewing, but a political act of completely rooting out the system of oppression.(3)
In Exam (2012), another earlier work likewise rooted in the structure of voyeurism and also marked by properties of theater politics, Yang Zhenzhong seems to have preserved the traditional viewing model. Even so, the act of the scantily-clad schoolgirls mechanically reading a passage from a political textbook clearly alludes to the disciplining of the body. Here, as a classic form of the “Theater of the Oppressed,” surveillance and its political logic become its subjectivity mechanism. This is especially the case today, where surveillance is not limited to prisons, but has long ago spread along with globalization and the internet to permeate every corner of everyday social life. In this regard, Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish have both provided systematic analysis and descriptions of the control mechanisms and intellectual operations models of modern society. Yang Zhenzhong’s practice not only exposes this power operation system, but disturbs this system in order to spread an energy of resistance. Unexpectedly, the exhibition became swept up in a hutong cleanup campaign carried out by the Beijing government for the 19th Party Congress, in which its concealed nature was able to temporarily protect the exhibition space and institution. One could thus say that it intervened in a larger, living political theater.
One year later, the exhibition Surveillance and Panorama (September 2018) at Tang Contemporary Beijing stands as a continuation of this visual mechanism and political logic. Here, he focuses on the dissemination of visual images and channels of visual perception, and has created a political theater rooted, like the control mechanisms of power, in the surveillance structure.
The exhibition comprises three parts. The first part is a looped, revolving installation at the center of the exhibition space, at the center of which is a mirrored pillar with wire fencing, surrounded by six couches made to official international conference standards. Viewers are free to sit down and take in the paintings and video works on the surrounding walls as the couches slowly rotate. The fenced mirror pillar reflects everything that happens around it. The fenced mirror is obviously rooted in Fences and Blackboard, while the 2014 interactive installation Please Sit is the seed for the couches, the difference being that the couches in the 2014 work were not controlled by some center or order, and could even be said to be anti-center or anti-order.
The second part of the exhibition is a corresponding series of paintings hanging on three of the walls in the same space. The paintings are derived from official news downloaded from the internet, from which he extracted images of indoor scenes, many of them of meeting halls, conference rooms or other spaces made to official standards. Due to the absence of people, or his intentional removal of them, these scenes look more like still life paintings. The fact is, however, that these are rooted in a unique political aesthetic system. One can imagine that the decorative style and furnishings, down to the positions of the microphones, teacups and plants, and the subject matter of the background paintings, are all carefully and precisely laid out. Here, however, they are transformed into the most ordinary of still life or landscape paintings. This appears on one hand to be a “re-symbolization,” but also a profanation and violation. Yang Zhenzhong has preserved the low resolution of the images from when they were downloaded, and in the process of magnifying them as paintings, highlighted their granulation and texture, in what Hito Steyerl calls “the poor image.” Meanwhile, from the design of the frames and the background, these images appear to be in the process of being Photoshopped. The frames correspond to the borders that appear in the Photoshop image selection process, while the gray and white grid on the wall behind the paintings is derived from the pattern checkered pattern the program uses to denote the blank background layer. At this time, the exhibition wall is both screen and boundary.
For the third part of the exhibition, he installed four wireless cameras in two hidden corners of the exhibition space and behind two of the couches. Live feeds from the cameras automatically alternate between each other on an LED screen mounted on a separate wall in the space. If the entire exhibition is one large surveillance system, then this part is like a surveillance structure embedded within the surveillance structure, surveillance on surveillance. Meanwhile, the fragmented broadcast on the screen is essentially no different from the paintings on the surrounding walls, which is to say that it is itself a still life or landscape.
It is as Hito Steyerl (4) said, “The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution… Poor images are dragged around the globe as commodities or their effigies, as gifts or as bounty. They spread pleasure or death threats, conspiracy theories or bootlegs, resistance or stultification.” Yang Zhenzhong chose these low resolution images as the basis for his paintings not so much as a “defense of the poor image,” to resist the violence of high and super high definition, but in order to reveal the dilemma of the truth of the image in the Internet age. Without a doubt, the poor image is a sign of the tumult and absurdity of the world today. Yang Zhenzhong intentionally preserved the traces of the image editing process to reappraise the process of editing, broadcast and circulation of images, as well as how this editing, broadcasting and circulation happen. Of course, this also reminds us that the resolution depends on the technical specifications of the surveillance equipment, including the political aspects it entails. If this is a political analysis, he perhaps may not be able to provide the kind of precise specifications and evidence seen in forensic architecture, but he can at least attempt to enter within politics from the side. In this regard, the revolving installation at the center of the exhibition space, and its symbolism, are doubtless the most appropriate interpretation. Along the bottom of the walls on which the paintings are hung, the artist has installed a slope measuring three meters wide and half a meter tall, so that if the viewers wish to see the paintings up close, they must walk up the slope, their physical sense of instability echoing the instability of the political poor image. The slope shortens the distance between painting and viewer, luring the viewer to engage in a tactile relationship with the materiality of the painting in order to differentiate the blurred boundary between image and painting, but at the same time, the discomfort of the body standing at the top of the slope forces the viewer to take only a fleeting glimpse, and hampers the formation of the classic relationship of the gaze, turning them back toward the low resolution images of the Internet and their political properties.
The political nature of the image determines that it will entail an invisible subject or controller, but it is not entirely defined by the perspective of the journalist. The true subject is the rules of politics. At the same time, however, whether it is the Photoshopping, or the repainting, these acts serve to diminish this subject. In other words, the Photoshop operator and the painting practitioner are every bit as much the subject. Their practices on one hand follow the original political subject, or political norm, but on the other hand, they unavoidably betray or resist the rules of this political subject. The “randomness” of the Photoshopped images, and their discrepancies from the paintings, show that they are an act and practice in which any audience member can engage. The reason Yang Zhenzhong hired different painters to participate in the painting of these images was actually in order to emphasize this concept. These painters are just like the other viewers—they are all invisible subjects. These invisible subjects are at the same time participants in the revolving installation at the center of the exhibition space. We can see that a dual relationship exists in the correspondence between the couches at the center and the surrounding paintings and projections. Theirs is not only the logic of control from the center to the margins. There is also an invisible mirror structure layer. These relationships mix together, swaying and crashing against each other to form a visual/ political theater that conveys an alienating power. Furthermore, like Fences (2017), the logic here is still to disturb this power structure at the same time it reveals this domination structure, thus liberating the audience and gaining a new mechanism for subjectivity.
The dominance structure of video monitoring in Fences in 2017 approaches Bentham’s “Panopticon.” Every action and occurrence outside the space is within the realm of the camera’s control. The field of vision was of course limited to the window at that time, but in Surveillance and Panorama , the artist created a full open panorama installation. This revolving gaze reminds me of the “Kaiser Panorama” (fig. 1) that emerged in Berlin in the 1880s, as well as the watercolor painting Unidentifiable Panorama Rotunda at a Fair, with a Peep-Show Man in the Foreground (1840, fig. 2), by Anton Haas. The difference is that, in the drawing of the Kaiser Panorama, it is not the viewers sitting around the panorama that are turning, but instead it is a picture that revolves at the center, while in Yang Zhenzhong’s work, the viewer sitting at the center is doing the turning, while the paintings and projections around them remain fixed.
The structure of the Kaiser Panorama is perhaps closer to the work Long Live the Great Unity, created in 2011. The artwork consists of nine three-dimensional architectural components scattered about the exhibition space in a seemingly random array, but the size, proportions, angles and positions of each component are actually the result of careful calculation. Viewers can walk freely among the pieces, but it is only when they stand in one particular position that the artwork assembles into a complete picture. This picture is an external view of Tiananmen Gate, that center of power, or a “poor” view of it broken by the intrusion of another viewer. Of course, it is because of the latter that the picture we see from this precise position is never fixed. The entry of other viewers makes the picture seem animated. This structure coincidentally echoes the Kaiser Panorama of 19th century Berlin.
The Kaiser Panorama was a visual experiment, as well as a product of mass culture, but Yang Zhenzhong’s practice draws us to the visual dimension. Or, perhaps, power and anti-power are the true center of gravity here. In this regard, it has many commonalities with Bentham’s Panopticon. The political nature of this vision finds thorough embodiment in Fences (2017), and especially in Surveillance and Panorama (2018). The Kaiser Panorama remains in a head-on view, while the Panopticon’s gaze, as seen in figure 3, is all-encompassing. To be precise, this is the true meaning of the “panorama.”
Stephan Oettermann’s book Panorama: History of a Mass Medium systematically sifts through the history of panorama images and their connections to mass media in England, France, Germany, Austria and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries(5). Through the 19th century lithographs Panoramic View from the Gondola of a Hot-Air Balloon (fig. 4) and Nadar Elevating Photography to the Height of Art (fig. 5), the true panorama is not just a bird’s-eye view, but a gaze that can move through the heavens. This is perhaps the earliest aerial photography technique, and it was widespread in Europe at the time. Today, however, the gaze from the heavens has been replaced by the Internet. What remains unchanged is that behind the visible facet or image, there is still a pair of eyes monitoring every corner, with typical examples being the Internet police who can delete any post, the Snowden affair of 2013, or the leaking of US Democratic Party emails in 2016. In 2016, Laura Poitras titled her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum Astro Noise, after the title Edward Snowden used for an encrypted file filled with evidence(6). Yang Zhenzhong’s choice of these political news images from the internet not only alludes to the properties of the internet, but also points to the dominance mechanism of panoramic surveillance. Thus, even though Surveillance and Panorama is unable to provide the full panoramic vision from space, it is doubtless drawing our attention to a more total gaze and surveillance.
In this light, beyond Surveillance and Panorama, we can also view the earlier I Will Die (2000-2005, 2014 and 2016) as a panoramic video installation. Again, the arrangement of the exhibition scene does not fit the panorama form, but its logic, and particularly the Internet recruitment component of the work in 2016, imply that it is essentially a more panoramic practice. These participants recruited from the internet have no nationality, identity, or even gender, and are presented to us as the permanence and impermanence of ordinary life in the physical sense. Each person faces the camera, and perhaps cannot avoid performing. But we cannot know the true emotion and attitude conveyed by this statement. It could be anticipation, resignation, self-deprecation or just an unfelt, unconscious expression. The problem is, when all of these people repeat this sentence collectively, it forms an absurd theater of “living to die.” Through this collectivity and repetition, we can also imagine an invisible controller behind the camera, no longer the permanence and impermanence of death, but a controller or rule set. The 2006 sound installation I Have a Dream was a participatory project, but it was also rooted in this logic of control. He erected a podium on the site, and allowed any viewer to walk up and speak into the microphone. There were no limits on the content of their speech, so they could speak freely, but their voices were transformed live into the voices of a crowd, which filled the space. Unlike I Will Die, in which the speaker is extracted or concealed, the collective images and voices are on display. The collectivized images and voices are not just the product of totalitarianism, but are also the norm for the Internet age. They all have a center behind them, and the so called collectivity is the result of domination (figs. 6 and 7).
Odilon Redon’s 1882 lithograph The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon, Mounts toward Infinity (fig. depicts an eye that is large enough to see all around the world and the skies. Interestingly, in Light and Easy 2, Yang Zhenzhong seems to have subverted Redon’s picture, as he balances the Oriental Pearl Tower on one hand. It is as if the entire city of Shanghai has been lofted into the sky upside down, and he looks up at this flourishing city over his head. According to Stephan Oettermann, we can view this as a panorama image. What matters is that it also originates from a center, the eye that serves as the viewer in the picture. From this we can see that this visual/political dominance relationship permeates Yang Zhenzhong’s imagination and practice as a theme or concept.
Foucault noted that “The formation of the disciplinary society is connected with a number of broad historical processes—economic, juridico-political, and, lastly, scientific-of which it forms part.” As he sees it, the Panopticon “is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use” (7) (see figs. 9, 10 and 11). It is also because of this that it is more than just a set of techniques for administering modern society, but has been seen as an omen of totalitarianism.
Yang Zhenzhong’s practice is not a simple translation of Bentham and Foucault’s theories, but instead employs a microscopic practice in everyday life to reveal the common political mechanisms of the Internet and the panorama. It must be noted here that audience participation is an important component of Surveillance and Panorama. Only when they sit down on the couches around the pillar installation, and look out at the image landscape around them, does the complex subjectivity mechanism emerge.
As for why he chose “Still Life and Landscape” as the exhibition title, Yang Zhenzhong admits it is a scheme to evade the censors. At the same time, it is also because of the sense of the mundane and the “soft universality” of still life and landscape painting, and even touches on the historical origins of the still life and the landscape. According to Victor I. Stoichita, the still life was an outgrowth of religious painting that split off after religious reformation to become an independent painting form with secular symbolism(8). It was the same for landscape painting. Before the Renaissance, nature was treated as a secret that could not be revealed, because it also referenced a divine secrecy. Thus, when the “landscape” truly emerged in the Renaissance, it implied that the painters had turned their backs on heaven, discarded metaphor, and turned toward the land and nature. Research by RégisDebray has shown that the term for landscape, “paysage,” has the root word for peasant, “paysan,” representing a form of lowliness and ugliness(9). In the eyes of humanists, drawing close to nature implied a profanation of classical culture. Only those boorish, uncultured Flemish would see the natural landscape as an independent existence. In fact, the landscape was thoroughly developed in Flanders and Holland. After John Calvin banned religious painting, painters could choose only secular themes. We can see that still life and landscape painting both underwent a progression from the divine light to the “light” of nature and life.
Speaking purely from a visual perspective, still lifes are often up-close views, while landscapes are distant views. At first, however, they were both liberated from religion, gaining subjectivity from the repression of power. This logic corresponds with Yang Zhenzhong’s concepts and discourse. For example, for the Surveillance and Panorama, it is difficult to ascertain which is the still life and which is the landscape, the paintings around the sides or the round installation at center. The two seem more like mirror reflections of each other. But from the field of vision “illuminated” by the power of the panorama, there is no difference between the still life and the landscape. Both are within it. Yang Zhenzhong is not so much interested in the still life and the landscape as subject, as he is in the “light” of secular power concealed behind them.
We can imagine that the so called “imperial landscape” landscape paintings of the Five Dynasties and Two Song periods (such as Guo Xi’s Early Spring and Wang Ximeng’s A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains) are without exception political creations by scholarly officials rooted in the panoramic field of vision(10). If the entire exhibition hall is an empire landscape, then the round installation at center, and particularly the official spaces depicted in the corresponding images around it, are like the palace pavilions that decorate the imperial landscape. After all, Debray observed long ago that the image as a form of “religious materialism” is an activity applied to people(11). This implies that it is, in essence, an operation of power. As Yang Zhenzhong sees it, the ideology that permeates everyday experience is itself a massive discursive space and confluence of energy, and for that reason, he hopes to use perceptual intersections and dialectic hybrids of vision (image) and politics to release more dimensions of power and momentum of life.
(1) In recent years, “surveillance” has become a hot topic in the practices of artists, as is the case in Wang Wo’s ZheTeng (2010) and Surveillance Cameras on Tiananmen Square (2010), Ai Weiwei’s Self-Surveillance (2012), Ge Yulu’s Gazing Back (2016), Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes, and Zhang Qing’s Boundary (2016). If Wang Wo, Ai Weiwei and Ge Yulu experimented with the use of anti-surveillance experiments to directly reference a dialogue with a shared “big brother,” then Xu Bing and Zhang Qing use surveillance as a material or method to engage in video fabrication and narrative aimed at rethinking the relationship between people and society. Yang Zhenzhong’s practice, then, is to use this universal experience of “surveillance” to carry out a sustained exploration of the visual/political mechanisms that permeate everyday life and their complex operations of power.
(2) The public space of mainland China is perhaps home to the densest distribution of surveillance cameras in the world. According to a June 2017 report in the Wall Street Journal, there are 170 million surveillance cameras in public spaces in China, a number that may grow to 450 million by 2020. These surveillance cameras perform two functions: to reduce crime levels and exert political control. Hao Jian, Yu Lao da ge Dui shi: Fang zhuang Jian kong She xiang tou de Zhong guo Dian ying (Gazing Back at Big Brother: Chinese Cinema that Flips the Surveillance Camera), New York Times Chinese site, https://cn.nytimes.com/china/20171011/cc11bigbrother/.
(3) Lu Mingjun, Fu xiang, Zuo wei Yi zhong Zheng zhi Juc hang（The Double, as Political Theater), Artintern Website: http://review.artintern.net/html.php?id=56550.
(4) Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the Poor Image, Liu Qianxi, trans., “Douban” website, https://site.douban.com/241514/widget/notes/17071275/note/508304633/.
(5) Stephan Oettermann,The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, Deborah Lucas Schneider, trans., Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1997.
(6) GuQianfan, Cong “QuanjingJianyu” dao “SinuodengShijian,”ShuziShidai de Jiankongyu Fan Jiankong (From the “Panopticon” to the “Snowden Affair,” Surveillance and Counter- Surveillance in the Digital Age), Art-Ba-Ba website: http://www.art-ba-ba.com/main/main.art?threadId=92700&forumId=8.
(7) Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage Books, 1995, p. 218.
(8) Victor I. Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting, Anne-Marie Glasheen, trans., New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
(9) RégisDebray, Life and Death of the Image: The History of Seeing in the West, Huang Xunyu and Huang Jianhua, trans., Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2014, p. 167.
(10) Shih Shou-chien, Shan Ming Gu Ying: Zhong guo Shan shui Hua he Guan zhong de Li shi (Echoes Across Mountains and Valleys: The History of Chinese Landscape Painting and its Audience), Taipei: Rock Publishing, 2017, p. 17.
(11) Debray, p. 89.
Translated by: Jeff Crosby