Yang Zhenzhong’s “Don’t Move”/by Colin Chinnery 2011

“Don’t Move” is an order, but it is not clear who is giving the order and to whom it is addressed to. “Don’t Move” could also be a declaration, addressing our relationship with movement and its relationship with the moving image. As a declaration, “Don’t Move” is perhaps the ultimate anti-movement statement, recanting 20th century political, social, and artistic movements – an era when the past or even the present was an intolerable obstacle to reaching a Utopian future. During the modernist era, movement was not only a call to action, but also a call on the movement of time itself. Today we feel the contrary; a slipping into an indefinite state of contemponeity, where time all but stands still, and the seemingly unlimited choices before us cancel each other out to keep us in a constant state of indecision and hesitation. Indeed, we cannot move as we are exhausted after racing through the 20th century, and need time to reflect and consolidate.

Don’t Move, Video installation

There is a fraught relationship, however, between movement and the moving image. The history of the moving image is a challenge to our own sense of movement; our movements have been captured on screen for a hundred years and we, in turn, have been sitting docile and motionless while watching the movement of our own image. The hypnotic affect of narrative cinema was decried by the documentary filmmaker Vertov as early as the 1920s, followed by Brecht, Debord, Adorno, Baudrillard and others since. But just as our contemporary era has seemingly lost its sense of historical or narrative time, video art has liberated the moving image from the grasp of narration. The exhibition viewer is no longer a passive consumer of a spectacle, but is free to move around the exhibition space where the video work is displayed. The emancipated visitor can choose to watch each video as long as he/she desires, fundamentally altering the relationship between the moving image and us. The video no longer has to tell a story, or create a sense of purpose, but mirrors our sense of non-historical time. Contemporary time seems to be in an indefinite loop, just like the contemporary video. It is in this context that we can better understand Yang Zhenzhong’s statement “Don’t Move” and the eponymous work of this exhibition. In this work, 12 faces of the same person utter “don’t move” from all around the exhibition hall. They seem to be speaking to the audience, imploring us to stop moving – to give the moving image back its historical power of persuasion. But as the image of each face shakes, twists, wobbles, and zooms in different orientations, it is just as likely the statement relates to its own unrelenting and senseless movement. The tension between the face and its out-of-sync clones creates a schizophrenic relationship between the singular and multiple. We try to stay one person, but that is impossible. We are constantly being fractured, or perhaps refracted, through the mechanisms of technology, and society.

The relationship between singular and multiple is a theme running through all three works in this exhibition. In the work Don’t Move, a single person explodes into twelve twitching versions of itself, each moving and yet not moving: the affect of movement has been produced by the camera alone. The protagonist exposes the mechanisms of the camera as he attempts to break the spell of its manipulation, and thereby introduces the artist behind the camera. The artist asks the actor to tell the camera to stop moving, but the artist controls the camera, and the audience is unconscious of the camera’s presence. In this way, a reflexive relationship between audience, protagonist, artist, and his medium is established.

This relationship between singular and multiple is reversed in Spring Story (2003). In this work, Yang Zhenzhong asked 1,500 employees of Shanghai’s Siemens Shanghai Mobile Communications factory to each recite just a few words from Deng Xiaoping’s famous 1992 “Southern Campaign Speech”, editing it together to recreate the whole monologue. Reminiscent of their part on a Siemens assembly line, each employee was only aware of the few words they were asked to recite, unaware of the larger narrative they were helping to reconstruct. This relationship between the one and the whole forms the very basis of the functioning of society, as each member of a society is meant to make a meaningful contribution to its wellbeing and development. The politics and battles of the 19th and 20th centuries was to a large extent a struggle between different ways of harnessing the energy of society to the most powerful effect. The anonymous tedium of the industrial assembly line was an early capitalist symptom of this social and economic experiment, and a socialist version of this relationship between the singular and the whole can be encapsulated by a call in the 1960s to follow the exemplary example of Lei Feng’s “screw spirit” after he declared his humble desire to be just a small but never rusting screw in China’s revolutionary machine. The desire to be liberated from the processes that turns people into spare parts stems from a breaking away from the dominance of large narratives and movements. Being aware of the narrative, whether it is exploitation for a profit margin, or social engineering for a revolution, gives one the power to break free from its dominance. Narrative, it appears, always has someone controlling it. This was the “narcotic” effect of narrative cinema that the Soviet documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov found so objectionable, and it is for the same reason why Berthold Brecht desired to create theatre and cinema where narrative devices became apparent.

Spring Story, video

Here it becomes important to address the narrative of Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Campaign Speech” and its relevance regarding Shanghai’s Siemens plant. After spring 1989, Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping’s political platform was under threat from powerful left-wing elements within the government. In order to safeguard and expand the far-reaching economic reforms implemented since his rise to power in the late 1970s, he started a tour of south China in 1992 at the age of 88. He gave different versions of the speech recited in Spring Story in the Special Economic Zone cities of Wuchang, Zhuhai, Shenzhen, and Shanghai to show their prosperity, harness popular support, and push for China-wide economic reforms. The speech stressed the importance of “liberating the people’s productive forces”, creating vigorous economic development, and emphasized its difference with Mao’s doctrine of the “expansion of productive forces under socialism”. The expansion of productive forces meant the expansion of mass labour, forged and coalesced under the revolutionary zeal of the proletarian masses. This revolutionary machine’s power depended on “screw spirit” and the more screws the better. Deng’s policy of “liberating productive forces” instead stressed the individual as a singular and creative productive force. The economy no longer relied on the whole, but on the individual. The narrative was no longer dictated by the Central Government alone, but each individual could have a say in his or her own fate, albeit under the watchful gaze and guidance of the Central Government. This was the central tenet of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics being articulated by its architect Deng Xiaoping. This speech, made all across the country, was a watershed event in the expansion of economic reforms that lead to foreign investment ventures such as the Siemens plant where Spring Story was shot. Deng Xiaoping even created the very location of the plant, Pudong, as a hub for economic development. The close relationship between Deng’s speech and each worker at this electronics plant is tied up with the idea of narrative. The liberated productive forces as individuals can now speak for themselves, to an extent. Yang Zhenzhong hands over the narrative of this paradigm shifting speech to the workers, no longer screws in a revolutionary machine, but nevertheless still tied to a central narrative.

This central narrative, however, was no longer clearly defined as during the Mao era. Once released from the burden of class struggle and proletarian revolution, each person had the far more subtle challenge of navigating an environment with no more certainties. One had to learn how to “catch mice” on their own, in order to be one of the few to “get rich first”. Identity could no longer be allocated – one had to find one’s own. The new narrative, it could be argued, has been the task of finding an identity in a fluctuating society with no more grand narratives to cling to. Yang Zhenzhong’s series of photographs Wrong Way Round refers to this new struggle. Wrong Way Round is a series of double portraits where each person is photographed with their face and back to the camera. Each person comes from a different age group and profession, and each wear a set of clothes that reveals their identity. They wear their clothes, however, the wrong way round. This creates a split between each person’s personality as expressed through their face, and their social or professional identity as expressed through their attire. One can either see their face or their identity, but the two cannot coincide. This fundamental dichotomy between inner and external identities betrays uneasiness at the heart of contemporary identity. Without any grand narratives other than the need to survive, what links our inner and external selves?

Wrong Way Round, photograph

This brings us back to the title of the show, “Don’t Move”. The need to escape master narratives has left us in a vacuum, filled only by our need to express an abstract sense of material identity. Like the faces in the work Don’t Move, we look as if we’re moving, but we actually stay still. Only the mechanisms of society and politics give us the impression of movement, just like Spring Story approximates autonomy of narration without being able to alter the narrative. These three works by Yang Zhenzhong brings together different perspectives for understanding narrative and identity in contemporary China as affected by its recent history. The question is, what is today’s narrative, and how to formulate our identity in relationship to it? This question is particularly pertinent in Beijing this spring.

1. The title Spring Story also reminds us of an important early episode of Deng’s legacy. Deng’s policy of “seeking truth from facts” led to the Xidan Democracy Wall in 1978 where people expressed their grievances relating to the Cultural Revolution. Like the “Southern Campaign Speech”, the truth campaign was aimed at consolidating his power base against those who benefitted from the Cultural Revolution, and resulted in a brief period of open dialogue about political liberties known now as “Beijing Spring”.

2. This refers to Deng Xiaoping’s famous quotes from the 1980s, “No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.” and “Some must get rich first!”

by Colin Chinnery/2011