A Conversation with Professor Dai Jinhua and Director Zhang Yang at HISFF
From left to right: Moderator Yuan Yue, contemporary artist Xu Bing, director Zhang Yang and professor of Film and Literature from Peking University, Dai Jinhua. (Photo credit: Beijing News, bjnews.com)
July 22, 2018, Beijing — Hua International Short Film Festival (HISFF) held the panel “How to Renew Chinese Traditional Art Concepts Today” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). The panel coincided with UCCA's exhibition "Xu Bing: Thought and Method", a 40-year retrospective of Xu Bing’s works, attracting many artists and art-lovers from homeland and abroad. At the beginning, the organizer screened Xu Bing's experimental film Dragonfly Eyes. Panelists Xu Bing, director Zhang Yang, music critic Yuan Yue and Dai Jinhua, professor of film and literature at Peking University discussed the concept of Dragonfly Eyes and the relationship between traditional and contemporary art.
Dragonfly Eyes is a fictional film entirely made of surveillance camera footage, all of which come sourced from public streaming websites. The film tells a bizarre love story between a girl named Qing Ting and a technician named Ke Fan. Through the “invisible” crises hidden in our mundane lives and the inexplicable turns of events that lie beyond our grasp, the film reveals the vulnerability of human emotions and our anxieties about contemporary life.
Regarding the film’s concept, Xu Bing believes that using surveillance camera footage to make a fiction feature creates strong tensions. In a traditional movie, every frame is a performance, but in a movie made of surveillance video, everything we see has happened in the real world. Such a film is neither a drama nor a documentary, but an artwork that denies categorization. To make Dragonfly Eyes, Xu Bing and his team collected a large amount of surveillance recordings streamed online, and repeatedly modified the script according to the videos. The production process shows significant departure from traditional filmmaking.
Xu Bing spoke at the salon (picture from China Literature and Culture, cflac.org.cn)
Professor Dai Jinhua highly praised Xu Bing's creative use of surveillance videos. She pointed out that through reassembling instantaneous, realistic, and fragmented images, Dragonfly Eyes told a humanitarian story and explored a philosophical proposition: the pursuit of the inner self. This kind of exploration is exactly what Xu Bing has been seeking in his artistic creation. He returns to ontology and the media itself to convey the opposites of what things may appear. According to Professor Dai, we are in the era of mass information and images; it is the era of "no truth in the picture" in which Xu Bing uses images produced by non-human devices to create a movie about human.
Director Zhang Yang related his own filming experience with Dragonfly Eyes and commented on the boundary between reality and fiction. He started paying attention to the boundary during his own film, Paths of the Soul. At that time, he observed life, extracted its essence, and asked actors to play themselves instead of fictional characters. However, a film shot in this way is still a fiction, even if it exhibits a better understanding of the balance between reality and fiction. He used a fictional drama to imitate reality, while Xu Bing, on the contrary, sought fictions within the reality. Zhang Yang also highly appreciated Xu Bing's courage to create Dragonfly Eyes. He believed that Xu Bing jumped out of the traditional narrative mode and broadened the definition of film. Contemporary artists in the non-film realms are able to create films from different perspectives, adding more possibilities in the experimental nature of images, the complexity of media, etc.
After listening to other guests’ comments, Xu Bing added that his choice of presenting Dragonfly Eyes as a film was an artistic choice. What is told in the film is not necessarily what the artist really wants to express. In Dragonfly Eyes, Xu borrowed from blockbusters movies to tell a classical love story in a serious way, but the story itself is irrelevant to what he wants to say. As an artist, Xu Bing likes to “sound East, hit West.” For example, he created a lot of false Chinese characters for his work Book from the Sky, then carved them out and hand-printed them on paper. Viewers may think that this book must be very important, but these illegible characters that attract people to read resist anyone’s entry. On a superficial level, the work seems to only concern books. However, Dragonfly Eyes is additionally about the passive and ambivalent human knowledge in today's rapidly changing era, among many other things.
Back to the panel’s theme “How to Renew Chinese Traditional Art Concepts Today,” Xu Bing believed that the traditional and the contemporary could not be absolutely determined. The traditional and the contemporary were like two sides of a magnet; they were repulsive when put together, but they were always interdependent. Therefore, we should not isolate these two; we ought to see the fluidity in them. Xu Bing's work is contemporary, but its core reflects certain traditional cultural characteristics. In the Thought and Method exhibition, works such as Book from the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy are examples of the marriage of the traditional and the contemporary.