Ruan Qianrui transports the visual and sonic landscapes of Beijing’s experimental music scene to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
This January, I heard that Ruan Qianrui was coming to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for a collaborative exhibition with Experimenter En Couleur, a member of the London-based Audio Architecture collective. In continuation of a Beijing-London collaboration that was established at the 2007 Dashanzi International Art Festival in Beijing, the connection between Audio Architecture and reigning Beijing lable Sub Jam was recently restored with “Local Whispers.” Following the recent publication of his book, Burned Blueprint, which chronicles his design work for Sub Jam over the past five years, a music critic in Beijing spoke to how Ruan “has almost singlehandedly articulated the visual culture of Beijing’s experimental music scene.”
“Local Whispers” opened on January 28 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it so happened to be the last Friday of the month, so their doors stay open until 10pm. With a few friends in tow, I arrived at the South Kensington underground. The V&A, with its unusual subterranean entrance, can be accessed via the winding corridors of the subway system. Moving through the underground tunnels, we observed how part of the “Local Whispers” exhibition was displayed in these passageways. Craning our necks upward we could see banners hanging from the ceiling with scrawlings in Chinese and English. These banners were painted during the afternoon prior to the opening, though both artists chose to write in their non-native languages, as Ruan Qianrui taught the British artist how to render Chinese characters. On the two walls hung Ruan’s black-and-white posters printed for Sub Jam. The contrast of the black-and-white ceiling and walls formed a kind of tacit agreement with the works on display. The artists had finished testing the sound and object installations in the V&A’s Gallery 55 that afternoon, and the space was beginning to fill in with an audience of anxious spectators when we entered the place.
Gallery 55 occupies but a single corner of the V&A, serving as one of two studio spaces that connect the two formal exhibition halls. From the fretted ceiling hangs British modern artist Cornelia Parker’s work Breathless, composed of various brass instruments strung together with metal cables. As part of the “Local Whispers” exhibition, a projector casts images from the second level through Parker’s piece, shadows and image fragments falling onto a screen. The silent video presents a collage of Chinese imagery compiled by the Sub Jam and Audio Architecture artists. In the middle of the main hall we find the most impressive work in the entire exhibition: objects suspended from the ceiling, including traditional Chinese paintings, album covers, books, LPs and more, all tied to white balloons tethered from ropes floating above in the heights of the gallery. At the base of each tethered balloon are headphones for spectators to listen to mp3 recordings.
The audience was led to imagine linkages between the sounds and the floating objects. A number of guests brought children into the space, including one who believed that the sound was being produced by the balloons themselves. His inquiry brought a kind of spark to the atmosphere of the exhibition space. When asked by my friend about the significance of the paper money hanging from above, I explained how they were given as offerings to the dead, and when he put on the headphones, he felt as though he had been transported to a bleak, empty space. I also considered the relationships between the objects and the sonic accompaniment, and then opened my eyes to realize that the images on the screen were not silent, but had sound as well. What my senses perceived was directly dictated by my visual and sonic surroundings, and perhaps this was the intention of “Local Whispers”: to question the objectivity of our intuition, imagination, and memory.
Over the course of the exhibition, the artists involved in “Local Whispers” were in constant interaction with the audience, which included charging the mp3 devices from time to time. The project created a space for interaction and engagement. Sponsored by the British Embassy’s Cultural and Educational Section, the participating artists will take part in a studio exchange, and fuse together the concepts of the British and Chinese artists for another exhibition at the end of the year. The British artists also plan to visit China and further develop the concepts in “Local Whispers” with a show in Beijing.