Huang Ran, Blithe Tragedy, 2010, single-channel video, color with sound, 14 min. 56 sec.

In 1967, Sony released the Portapak portable camcorder in New York. This household camcorder, with its playback function and lightweight, easy-to-use design, would rescue moving images from exclusive use by professionals and deliver them into the hands of individuals for their own memories and imaginations to manipulate. Twenty years later, China reached a similar turning point. By the end of the 1980s, television had become the average person’s primary mode of entertainment, and Chinese at the time were reeling from the uproar of societal change while experiencing consumer-sensory overload. The appearance of video art caused a frenzy among artists. Compared to the more traditional art hanging rigidly in art museums, moving images seemed alluringly restless: they were inherently provocative, placing the realms of the virtual and the physical in dialectical juxtaposition; with the medium’s art-world debut, video art’s association with radicalism was effectively inevitable.

Minsheng Art Museum’s recently opened “Moving Image in China: 1988-2011” is the most complete retrospective to date of the evolution of video art in China. The exhibition is organized chronologically, dividing the history of video art in China into four phases: “1988-1991: Media Criticism and Deliberation of Bio-Politics” is defined as artists’ preliminary explorations of the aesthetic value of the medium of video art itself and the nature of its language; “1994-1999: The Grammatical and Construction of Video Media,” which marks the maturation of video art, when technique reached its creative zenith by drawing from media including photography and film; “2000-2005: New Media Practice as Consciousness, Poetics and Sensibility,” in which the boundaries between short film, performance, and video installation became blurred; and “2006-2011: Boundary: Diversified Moving Image,” which witnessed video’s integration with digital technology, animation technology, ink painting and other image-based multimedia strategies.

The exhibition organizes the works conservatively, by time period. What makes this classification work is its focus on the structuralist correlation between the various symbols within a particular time period. The strong point of displaying the works as such goes without saying: no matter the manner of artistic expression, the audience is able to make its way systematically through the relationships between the works, and through their underlying historical context. Even so, the periodization of works tends to pose the medium as simply a vessel for information, overlooking the unique context created by the medium itself, and perhaps taking the information for a mere reflection of objective reality.

Yang Fudong, Backyard—Hey, Sun is Rising!, 2001, single-channel video, black and white with sound, 13 min.

Once the audience has entered the exhibition hall, other than a few works from Chinese video art’s nascent phase near the entrance, such as Zhang Peili’s 30 x 30 and Yan Lei’s 1500 cm, the remaining works almost seem to have been released at the same time for the same exhibition. Perhaps in the beginning we still have a sense of time, but slowly, as time encroaches, the subtle differences demarcating the periods become diluted by the differences among the works themselves. Through this fog of time, the conceptual visual experimentation of other works also from this early period transforms into a kind of collective interest— narration. This corresponds with the notion of China as one immense, implicit motif nagging at every work. Supposing narration were the theme of Chinese video, then the retrospective of Yang Fudong’s works that occupies most of the ground floor exhibition space is a prime example. It seems excessive, and yet is not: in this eight-screen video installation of his work, titled One Half of August, narrative has already given way to pure visual technique.

The exhibition raises its share of ontological questions about its subject medium: What can video art do that painting and photography cannot? What language is exclusive to the medium of video art? What are its boundaries and limitations? In his 1982 essay “The Fact of Television,” philosopher Stanley Cavell discussed how the uniqueness of video as a medium lies in the imagination of the viewer, whereby “incessant” and “here-and-now” collective surveillance becomes possible. The object of this scrutiny can vary greatly: from sporting events, national days of mourning, rocket launches, and natural disasters, all the way down to the security guards who monitor entrances to large building via rows upon rows of security monitors. This type of surveillance comprises video’s distinctive model for transmitting and its mentality for receiving.

When discussing video art, it is difficult to continue using the information-centric view of communication theory, which naïvely takes the physical aspect of the medium as a mere vehicle for conveying information. As a reproduction tool, the camcorder not only reproduces completely identical images, it also generates completely different interpretations of those same images. The philosophical and aesthetic values of its fundamental form are vital to the medium. As Walter Benjamin said, no matter what form mechanical reproduction takes, the reproduction inevitably engenders even more information; preservation of the integrity of the original is impossible. Art theory takes the ambiguity of images as an axiom; video art succeeds in going a step further and intensifying this characteristic.

Video, with its instability and the uncertainty of the meanings it conveys, represents an especially formidable force for the critique and deconstruction of the mainstream discourse’s thirst for stability and clarity. This also explains why— no matter whether in China or the West— video art always emerges in a radical social context. In the anti-mainstream-television video movement “Guerilla Television” of the 1970s, video served as an immediate, effective instrument for disseminating information to the public, becoming the ideal creative medium for social movements. Even today, in the Middle East, Poland, and Russia “Guerrilla Television” still frequently appears, assuming the same anti-mainstream posture. Even though from a technical standpoint the earliest phase of Chinese video art is dull and crude, by the same token it has an undisguised marginalized and dissident quality.

Generally speaking, we cannot regard video art as merely a tool for representation, used only to recollect or document the original source material. On the contrary, video terminates the source material’s very transmission— what Heidegger called “the forgetting of being.” It is an imitation, a virtual reality only. The truth of an image has nothing to do with the authenticity of the image itself, but rather with the viewer’s relationship to the image and the context in which the image is received. The viewer becomes the protagonist in video art. This exhibition seems to follow the tradition of the glorification of auteurism, and in this regard the arrangement of the exhibition seems slightly conservative, lacking novelty and playfulness. If it were possible to draw attention to the distinctive features of video as an art form itself while pursuing a rational method for grouping these works, then the audience would certainly have an even more enlightening experience. Tang Lingjie (Translated by Caly Moss)