PLATFORM CHINA CONTEMPORARY ART INSTITUTE, BEIJING
Seven medium-sized photographs, four videos, a few paragraphs of text: Zhuang Hui’s solo exhibition appears as a re- strained and simple archive, as if to highlight the fact that the real exhibition is presented through absence. In the summer of 2014, Zhuang created two groups of installations—one deep in the Gobi Desert and the other in the ruins of an abandoned city at the intersection of Gansu, Xinjiang, and Qinghai Provinces—and left them in place there. Although they are nearly 1000 kilometers apart, both groups of works echo each other like a constellation of stars. This show is not a straightforward copy of Zhuang’s art in the landscape; its purpose is not just to question and render redundant the institution of the art gallery. It would be more accurate to describe his starting point as the circuitous excavation of his own memory. Only through a close reading of the archival record on display can one see the path from the work in Beijing to the Gobi and the ruins.
Entering the space, we see two old photographs ten centimeters square, a single-screen video, and three pictures hanging on walls to the right and left. Faint pencil markings on the wall describe the moment when, in 2011, Zhuang Hui experienced a shock in space and time. In the summer of 1990, the artist, then 27 years old, and his friend Lian Dongya traveled by motorcycle from Luoyang to Lhasa. On their way through Aksai Kazakh Autonomous County they met a girl called Mu Lili, who took them to the nearby Dangjin Mountain to watch the sunset. There Zhuang took two photographs that he treasures to this day. This was a moment that pointed to the future: two young people looking wordlessly into the distance, the set- ting sun lighting up the red of Mu’s sweater as if to symbolize the idealism of their youth and of the 1980s. In 2011, Zhuang Hui, now nearly 50, traveled back to the same place, only to discover a new town completely unconnected to what he had seen 20 years earlier. Local people told him that the new town was built from materials brought in from elsewhere. The old town had been abandoned, its natural resources exhaust- ed. When Zhuang rode his motorcycle out to the remains of the old town dozens of kilometers away and saw that it was a pile of rubble, he was shocked to the core. This past summer, Zhuang returned again to the old town. With the help of the artist Song Yuanyuan, he painted the images of those two photographs onto two remaining walls, calling the work Looking for Mu Lili.
Optimism for the future has given way to the broken walls of today’s China, which takes on a mythical quality of temporal and spatial dislocation. In the gallery space where this archive is displayed, visual reminders of these three points in time reflect and interact with one other; the two facing walls form a space of memory into which the viewer wanders, experiencing the stillness of a moment frozen forever in time. The present does not necessarily always lead to the future, and perhaps the future is not even worth waiting for.
Perceptions of time and space, the institution of contemporary art, and ruins all ferment together in this single moment of realization in 2011, and the energy produced at that time spurred Zhuang Hui to create these installations in the desert. The four photographs on the left side of the space document Zhuang’s Gobi works. In situ, these works span a kilometer; with- out a helicopter, it would be impossible to view them together. It took Zhuang two months to find a site in the desert without a trace of human activity within a 50 km radius, placing the work outside human history. In Leaning 11°, a replica of the Grand Fountain from the old Summer Palace, placed in the Gobi Desert, is stripped of its function as a historical ruin, while the remnants of demolished buildings in Untitled and Carpenter’s Scraps are themselves rejected fragments of history. They are left abandoned in the natural splendor of the sky, sunlight, clouds, and desert, naturally weathered in time by the sands. Zhuang creates a monument that undermines the very idea of the monument, planting in the desert a puzzle for archaeologists of the future.
The challenge of creating work in the Gobi Desert and the impossibility of viewing it in person together forms a paradox full of tension. This exhibition is deliberately uncomplicated in its use of material, which limits communication between viewer and artwork. More could be made of this rich archive, and we might see more clearly the light from this constellation.