Cheng Ran: Diary of a Madman

Cheng Ran, In Course of the Miraculous, 2015 (still). Wide-screen HD film, 5.1 surround sound, color; 468 min. Courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation, Erlenmeyer Foundation, and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne
Photo: Cheng Ran
Behind-the-scene. Image: Courtesy of Artist Cheng Ran
Cheng Ran in New York. Image: Courtesy of Artist Cheng Ran
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Video Art Asia by COBOSocial.com

Born in 1981 in Inner Mongolia, video artist Cheng Ran is watching his career go increasingly international in the last year. Now, he is in New York as artist-in-residence at the New Museum, preparing for a solo show opening October 19. He was selected for this opportunity out of 50 young Chinese artist, based mainly on his major work of 2015, In Course of the Miraculous, a nine-hour film tracing three parallel stories about adventurers who disappeared on their journeys. That work was premiered at the Istanbul Biennale and later shown during Art Basel Hong Kong. The film and his residency in New York are funded by the K11 Art Foundation, who has been supporting the artist’s career for the past four years.

TEXT: Babara Pollack
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and K11 Art Foundation

 

Cheng Ran, In Course of the Miraculous, 2015 (still). Wide-screen HD film, 5.1 surround sound, color; 468 min. Courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation, Erlenmeyer Foundation, and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne
Cheng Ran, In Course of the Miraculous, 2015 (still). Wide-screen HD film, 5.1 surround sound, color; 468 min. Courtesy the artist, K11 Art Foundation, Erlenmeyer Foundation, and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne

 

I originally met Cheng Ran in Hangzhou where he attended the China Academy of Art and continues to live. In addition to showing me his marvelous videos, he was kind enough to chaperone me around to other artists’ studios in far flung neighborhoods in the city.  So I was delighted to be able to see him again in New York where we sat down to discuss his plans for his upcoming show, Diary of a Madman.

 

What are you planning for this exhibition and what are you doing with your residency?

I plan to shoot 15 videos in a way like diary entries.  The videos will be about different fragments of New York, such as pigeons on the streets of New York.  Also the trash bags.  Also some about people.  For most of the videos, we have actors and they will have short scripts. Most of the actors don’t speak Chinese but some of the script is in Chinese and they need to learn to say the words. So it’s about exchange of languages and ambiguity.  The actors will tell stories that nobody can fully understand.

 

What is your inspiration for this show?

The whole idea comes from the first modern novel in the Chinese language, Diary of a Madman, written in 1918 by Lu Xun.  In the book, the writer uses a fictional character’s diary as a metaphor for society’s concerns. I will use that kind of strategy. All of the characters will have my perspective and point of view. There will be fifteen videos, some very short, only a few seconds and one lasting an hour and a half. That long one will be four musicians recording live playing a kind of sound art, more like noise music.  So the plans is that there will be 12 speakers set up surrounding the exhibition space and you will hear the recording of the band.  It will be an atmospheric sound, coming in and out, growing dimmer and getting louder.  It will be dynamic.

 

Photo: Cheng Ran
Photo: Cheng Ran

 

 What is your reaction to getting this opportunity to come to the United States and make work here?

I am really happy of course. In the beginning there were a lot of other candidates and I was very honored to be selected as one of the candidates.  Then I had a skype meeting with Massimiliano Giono (the chief curator of the New Museum) and I shared my future plans. I was very excited to be selected. I am also very happy to be in America.  I had impressions of the United States that I got from the internet, books and movies about America. I read the crime novel, 8 Million Ways to Die, which is set in New York City.  Also, the famous movie Taxi Driver.  But I don’t yet know it because I’ve never been here before.  But when I came here, I saw streets that were in the movies, so it’s very exciting.

 

Tell me about your nine-hour film, In Course of the Miraculous. How long did it take you make it?

One year for planning and writing the script.  Then, one and a half months of shooting. Even though it looks like it took place in three different countries, it was all shot in China and Tibet. One of the stories is about the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, who vanished during his 1975 journey across the Atlantic. We filmed that part in the studio. We built the sea in a 400-meter space.  So it looks like a sail boat in black sea but it is all artificial light.

 

Image: Courtesy of Artist Cheng Ran
Behind-the-scene. Image: Courtesy of Artist Cheng Ran

 

I don’t think I’m one of those video artists who has to make a film. But I am really interested in doing something that is unbelievable or impossible.  For a video artist, the most impossible thing is time.  I watched ten films that were seven hours or longer.  A Chinese commercial film is one and half hours long and a Hollywood film is two and half hours but there are people in the world who make long films.  They’re not really commercial but they are important. I watched Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Also Wang Bing who made a seven hour documentary about northern China.  Also, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. I wanted to do something that people can watch like a movie for whatever amount of time they stay there, whether it’s one minute or five hours.   It is not like Andy Warhol’s Empire where nothing happens in nine hours.   We still have a script.

We were working with 40 people for filming with not such a big budget, maybe 2 million rmb.   For independent movie, normally you have 3; million or 5 million for a very shaky movie but we had a; very good team.  It was not very easy. If I said to a cameraman, we have one month to make a nine-hour movie, he would say it is impossible.  Also the script writer, he said impossible.  I had to talk to everyone in the main team to make them become very crazy, very ‘not professional’, so that way we could make it.  I edited it myself over three months but you can’t tell.  You thinka major movie company did this job.  If I find a good editor and company to work on this film, I would have to pay 3,000 rmb an hour, I would have no money.  I had no budget for that so I bought a computer for 20,000 rmb and did everything by myself.

 

Cheng Ran in New York. Image: Courtesy of Artist Cheng Ran
Cheng Ran in New York. Image: Courtesy of Artist Cheng Ran

 

What did you learn from that experience and will it influence the videos you are making now in New York?

Yes, I learned that even if it is documentary, a film should be beautiful, of course. I think beauty is an important part of a film. Even a trash bag I want to make it beautiful. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve only been to my studio twice in one month because every day I go outside. I think New York City is my studio. It is not easy because I am only a visitor. I only stay here three months. I can’t make a film about New York but I can tell you about myself in New York. And I have found many beautiful places, not just the city but also the water around here and the forest. I found a ship grave yard in Staten Island and a beach filled with bottles at Dead Horsebay in Brooklyn.  I think I am making something with is between memory and the present.

 

How do you know Adrian Cheng and what do you think about the way his foundation has supported your work?

I met Adrian Cheng in 2011 in Shanghai in Leo Xu’s gallery.  We just sat in a very small room and I quickly showed him what I was doing.  It was a very quick introduction. I thought he is very open minded and very insightful. He knows how to connect the people with the fine art world.  His perspective is wide and international, so he connects everything, the art world, the real world, the artists and the museums.  He supported me a lot, one time in Palais de Tokyo, then the film and now the residency. Besides this support, Adrian doesn’t interfere with a young artist’s art practice. The thing Adrian provides is opportunities to show in good institutions. He wants to learn ideas from young artists and how to support them. He gives a lot of support to young artists but allows them to be independent.

 

Cheng Ran: Diary of a Madman
19 Oct 2016 – 15 Jan 2017
New Museum, New York

 

About Cheng Ran

Cheng Ran (b. 1981, Inner Mongolia, China) lives and works in Hangzhou, China. His work has been featured in numerous biennials and group exhibitions, including “SALTWATER: a Theory of Thought Forms,” the 14th Istanbul Biennial, (2015); “When I Give, I Give Myself,” the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam,  (2015); “Inside China,” Palais de Tokyo, Paris, (2014); the 8th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennial, China (2014); “ON|OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice,” Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2013); the 26th European Media Art Festival, Osnabrüeck, Germany (2013); and “Video Art in China –MADATAC,” Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2011). Cheng Ran’s recent solo exhibitions were presented at: Unlimited, Basel, Switzerland (2016); the K11 Art Foundation, Hong Kong (2016); Qiao Space, Shanghai (2016), YUAN Space, Beijing (2015), Discoveries, Art Basel Hong Kong (2014), and Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai (2014). Cheng Ran was nominated for the first edition of OCAT & Pierre Huber Art Prize in 2014 and the Absolut Art Award in 2013, and was named the “Best Video Artist” by the art magazine Randian in 2011.

 


Barbara Pollack

Since 1994,  Barbara Pollack has written on contemporary art for such publications as The New York Times,  the Village Voice,  Art in America,  Vanity Fair and of course,  Artnews,  among many others.   She is the author of the book,  The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China and has written dozens of catalogue essays for a wide range of international artists.  In addition to writing,  Pollack is an independent curator who organized the exhibition,  We Chat: A Dialogue in Contemporary Chinese Art,  currently at Asia Society Texas and she is a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She has been awarded two grants from the Asian Cultural Council as well as receiving the prestigious Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writer Grant.

 

 
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