From April 14th to May 26th, Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou held an exhibit on Chinese director Wang Bing, showcasing both his photography and documentary and feature work. At the same time, the center screened several features by Spanish experimental filmmaker Jaime Rosales, extending the “conversation” both artists began with the Centro de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona’s “Correspondence(s)” series. However, these features were shown in traditional cinema spaces, while the exhibit area itself included Wang’s portraits and installations alongside Rosales’s entries into the “Correspondence(s).” If there was a dialogue, then, it wasn’t so much between the Chinese director and his Spanish colleague, but rather between the former’s photography and his own filmmaking.
Wang had originally intended to study architecture, but entry requirements schooling were so steep in the early 1990s, that when it came time to pick a college major, despite spending years preparing for architecture school, he finally chose photography at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts. But he would find his real vocation in cinema, and after graduating from Lu Xun, he continued his studies at the Beijing Film Academy. As he admitted in an interview for New Left Review: “Personally, I was not particularly attracted by the seizing of a given moment; for me, the moving image was far more interesting.” Nevertheless, he never stopped “seizing given moments,” though he owes his international reputation to his “moving images,” especially his nine-hour documentary epic West of the Tracks from 2003.
At the Pompidou, the director’s photographs were hung on parallel white partitions standing in the middle of a rectangular area. All of these images had some connection to the artist’s documentaries, a thematic link reinforced by the layout of the exhibit: The partitions, facing each other, produced corridors which led the eye toward the west side of the rectangular area, where various projected installations played simultaneously in niches separated by black curtains. Among them: Crude Oil, a 14-hour real-time depiction of petroleum extractors; Father and Sons, about a stone caster who migrates to Fuming and is deposited by his factory in a deplorable shack with a single bed, which he must share with his two boys; and Happy Valley, Wang’s “letter” for the “Correspondence(s).”
Photographs and installations have no beginning or end, or they do, but every visitor determines the length of his or her observation. A traditional film, on the other hand, requires that viewers stick with it during a certain span of time. They might leave halfway through, and often do at festivals the world over, yet that’s always a betrayal; in silence, viewers must sprint up the steps of a darkened hall in order to emerge outside the cinematic bubble. Photographs and installations, on the other hand, occupy the more porous grounds of a gallery. The latter might have running times, like films, but they don’t begin or switch off at certain hours, except those in which the building that hosts them is open to the public. True, the same work can function both as film and as installation. But in each case, what changes is the viewer’s behavior.
This is important for Wang, because he delves into both forms. The exhibit at the Pompidou, as mentioned before, included several of his films, among them The Ditch and Three Sisters. Like his installations, his features play with duration, not only through gargantuan running times, but also across prolonged takes in which, it seems, not much happens. Yet, inside a cinema, this duration is something to endure, while in a gallery, the projection can be abandoned and returned to later. This deemphasizes the fact of duration, since it’s no longer necessary to endure it, and foregrounds more architectural elements, as the moving image becomes part of the space that contains it.
In Father and Sons, the camera focuses on a solitary bed in a shack. A boy lies down and busies himself with his cell phone. What he reads, feels, or thinks is never revealed, and audiences can only contemplate his sheer presence, surrounded by paper bags sagging from nails and clustered plastic bottles resting on the ground. Behind the boy is the back wall of the shack, standing perpendicular to the camera. This wall, cut off by the limits of the frame, is extended and continued by those of the immense Parisian edifice on which the image is projected. From outside, the Pompidou Center can look like an unfinished monument of scaffolds and colored pipes, but this boldly modern and lavish establishment is obviously quite complete. Father and Sons reconfigures one of its interior walls and turns it into that of an actually unfinished and ruinous hut in the middle of China.
On the nearby white partitions were several photographs also titled Father and Sons. These frozen moments were paradoxically more dynamic and lively, more mobile, than the installation that shared its name and subject matter. Now the boys could be seen throwing rocks into the distance, on a hill overlooking nearly identical towers; or standing on a tree holding toy guns, the sunlight almost blurring their figures into silhouettes; or sitting on the aforementioned bed, involved with their cell phones or handheld devices. Viewers, who don’t expect animation from a photograph, can imagine the action—the whole drama of movement before and after the captured instant, the rocks lifted from the earth, thrown into the horizon, finally making their way back to the ground after completing their downward arcs.
There’s nothing to actually see outside the image, and how long viewers stare at it comes down to choice. The installation provides information and context missing from the photographs. It shows the waiting and tedium that surrounds the above pastimes, gives them meaning as escapes from boredom through friendship and childish adventure. In turn, the pictures provide quick glimpses of the boys’ activities, which the expansiveness of the installation obscures in its oppressive monotony. If the former establish the variety of these boys’ hours, the latter reminds us that these youngsters are nevertheless floating on a stream of deprivation: loss of opportunities, of civilized conditions, of government institutions, of public works, of time. These kids have nowhere to go and waste their days getting there.
However, installations like “Father and Sons” and “Crude Oil” aren’t really about duration. In his previously cited interview with New Left Review, Wang admitted that “Crude Oil” was meant for galleries and that, thus, he doesn’t expect many people to sit through the entire 14-hour running time. This is far from new: In the 1960s, when Andy Warhol was releasing mammoth works like Empire and Sleep, he suggested audiences look at his projects as they might moving photographs, changing subtly as viewers go on with their lives. Even those artists who avoid galleries share a similar idea: At the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, during a panel discussion on the theme program “Film Without Film,” filmmaker Chris Petit argued, “Duration is built-in in the ’cinema contract’; what I do deals with duration. In a gallery I get ’gallery nerve’: ’How long do you look at a photograph or an installation?’” (I owe this observation to Dana Linssen)
Despite its colossal length, Crude Oil is built for fragmentary engagement. Indeed, Wang himself couldn’t endure the demanding shoot in the Qinghai province: Brought down by altitude sickness, he left the filming to his crew three hours into the process. The result is an austere document of mundane choreographies, as workers fit pipes into an oil well or chitchat over breakfast, in extensive uninterrupted takes inside mess halls and drilling rigs. By contrast, the 18 minutes of Happy Valley can reasonably be watched from beginning to end. It tracks the daily chores carried out by the crushingly poor denizens of Xi Yang Tang: a woman prepares large tubs of mud-food for the pigs; men drop pressed grass roots into a hearth as fuel; and three underage sisters, abandoned by their mother and left alone while their father recuperates from a wound in the hospital, simply exist in their barren house, a desperate situation that mirrors—but far surpasses in misery—that of the boys in Father and Sons. While this short “letter” to Jaime Rosales is a glimmer next to the immense topography of Crude Oil, its purpose is similar. In one scene, the eldest sister whacks one of the younger ones on the leg with a twig, prompting the latter to break into a searing wail toward the heavens and to drop the potato she held on her hand. As in Father and Sons, the walls of the house, on which the crying child is resting her back, blurs into those of the Pompidou.
Wang’s huts and drilling rigs invade the space of the exhibit. It’s not viewers who dive into the screen, as the metaphor of immersion usually implies, but the screen that overflows into the viewer’s world. Any depiction of poverty for the consumption of more affluent audiences runs the risk of fetishizing its subject, turning it into an impenetrable Other. Wang counters this, having his images seep into the gallery so that viewers feel, somehow, that what they see is where they are. Yet, despite this act of spatial magic, viewers are obviously not in mainland China. They’re still in Paris, at the Pompidou. By smudging the borders between shack and gallery, the limits between them are reinforced. As one is transformed into the other, it becomes manifestly obvious that they couldn’t be more unlike each other, even if the installation offers the illusion of inhabiting both at once. The questions that arise are simple and even naïve, and no less troubling because of it. Why are they there and we here? Why that place and why this place? Why do both exist and what have any of us done to deserve them?