Little tales from our ordinary lives… How can their story, with its many meanings, be concentrated into constantly changing images? Here are a few simple stories from Yang Zhenzhong, a visual artist born in Xiaoshan, a small town near Hangzhou, and not far from Shanghai where he now lives, works and holds exhibitions.
Viewing his photographs and video installations is like a journey into clever visual parables. In 1995, his series entitled Lucky Family fixed a cockerel and hen for eternity, then the two birds with their cluster of chicks, mocking the typical picture of families and togetherness that, until recently, was so fashionable. He used photographs-snapshots of weddings and family celebrations-preparing them in the studio against a brightly coloured background, like an advertisement. Hen and cockerel were again chosen to mock human behaviours in his short video, 922 Rice Corns, presented at the 'Big Turin 2000' exhibition and at 'Home', another exhibition held in Shanghai. It shows in close-up the exquisite detail of a load of grains of rice thrown on the ground. The camera pans in on a hen and a cockerel beginning to peck greedily, while a woman's voice counts the grains eaten by the hen and a man's voice those eaten by the cockerel. Also shown are three meters recording the performances by the hen, the cockerel and the two together.
Initially, Yang only approached video as a tool for recording his 1995 performance, Shower. To fanfare music in the background, a fully-dressed young man stands under a shower, rubbing soap on every last bit of his body-head-cap, feet-trainers, legs-jeans, body-shirt-before rinsing and drying himself assiduously. His first real video work was I Am Not A Fish, an installation from 1996, in which three monitors located behind an aquarium show the same picture of a thick-lipped human mouth. The mouth was shown very close up, inverted upside down, resembling the mouth of a fish. It repeatedly murmured:"We are not fish".
An energetic noise comes from a remote-controlled toy. The camera is fixed on the little racing car. Fast, jerky driving. The apartment is seen from floor-level. Quickly into reverse to avoid the legs of the giant furniture. It is called Sleepwalking Is A Therapy, 1997. Three monitors show the artist welcoming everyone entering the gallery with a big smile. On the centre monitor, he slips away when visitors approach and the visitors themselves end up on the screen, caught by a camera placed at an angle, and therefore all shown leaning to the right. The visitors therefore have to lean to the left to make themselves upright on screen: Balance, 1998. A plaster is coming slowly unstuck from a piece of hairy skin on a screen, accompanied by an annoying sound. The same scene is repeated through all the colours of the rainbow. On the table is the object of the crime, the plaster, and two photos showing before and after the operation: Trace, 1998.
In 1999, Yang Zhenzhong filmed Shanghai, hanging a mask in front of the camera lens, almost expressionless if it were not for the mask's fixed smile. The mask partially covers the swarming passers-by, rippling and occasionally blocking out the light. Under its features, anonymous people hurry by. In the installation, the projector is on the ground, the screen on the ceiling, and between them is a see-through tank filled with water. The image passes through its liquid magnifying glass. The vibrations of noise from the street that are replayed on the video unsettle the surface of the water, which in turn unsettles the face of the city: The Face of Shanghai.
"Shanghai is on the way to defining itself on the international stage", explains Tang Di, now an art critic in Beijing. "In the 1930s, the city was at the forefront of the artistic avant-garde. Many intellectuals sought refuge in a cosmopolitan colony that enjoyed immunity and fed off foreign influences. Nowadays it's open and conservative. It is market driven, but lacks the roughness of creative urgency. It's running so fast and its people have to bear the consequences of this rapid change. On the one hand, they happily embrace the new wealth, but on the other hand, they feel lost. It's like jumping onto a boat, only to find yourself being unable to do anything but leave your fate in the hands of the mighty force of the sea. The smiling mask in The Face of Shanghai is more of an existential question mark. It is void of expression, as if it were saying 'so what?' to the surrounding crowd."