中文English

No. 1 — A Conversation between Ruijun Shen and Zhou Tao

Ruijun Shen (RJS)

in conversation with

Zhou Tao (ZT)

 

Recorded: 28 September, 2017

Location: Guangzhou

 

 

Ruijun Shen (abbreviated as RJS):

Let’s start from ‘The Worldly Cave’, your new work. What are the ideas behind it?

 

Zhou Tao (abbreviated as ZT):

The name of this work comes from a village located in Qujiang District of Shaoguan. It is a village composed of three or four smaller villages. Yet it no longer exists now, as local mining companies had forced them to leave. I went there in 2014, so I borrowed the name of this place. Although it is a disappeared village, I still find the name very intriguing. In fact, the content and material of the video have nothing to do with the village, and none of the images is shot in that village, I just used its name. Despite the fact that it is not the location for shooting, the work has transformed “The Worldly Cave” from a specific place name to a topography.

 

RJS:

Where did you shoot the video then?

 

ZT:

As I spent two years shooting, I actually travelled to many different places. First I shot around Dafu Mountain in Panyu, Shaxi, Foshan, etc., around the districts of Shunde and Panyu. Another main shooting place is the city Yingde of Qingyuan district. For example, the bridge underpasses in the video, the one which at the beginning a lot pedestrians walk around or pass by, and the underpasses keeps recoiling, layer by layer, as if reflected in a mirror. It is a bridge in Yingde. I’ve also shot in Phoenix, Arizona, and on Menorca Island in Spain, as well as in Gwangju for the sea surface. I usually shoot in journeys, randomly, or sometimes I will go somewhere specifically to shoot.  

 

RJS:

So you didn’t find these places intentionally. You just carry your camera, and shoot whatever you feel right.

 

ZT:

Basically yes, that’s the rhythm. But I also need to find some places intentionally. For example, when I am invited to work in a place, I have to go there. Then I cannot make my own choice for the place, right? But for some places, I don’t think too much, or maybe when it’s not a very restricted work place.

 

RJS:

You just mentioned that this work actually spans across the world, including USA, Spain and many places in Guangzhou. But when watching the video, it is hard to distinguish which image is from where. Why did you blur the specificities of these places? What do you mean when you mention ‘topography’ and ‘place’?

 

ZT:

When I mention ‘place’, it is very specific. For example, I have been to Gwangju in Korea, Phoenix in the States, and Menorca Island in Spain, or Barcelona. Although these all sound like very big places, but actually I only worked in very small places in these specific cities. Sometimes it’s because I just worked for a short time, yet sometimes I worked in a small place for nearly three months. I would then have a relationship with people, and know about some stories, histories, etc. But for some places, time I spent there was fleetingly short. Therefore, for me, places are multi-layered, and very specific. Also, contingency is very significant. For example, you might discover something even before you arrive at the place, and start working in advance. As soon as I’m interested in something, I’ll start working. This stresses more on a instantaneity, rather than a detailed scheme like a script.  

 

This working state determines how to sample a place. Once the number of places increase, and the people involved keep moving, for example from A to B, from hometown to other-town, from one city to another, from the city to the countryside, from the mountain area to anywhere else, etc. This mobility between places seems more interesting. As mobility allows no homogeneity and synchronization in the surface level of a place, instead ‘fractures’ and ‘cessations’ continue to emerge. In fact, I would place more attention on the space released from such ‘fractures’ and ‘cessations’, rather than any visible scenes – my attention keeps entering into the visual ‘fractures and blanks’. The moving places and moving topography are not notions in geographical measurement, of course they are related to film narratives. Let’s go back to ‘The Worldly Cave’. When I edited the film, materials kept coming in, therefore I kept changing the editing, which then resulted in such a film. I also consider the relationship between lighting and topography, and what does film ‘narrative’ mean to me. So to speak, I don’t intentionally portray the objective topography of a place. I start from the bodily instantaneity. That is why you cannot distinguish the two.

 

 

Zhou Tao, video still from The Worldly Cave (2017)

(courtesy to the artist)

 

 

RJS:

Can I say that when you make the film, or when we perceive your film, it’s not to perceive one place around your world using one concept, but rather using a specific temporal-spatial relationship? Or using a relationship you have with that place to perceive different places? Is that the reason behind the film’s effects?

 

ZT:

Yes, probably. I also want to emphasize one point. It may seem that my work appears to be made by merging together random shots. But I actually have some considerations. For example, in ‘Blue and Red’, I focus on the light at night, the layers of LED lights in public squares. I noticed a sense of skin in such lightings. When I was working for ‘The Worldly Cave’, I used a Sony A7s camera, which has a sensitivity range wider than any other cameras. It even surpasses human eyes in terms of visibility and sensitivity – it can sense a wider span of shadows and brightness. It can clearly sense something that we can only see a blurring outline. Since ‘Blue and Red’, this compatibility of light and topography that leads to a film narrative has become what my works naturally focus on. Of course we can take our time to slowly discuss what is topography. This is also a question I set for myself. The technological features of light and colours are significant in ‘The Worldly Cave’. The camera keeps hammering out your eyes, and you have to continue to adapt your working method for new machines or media. They become part of your body. These technology advances will gradually form the second layer of skin. From ‘Blue and Red’ to ‘The Worldly Cave’, I discussed two questions: one is a sense of skin, and another one is the growth of the second layer of skin. It is highly possible for the perceptive experience of topography to take place on this derivative layer of skin. ‘Cessations’ and ‘blanks’ are not emptiness; their relationships with the topography could be gradually linked up. 

 


 

Zhou Tao, video still from The Worldly Cave (2017)

(courtesy to the artist)

 

RJS:

In other words, new technology extends our perceptions. From ‘Blue and Red’ to ‘The Worldly Cave’, your use of lights and colours brings out a feeling of apocalypse or Hollywood blockbusters. Why are you captivated by such effects?

 

ZT:

During the three or four years of making ‘Blue and Red’ and ‘The Worldly Cave’, I have been more and more attracted to how the most basic lighting in films can produce perceptions and sensations. Everything in a film is produced by lights. That is how the medium works. There’s light, and then there’s everything. The whole technical system and visual system are actually sensitive technologies. One of the important aspects in ‘The Worldly Cave’ is that I shot a lot during the transition time from dusk to darkness. The city lights become brighter, yet the daylight dimmer. It is a battle between artificial lights and daylight. I think the topography only emerges in this kind of environment.

 

RJS:

What do you mean by ‘topography’ here?

 

ZT:

For example, you can see the kind of construction waste hills in the video. They are actually in dump sites, which are very close to us. There are five this kind of hills in Shenzhen, all artificially piled. When daylight dims, the city lights begin to rise up and bounce back from the bottom of the clouds, the sense of illuminance formed by all the light beams is in the middle to lower range of the spectrum. Many objects change into a different state in such atmosphere. In other words, their appearance completely differs from the clear and articulated image during the daytime. It conjures up memories. It’s a time when yin and yang encounter. The lighting in ‘The Worldly Cave’ is based on this moment. Most of my working hours begin at this time of the day. In United States, I would go to rocky mountains in the deserts of Phoenix, or the area near the zoo, or a hunting ground at 4 or 5 a.m. It’s before the dawn breaks. Light before sunrise is very beautiful. The tone has a lot to do with the topography. If the technology of image sensing gives rise to the derivatives of mortal bodies, it could be said then, the materialistic specificity of the topography is the derived skin.

 

RJS:

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend about the building of Chinese gardens. We spoke of the method of landscaping, taking the western landscape gardens as the contrast. Though differing from the renaissance gardens that emphasize geometrical symmetry and fixed-point perspective, the western landscape gardens are similar to landscape paintings whose rules are used in dealing with the gardens’ foreground, background and composition. Wandering in a landscape garden is as if seeing picturesque sceneries one after another. What about Chinese gardens, especially the one as big as the West Lake? In fact, the landscape of Chinese garden landscaping doesn’t only refer to the one seen by eyes. The meaning of landscape is inclusive of, for example, landscape of sound. West Lake is said to have ten sceneries, one of which is a scenery of sound. What gardens provide you is a comprehensive experience which then constitutes a landscape. It’s not limited to the visual scenery. It’s an experience of all sense, not just restricted to that which is visualised from the perspective of a static point.

 

ZT:

I think what is similar to a stroll in garden is that inadvertence might also be good. Once you noticed it, it might no longer be there when you turn around and look. This kind of situation happens all the time. Same with shooting, you might feel ok with what you’ve shot, and very excited about it, but actually, it doesn’t necessarily become the thing you want. In other words, once you set a purpose and create tasks, it easily disappears. You’ve said that the landscape garden provides comprehensive experience, to me, the garden itself is part of a ‘current’. It only exists as a current in nature, and with the body. It could never exist on its own. With mountains and trees outside of the garden, with air, humidity, wind, temperature and light, it forms a current, thus an idea of nature. Now, a return to nature becomes a major problem, which means the current has been damaged. The garden looks like a lonely squatter. It has became a subjective imagination, a metaphor, and most of all, a ‘perfection’. Once it’s perfect, it’s in a mummified time. Visiting a garden is the same as visiting a pyramid. Today, it may be more important to think of where this level of current is situated.

 

RJS:

Yes, returning to the past is unlikely. The garden is actually a carrier of reference, allowing us to learn to observe the world with a multi-dimensional perspective, to face the ongoing life. During our discussion, a word keeps hanging in my head, which is what you spoke of, this ‘mobility’. It’s also an ‘obscurity’, neither A nor B. Mobility is a state of being in between. Also the ‘infrastructure’ which you mentioned earlier, is in between the built and the unbuilt. Also the lighting you use is in-between dusk and darkness. You seem to be very drawn to ‘obscurity’ and the ‘in-between-ness’, including a obscurity of places.

 

ZT:

Maybe. It might be because it’s a state or situation in the middle of a process. But in fact the images in my mind are often very clear and certain, not anything in-between. For example, the construction waste hills that I photographed, assembling Mount Fuji, which I find extremely powerful, are nothing in-between. Yet they could be that which occurred in the middle of the process. So my concern is not necessarily an in-between zone in actuality. I photograph a lot during daytime as well, so it could hardly be recapped by a range that is ‘in-between’ or ‘obscure’. But I might understand your question, the feeling of obscurity and chaos. Yes, all my films have this kind of feeling. I don’t plainly spell out actions in turn. For example, a man picks up a cup, pours water, mixes medicine. And as he finishes the drink, his body undergoes a severe symptom of dying. I won’t prudently delineate this process, allowing you to see clearly what poison he took. Shooting a scene like this is rather easy, the difficulty is that no one would deliberately tell me to film him or her when taking the poison.

 

 

Zhou Tao, video still from The Worldly Cave (2017)

(courtesy to the artist)

 

RJS:

When I look at your artworks, I think you are very calm. The works are not sensational, and I feel that you want to keep certain distance. 

 

ZT:

Because the problem I want to solve is not related to how viewers shed tears in cinema, how they become sad or how their moods swing. I do not hope to deploy their emotions as means, and I do not really care about external emotions. Yet for me, the film indeed bears certain flowing emotions: it seems something is about to happen, but no one is really sure. These people bustle around, run about, but in the end, there is no explosion. In fact, I know much about those accidents and deaths; I simply didn’t show them straightforwardly. Why that construction waste hill collapsed? Where did the soil go when building new underground lines or a new city? People are not very concerned about these things, right? These most fundamental issues always reveal problems of people’s basic living environment. We are always surrounded by some kind of silt. They are like side effects, negative and useless, yet are inevitable silted organs. Excess and derivatives. It’s like WeChat Payment. We only consume numbers now, but banks still need to print large amount of cash. There are so many mobile phones, so many products, and so many technology updates. The more people’s appetites are stimulated, the bigger they become. However, it’s excessive and beyond what we actually need. I think construction waste are not easy to digest and recycle, it is silt-proliferation. The same goes with digital camera, as the technology keeps being updated and challenging human eyes. What’s after 8K?

Human eyes cannot sense resolution higher than 8K. Ang Lee has used 4K and 120 frames per second for his film, what if 8K and higher frame rate appears? Exchange of sense organs with implanted chips? Maybe we can see what wolves see? By borrowing virtual digital system? Maybe we will live completely in this silt-proliferated world in the future. The nature and gardens you talked about might be very beautiful, perfect classicism, or classic complex. But such classicism is actually quite fragile. It is a perfection that is at a distance from us. The gardens are more like specimens. Yet the system of silt-proliferation never stops. For example, if you have stopped taking the medicine for your lung, then other side effects start to appear, so you have to take more to maintain your body. The classical, elegant and perfect natural complex is definitely not a medicine, maybe you can slow down, yet at the same time, you might fail to slow down.     

 

My working method is more like filming a documentary, but I’m not making an ordinary documentary. For me, it’s not the closer to the objective truth, the better. It is impossible to record any objective reality. As long as there’s editing, or even it is only one shot without cut, there’s still perspective. Why adopting this perspective, why not film from the back? It is impossible to re-make the reality – it is colourless and odourless, has nothing to do with you. What you see as subjective reality is actually your body and mind, which does not actually belong to that reality. That reality has no colour, no odour, no mood, no emotion, no ‘appearance’, so the reality you see is simply produced by your senses. Before, when I shot, I don’t change any colour settings, as I believe the reality can be more honestly presented in this way. However, later I discovered that besides Canon’s colour system, there are also others, like Arri’s and Sony’s. Which one is more realistic then? That is a difficult question. So I think a new word appears for this situation, it’s ‘correction’ or ‘contest’. Due to the colour systems of different cameras, representation of the reality becomes ‘correction’. I don’t mean the correction techniques involved in editing or adjusting colours. It is the feelings. Filmic emotions only emerge after undergoing contests of colour systems. Today, it is no longer the kind of contest between Hollywood and New-Wave films. It is the ‘correction’ of feelings towards reality, coming from the derivative skin. You mentioned that ‘The Worldly Cave’ brings out a feeling of apocalypse. Where and how does this feeling come? The directness of this direct reaction comes from the reality, yet the reaction is a ‘correction’. This question is worth deeper discussions.  

 

Let’s talk about the ‘distance’ you mentioned above. In fact, I still believe in ‘images’, video or film images. The images themselves bear distance to the reality. This image of light and shadow connects human eyes and body senses. The image is loaded with ‘attraction’. It is loaded with smell of human. This distance is actually a subtraction; it is the ‘shortest distance’ to face the reality. It is not a sociological or any other concept. This smell is very important. Although it is consistently challenged by 8K or higher resolution and higher frame rate, I think the challenges will also incite images. The decline of images is the technological mutation of skin (human eyes and body).

 

Of course I want a studio that has a working area for criss-crossing various cases. Mobility and observation are in constant changes. Actually, every time I only finish a work because I need to do an exhibition. But I continue to work and the film continues to change after exhibitions. This working state means that it becomes very hard to predict how a work looks like when it’s finished, or the form it will have. So basically it’s never ‘complete’, or I cannot see the ‘complete’ now. I can only put the stress on the ‘intensity’ of feelings, and regard it as a living body. Perhaps I am an anti-modernist out-and-out.

 

RJS:

You often say that, when shooting, a living body takes shape through the approach of sampling. The film is alive and not a monotonous narrative, and it discusses a question. Why do you choose this approach?

 

ZT:

The film as a sample. As I keep changing working places, I can work more closely to the ground, rather than working only with brain and imagination. The sample in the middle of the film reflects my thinking and observation, and also it carries something completely out of my imagination and consideration. This is really a kick. The film is not to directly tell other people what my opinions are and what I agree or disagree on. It is a living body.

 


 

Zhou Tao, video still from The Worldly Cave (2017)

(courtesy to the artist)

 

 

RJS:

It’s interesting that you said you are an anti-modernist. Nowadays, reflection upon modernity is a quite significant question.

 

Zhou:

I think everyone has different understandings on modernity. But I believe people’s chasing for modernity is unstoppable. Modernity involves too many specific questions; it is such an enormous issue. Conversely, it is embarrassing when we talk about a return to the nature, as we are absolutely no longer situated in that nature. We are living now in modernity, living in the technological process of derivative skins. We talk about ideas or returning, yet all these are happening on top of the additional skins. This cannot be ignored. Maybe the words I mentioned before, like ‘correction’, ‘topography’, ‘mobility’, ‘cessation’, ‘blanks’, and ‘derivative skins’ are all response to this question.

 

RJS:

I have another question. I remember you once mentioned to me that you would sometimes look at literati paintings, what’s the purpose for that?

 

ZT:

Actually I have little knowledge on traditional Chinese paintings. It’s just a coincidence that I mentioned it to you. But it also provides another point of reference for me, in addition to a point of globalization. When I film the construction waste hills in Shenzhen, light during evening was dim, therefore a different atmosphere emanated, which awakened my memory of Chinese landscape paintings in my brain. That’s the reason for me to check back some catalogues of Song and Tang paintings. Then I suddenly remembered I really liked Zheng Sixiao’s famous painting ‘Ink Orchid’ before, and I was also very interested in Zhao Mengfu. I realized that what I liked a lot all belong to the Yuan Dynasty. So I had a look at paintings of Yuan – the painters at that time would draw one single blade of grass, or five persimmons, or a horse, or a few small trees grown out of a rock, with nothing in the background. I started to get curious, thinking why these literati paintings appeared during that time. I think a time-related question might hide behind this. We can actually refer back to film history, films like The Arrival of a Train or Man with a Movie Camera are evidence of early filmmaking. I think it’s easier to connect with my works in this way. Early films do not have a well-established production system compared with later ones. They focus more on direct bodily reactions. If we regard the more and more complex production system as ‘indoor’, then early films are more wild, more straightforward, and more crude, more like ‘outdoor’. Actually this trait of ‘outdoor’ accompanies all along the early phase of filmmaking. In my own process, I deal with different questions in different stages. These questions form my observations – which are not simply about what I see, but also how I see. Look at again at the paintings of Yuan, they are actually in a quite special and significant time period. I discovered the existence of a kind of ‘ground time’. As I usually develop my imagination during the topological narratives, place mobility, sampling of cessations and cuts, or space of cessations and blanks in my work, I often consider the question of how to narrate topologically. I believe I also see this ‘ground time’ in Zhao Mengfu’s or other literati paintings of Yuan. The shapes and cracks of the construction waste hills resemble the strokes in literati paintings. However, these are two completely different things: one is a derivative, the other submits to the laws of nature. I think this conflict invokes an observation.

 


 

Zhou Tao, video still from The Worldly Cave (2017)

(courtesy to the artist)

 

RJS:

I have two points to respond to what you’ve said. One is about time. Is it because China was split during Yuan, so that the artists and painters expressed using that type of ‘topography’? Is that also similar to the current social condition, and also the ‘topography’ you observed? Another point is about the strokes. I find it quite interesting as I have been to Mount Tai once, which has a texture that very well resembles the strokes for painting rocks in Northern Song landscape paintings. I was thinking why Chinese literati only painted this rather than any others. Later I got to know that this kind of texture is a result of crustal movement, of rock collisions. I think the reason for artists to select certain topics is because the topics correspond to certain ideas that they want to express in their minds. The same goes with strokes. Different types of strokes are formed in the process of delineating different kinds of rocks.

 

ZT:

The construction waste hills as a topography is also a product of man-made movement. To observe these hills, or to understand and look at these hills, as they are definitely not just appearances, is to look at today’s social conditions – how to make connections with today’s issues. I think this observation derives from the feeling I had when the constrction waste hill was bathed in dim light, which invoked a comparison with the landscape paintings in my memory. Let’s first talk about calligraphy. It is abstract, and a kind of written narrative of forms and meanings. The strokes in literati paintings actually come from calligraphy. The strokes are re-combinations of forms and meanings, which match the inscriptions on paintings. Compared with the paintings of Tang and Song, the ones of Yuan suddenly became so clean: a few rocks, a few grass, almost all background is erased, become ‘blanks’. I think what is erased and the act of ‘erase’ is more important. It is not only connected with the split China at that time, there is also a layer of re-understanding the soil for culture. It happens when Chinese’s culture is under huge stress, thus they need to re-consider how they could survive. The subtraction and purification in paintings, with an erasure of grand background, actually bring about a greater dimension. This ‘erasure’ is actually a ‘harvest’, which can be likened to a re-obtaining of soil and ground. I call this new layout a happening of ‘ground time’.

 

If we look at that ‘ground time’ from the perspective of topological filmmaking practice, you will hear a trace of echo from a distance, you will sense the ‘outdoor’ time of films. The silent film The Arrival of a Train now speaks, reactivated.

 

RJS:

When literai painting abandoned grand narratives, it is also the beginning for individuals to express themselves.