ArtAsiaPacific: Xing DanWen

XING DANWEN, Wall House, 2007, multimedia installation with four photographic light boxes and one animation video. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing.
XING DANWEN, Wall House, 2007, multimedia installation with four photographic light boxes and one animation video. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing.
Stretching across most of the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing, “Captive of Love” surveyed the career of Xing Danwen and was curated by Tarek Abou el-Fetouh. The curator makes use of Jean Genet’s posthumously published memoirs Un Captif Amoureux (Prisoner of Love, 1986), which chronicles the French writer’s experiences living among Black Panther revolutionaries and freedom fighters in Palestine. Xing’s artistic practice was profitably viewed through the frame of Genet’s narrative technique, with the exhibition pushing the supposition that her practice is marked by a desire to recreate reality by immersing herself within her subjects, with a sensuality defining the artist’s work, which, like Genet’s writing, demonstrates the phantasmic qualities of reality.
One of the dominant themes in Xing’s practice is an exploration of modern cities’ relationship with her subjects and herself. The two sets of artworks that began the show set this as the prominent occupation of this exhibition. Wall House (2007) is composed of four light boxes exhibited centrally, one of which shows an animated rendering of the artist lethargically getting up from her bed to gaze out of a window. Although the John Hejduk-designed, modernist-style house in this scene is located in the Netherlands, we see the cityscape of Beijing in the background. The three images that complete the series show Xing in a state of trapped reverie; one reminiscent of a Cindy Sherman photo sees the artist apply make-up before a mirror, seemingly struggling with her identity within this confused situation. Urban Fiction (2004– ) is composed of more than 20 large photographs, which seep out from the first room into the museum’s foyer, drawing the viewer across the space. Again, the artist appears in her work, digitally superimposed onto meticulously created miniature models, the same kind of urban microcosms used by real estate companies in their salesrooms. In these images, the artist engages in various scenarios, from smoking a cigarette on a balcony to unsuccessfully attempting to hail passing vehicles after a car crash. Xing successfully amplifies a vision of the suffocation and loneliness of modern cities: even in towering blocks with thousands of people mere meters away from us, we can feel the loneliness of modern existence.
XING DANWEN, an image from Urban Fiction, 2004– , photograph, 170 × 240 cm. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing.
Two new works, both created in 2017, were cooped together above a flight of stairs. Thread is a touching two-channel video: on the left we see the artist’s parents meticulously and lovingly knitting a dress for their daughter, while on the right the artist is shown walking around Red Brick Art Museum and the outskirts of Beijing, unravelling their handiwork. This makes direct reference to deeply entrenched filial obligations in China, and we can see this dress as a signifier of parental control, with Xing as a captive of love. While the dress is unshackled from the artist, filial piety is questioned and dismantled. Staging the artist’s erratic meanderings against the backdrop of Beijing also hints at a struggle with the city. As in Wall House and Urban Fiction, Xing yearns to fight a personal battle for control, rebelling against her environment as well as familial obligations. Next to this was a sculptural installation, Because I Am on the Mountain, constructed from coal coke and miniature architectural models. An awkward antagonism is created between the dirty coal—which China uses for some 60 percent of its energy—and the visual reminiscence of traditional Chinese landscape ink (shan shui) paintings.
XING DANWEN, Thread, 2017, two-channel video installation: 11 min. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing.
XING DANWEN, Because I Am on the Mountain, 2017, installation with coal cake and mixed materials, dimensions variable. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing.
Running along the long, narrow space of the next room were a well-known series of photographs, Disconnexion (2002–03). These images are abstract, sensual, beautiful close-ups of the electronic debris of modern life in a state of failed decay. Discarded phone chargers and earphones stand as signifiers of the problems caused by modern consumerism, serving as a sign of how disconnected we have become from a reality that our avarice creates.
Nearby, a textual interruption offers eight instructions on “How to Disappear” from a city, as initially described by writer Haytham el-Wardany: treat the incessant hum of the city like a mantra, diminish your inner voice, become a part of the place and then sink into the city so that no one will notice your presence. A second lexical intervention was placed ahead of A Personal Diary (1993–2003), which is a set of almost 200 photographs of artists, curators, actors, writers and singers from the often fetishized 1990s Beijing art scene. One of the two excerpts from Genet’s Prisoner of Love stresses the necessary subjectivity of his own accounts; the other is more poetic and abstract, and raises the question of authorial roles via Homer and Achilles, preparing us to revisit the numerous high points of contemporary Chinese art from two decades ago, while reminding us of the unique power and necessity of Xing’s personal vision.
XING DANWEN, Disconnexion, 2002–03, photograph, 148 × 120 cm. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing.
XING DANWEN, Sleep Walking, 2001, two-channel video installation with two ten-minute videos with soudtrack, and a plexi-glass trunkwith dimensions 50 × 52 × 70 cm. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing.
XING DANWEN, an image from A Personal Dairy, 1993–2003, photograph taken at Ma Liuming’s studio in Beijing’s East Village, 72.96 × 106.1 cm. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing.
Installation view of XING DAN WEN’s A Personal Diary, 1993–2003, at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing. Courtesy Red Brick Art Museum.


Finally, we come across Sleep Walking (2001). One screen projects large visions of a Western cityscape manipulated into a black-and-white, infrared-like aesthetic. Xing overlays the sounds of traditional Chinese instruments and the noise of daily life in Chinese cities over footage of this foreign location. A second video is projected into a clear Perspex chest, which is fringed with traditional Chinese-style metal adornments.


We reached the end of the show as it begun, with an intentionally jarring admixture of Chinese and foreign elements—a house in Amsterdam, noise from an American metropolis or Perspex. This exhibition is personally wrought: Xing tells us throughout her presentation that modern life in our globalized world is marked by difficulties, contradictions and suffering. Although if we unite with purpose, as was seen so many times in the exhibition’s crescendo, A Personal Diary, then we might find some solace.  


Xing Danwen’s “Captive of Love” is on view at Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, until October 29, 2017.
Tom Mouna