Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Wang Bing @ Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Wang Bing, Traces, 2014, 28 minutes
Single Channel Video, 35 film transfer to video, b + w, sound

Many people will have not heard of Wang Bing, but that doesn’t mean his films aren’t brilliant or don’t need to be seen. Quite the opposite: he is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. There are no heists and no stars, no pyrotechnics and none of the other familiarly seductive technical wizardry that seduce us into the reality of the film world for a couple of hours. In fact, Bing’s film’s sometimes don’t have characters, and —perhaps most egregiously for the average film fan —they don’t obey the usual two hour time constraints. His most recent Dead Souls, 2018, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and screened at the New York Festival runs at 8 hours and 25 minutes.

Three of Wang’s films are currently screening at Galerie Chantal Crousel, and I recommend setting aside a day for full immersion in the 7 hours of film screening. For those not up to a 5 hour Beauty Lives in Freedom (2018)—a documentary film of a philosopher turned political detainee, activist, and exile, that tells the history of post-cultural revolution China at the same time—the shorter film, Mrs Fang (2017) is a great introduction to Wang Bing’s work.
Wang Bing, Traces, 2014
Installation @ Magician Space Beijing
I personally enjoyed Traces (2014), a short 35 mm work made on film and video before being transferred to digital. Bing has long turned his camera on the suppressed history of China’s former forced labour camps. He began filming Traces while working on The Ditch (2005), a film about the struggle, adversity and death in the Jiabiangou forced labour camp in the Gobi Desert. When he was invited to present the work at the Centre Pompidou in 2014, he went back to the desert, filmed in video, and wove the footage together to make Traces.

The film is disorienting, no less so because it is placed on the gallery floor. Rather than sitting down to watch comfortably, we stand over jerky, disorienting, at times, blurred or overexposed images shot through a handheld camera—the shadow of which periodically comes into the frame. As we watch, we become unsteady on our feet. In a Q & A with the filmmaker, in response to a question regarding his opinions on the effect on the work when it is exhibited  a gallery space (as opposed to cinema), Wang Bing said he hadn’t thought about the differences. I am sure that Traces would be a whole other experience if we were sitting stadium style in a theatre. It would certainly lose its dizzying effect.
Wang Bing, Traces, 2014
The themes of unearthing history, of time passing over a never buried past, of the living tensions between then and now permeate Traces. These discourses are raised, not only through the camera’s discovery of dirt covered pieces of clothing, an old empty bottle, and skeletal bones scattered across the desert floor. But the 35 mm film is made visible through its deterioration over the years; we see frequent patches of bleeching, fading, blistering and other signs of wear and tear. Similarly, the familiar lines of video projection are identifiable on the surface of the film. Thus, in the material itself, time passing becomes visible. While change is depicted through Bing’s long production, processing and exhibition of the film material, the lives of the prisoners have become fossilized in the desert earth. Even though the camera is constantly searching and only stops when it discovers a trace of life cut short, the stagnation of the desert comes to reflect the intransigence of a history not even fully hidden by the wiles of government. The bodies and the memory of their persecution are indelibly imprinted on the landscape.

The desert is vast, arid and uninviting. Its floor is covered in rocks, scrub and fossils that might be human or might be the remains of other animals. It’s not always possible to tell. The black and white footage often shot through exaggerated apertures, with a hand held camera produces shaky images that only sit still when the camera finds a trace that we attribute to the past incarceration of humans in the Gobi desert. This style underlines the harshness of the desert environment. And yet, the landscape is the real hero of this film. In spite of the ominous sound of the wind, the crunch of pebbles under the foot of the cameraman, and that of the film running through the projector, there is, at times, a peacefulness to the landscape. The long static shots in which the camera stares at a relic of another life, whether it be that of an animal, a human or a machine, suggests that this land holds secrets about crimes it has witnessed, crimes we didn’t even know happened. Only the desert knows the full history of what took place there. The film depicts the loneliness of a world in which no other human being is seen.

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