On the first floor of the beautiful old hospital building, Kunstquartier Bethanien, is the Momentum exhibition space, currently showing video and performance works by chinese artist Zhou Xiaohu. Titled Scheisse and with a flyer channelling bathhouse decor and seedy nightlife neon lights, the exhibition is a surprising mixture of provocative aesthetics, ideological discussion, and meditations on Chinese and global economies.
Momentum is a global platform focusing on time-based art such as video and performance, with an emphasis on international collaboration, communication, and education. Based in Berlin, Momentum’s initiatives bring international artists’ works to Berlin, tour local artists abroad, initiate dialogues with international art networks and institutions, and through online archives make artworks globally accessible. Scheisse is Zhou Xiaohu’s first solo show in Germany, and is one of many links to the Chinese contemporary art community Momentum has initiated, including a cross-cultural exchange with the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, a media partnership with Shanghai-based online art magazine Randian, and several group shows of contemporary Chinese artists. Berlin, as a site of intersecting cultures and artistic positions, is an appropriate backdrop for instigating cultural exchange through exhibitions. In this context, Zhou Xiaohu’s works addressing Chinese economic ideologies instigate further questions and reflections on European and global economies. Momentum at Kunstquartier Bethanien is situated on the very edge of the former east-west divide, making it a particularly appropriate venue for Xiaohu to pose questions about the success and future of communism in his site-specific performance installation.
I went along to Scheisse on a Saturday afternoon, to catch the weekly two-hour window when the performance ‘Das Kapital No.1 – Questionnaire Show’ is held. The room was tinged pink with party lights adorning a large box structure with an entrance roped off and lit up like an exclusive, if somewhat shady, nightclub. Viewers are sent in one by one, with a questionnaire in hand, through the darkened entrance into the little room-within-a-room set up like a private peepshow booth, complete with a half-naked, red knee-high patent boot-wearing woman behind the glass. The woman’s nakedness and playfulness are disruptive, putting the viewer unwillingly in the position of the peepshow voyeur, where the level of engagement is the viewer’s choice. If you choose to participate, and I imagine curiosity dictates that every viewer does, the performance continues as a two way phone discussion of an unexpected nature. While moving from pose to pose the woman asks questions, replicated on the questionnaire, about China and its economic system.
Zhou Xiaohu – “Das Kapital No.1 – Questionnaire” (2015), installation views; Photos by Marina Belikova
The questions, written by Xiaohu, range from broad contemplations like “is China living in interesting times?” to more specific, leading questions, such as “is China a living laboratory of Das Kapital?” and “could China be considered as a surrealistic, overproducing, dominant country?”, laced with cynicism and critique and coming across as statements of the artist’s beliefs. Alone, the meaning of “interesting times” could be read as optimistic, but amongst the plainly critical questions, this too sounds sceptical. The tone echoes the voice of a generation that grew up during the violence of the Cultural Revolution, and that met the subsequent changing ideologies with scepticism and distrust. However, this tone is filtered through the German accented actress and the provocative staging. The actress asks opinions on the usefulness and working class status of sex workers. Xiaohu’s use of the peepshow setting is not to critique the sex industry, but as an example of the body as both labourer, commodity, and the means of production, foregrounding ideas of labour, ownership, power, and gender.
Immediately outside the booth is ‘Secret’ (2012), a projection onto painted boards of a gun shooting bullets into a series of changing texts and images, including the faces of Karl Marx and Slavoj Žižek. The texts reflect a similar cynicism to that in the questionnaire, with statements such as, “Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones,” and “The intimidating atmosphere generated by stripped culture”. Again, concepts of power and labour and the gendered body are presented with the image of a naked woman and the text “I took off all my clothes in front of the camera, in order to survive.” The other two works that make up the exhibition are stop-motion animations made by drawing on his own or a woman’s bare chest. These earlier works share little aesthetically with ‘Das Kapital No.1’ and ‘Secret’, and aren’t as overtly cynical. ‘Conspiracy’ (2004) depicts a politically suggestive narrative involving rallying crowds holding placards with the face of a leader, symptomatic of cults of personality like that of Mao. The ‘Gooey Gentleman’ (2002) is two animations, one of a seductive woman who draws herself, among other things, a pole to dance on and a crowd to watch her, and one of a sullen naked man ashamed and trying to hide. Both of these works link to ideas of gendered bodies, through their narratives and the bodies on which they are drawn. Conspiracy can also be read as imagining a communist body politic, where the working class masses are the heart and stomach of the nation, relating back to ideas of power and labour.
Zhou Xiaohu – “Secret” (2012), installation view; Photo by Marina Belikova
Supplementing the exhibition is an archive of Xiaohu’s works, made available by the Video Bureau, a chinese-based non-profit organisation that profiles a new artist every two months and makes their works accessible via an online archive. The digital nature of new media and video art lends itself to a philosophy of making art globally accessible, like that of Momentum. With more cross-cultural exchanges in art possible due to greater accessibility and communication, we can look forward to more visually and intellectually stimulating exhibitions at spaces like Momentum from globally diverse and artistically relevant artists such as Zhou Xiaohu.
Blog entry by April Dell in Berlin; Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015.