Putting words to pictures is always a risky business. “I’m not not not Chen Zhou” is an exhibition in point, though it feels more appropriate to call it something else (in the spirit of the work, we may leave this ticking for now). Simply writing the title down by hand begins to introduce what one might call the “symptoms” that hatched this video piece. What does a triple negative make? A positive, a minus?
All images: Chen Zhou, “I’m not not not Chen Zhou”, HD digital film, colour, sound, 34 mins, 2013 (courtesy the artist and Magician Space).
One assumes from this example that an unplanned work by Chen Zhou would turn out rather better than an unplanned work by someone else. In an interview with the gallery, Chen describes the experience of creating it in terms of meeting a mysterious new friend, watching them, and seeing where the acquaintance would take him; the work was in this sense executed “a look and a step at a time,” without a firm plan. In contrast with much video work, which draws complaints about length and having to sit through it, this is different and engrossing (and perhaps in part due to Chen’s skills as a film maker). All of the action in this 45-minute video (and the gallery itself) is bathed in yellow – yellow walls, yellow clothes, yellow tables and lamps, yellow fields in which selected statements or slogans appear, words written in pencil (a motif Chen clearly enjoys) on yellow paper. This canary filter somehow invests the scene with extra focus – making every comment, action and event to stew in the same experimental infusion. “Yellow” films are porn in China, yet the exhibition texts claims for this reference rather more than a facile joke: “the use of yellow refers to an area of ‘promiscuity’ between objects and concepts that are apparently unrelated” – so, a sexualization of the dynamics between things and ideas.
The exhibition is composed of a small cinema where the video plays, and another room in which are some snaps of the artist’s artist-friends are on the wall with statements below in pencil: Li Ran: “There is no mimicry”; Yu Honglei: “What is freedom?”;…“Today nothing happened”. These, one must admit, are somewhat hackneyed, but in any case are surplus to one’s memory of the show. The video commences with a shot of Chen revolving to face us on a chair wearing a deadened expression. Following his mock suicide (a blade is hovered horribly over a wrist) to the sound of a train sighing through a tunnel, cue the main protagonists of the film – twins (“Why would some twins need to have plastic surgery?” – just one of the idiosyncratic queries that are thrown up). They communicate in deadpan, sporadic dialogue, sharing or rejecting cigarettes, communicating anecdotes, observations, lucid moments and misunderstandings, miniature narratives; we learn that all of these are drawn at random from conversations between the artist and others. The action is punctuated with chapter headings: “Freedom,” “Idols,” “Logos,” etc. Another man features also, at one point lifting a printed picture of Jesus Christ taped to the wall to see what might be underneath it. Everything that happens comes across as if in inverted commas.
In his statement, Chen Zhou calls the film a receptacle, or a “scrounger.” It is by turns noir-ish, experimental, irrelevant, witty, physically theatrical, introverted, artistic and pathetic, with abrupt changes of soundtrack and amusing frontal shots of the twins in yellow suits, sitting in arm chairs and with the same comic non-expression set behind their spectacles.
In its professed method as well as its visible outcome, “I’m not not not Chen Zhou” is a brilliant musing on the vagaries of life and art, their collisions and connections.
Read it on Randian.