HD video, color, sound, 8’23”
Introduced by Carol Yinghua Lu
Carol Yinghua Lu: lacoste1 seems to be a departure from your previous projects, which were mostly contemplations on the role of technology in organizing and shaping the human society. In lacoste1 there are references to your own upbringing and attempts to reflect on the paradoxical nature of Chinese contemporary society. How does the idea for it come about? Does it link to your previous work in any way?
Gary Zhexi Zhang: lacoste1 is quite an early video, made in 2015, just after I graduated from art school. I had quite a typical immigrant upbringing in the UK, going back to China most summers to see my grandmother (whose house features in the video) and other family, but these visits stopped after I left for university. lacoste1 is very much a product of my 2015 visit: I’d not been back in five years and it was also the very first time being in China on my own terms (as opposed to being bussed through a series of family dinners as a child). Looking back, I think the video is very much a personal reflection on encountering China on new terms, naive at times. I knew Suzhou through its classically beautiful ‘old town’, but only then did I realise the extent of its development sprawl, e.g. the vast Singapore-funded industrial zone, as well as the constant din of newly constructing malls and subways around my grandmother’s home. I wasn’t sure how to reconcile it with the nostalgic images I had formed over my childhood. I feel very close to that house and garden (I spent the first years of my life there, as did my mother and her sisters, and now no-one knows what will happen to it after my grandmother passes away) though it was nested at the centre of a place that was at least half-strange to me. So I started filming. I’m not inclined towards making explicitly autobiographical work, but the personal narrative became a point of departure for considering the notion of authenticity under globalisation, and how cultural narratives fork and fracture across different histories and geographies, along economic lines. To make the connection, I think most of my work is about how mediation affects how meaning is made.
CYL: From the very beginning of the video throughout, you set up a juxtaposition of the old and the new, the unchanging, and the fast-changing. Is there a possibility beyond this dichotomy? GZZ: Yes, maybe. I don’t know. There is a juxtaposition but I don’t think it is dichotomous, or paradoxical. My intention was more to understand how these apparently opposed elements coexist quite matter-of-factly, and what it means to get on with all these changes, what emerges in the meantime. Old and new, foreign or homegrown, they all get folded into the same temporal experience, whether it’s young Chinese punks or old people conducting their lives on Wechat. Perhaps behind all of this there is a tension in the fact that China is becoming a trope of contemporary futurism (and an actual technoscientific superpower) on the one hand, while dealing with millennia of historical baggage one the other, resulting in the project of building national identity through some kind of reconciliation of these contexts, as in Xi’s ‘China Dream’ (中国梦) campaign. I’m not sure about going ‘beyond this dichotomy’ but I am quite interested in the question of Chinese modernity, in contradistinction to its ‘modernisation’, what it was or could be (or indeed whether it’s the right question to be asking).
CYL: There are attempts to contemplate the issue of patriotism and nationalism in your video. What has triggered these thoughts? GZZ: These thoughts seemed difficult to avoid in reflecting on Chinese identity, but were amplified since I was filming this video during the time of the Victory Day parade (the vast military ceremony in which Xi Jinping was paraded across Tiananmen square to inspect 12,000 troops, in commemoration of victory over Japan in 1945). I remember that for several weeks in the run-up to the parade, it was all the news could talk about, trying to drum up this incredible sense of anticipation.
CYL: In lacoste1 you make references to surfaces, the surface of consumer products, the surface of makeup in cosplay, the surface of urban development through imitation of Western architecture and so on, what is your critique of the surface leading to? GZZ: I visited a number of historical sites during that summer, and I was struck by the way in which these heritage sites were marketed and consumed as spectacle, as well as the way in they were spectacularly renovated. The last section of lacoste1 in which I’m flying over this best hits reel of Chinese heritage sites was filmed at Jiayu Guan, the western end of the Great Wall. The fort was so heavily restored looked like a mockup. We got bored after a while and ended up in the gift shop, and there was a blue-screen booth where tourists could film themselves flying over all these places. So I paid a 50 RMB and got this footage on DVD. Kind of a rip off but it was worth it, it seemed like the perfect end to the piece. I think there is the traditional critique of surface, spectacle and so on, but I’m more interested in how the circulation of images gives them meaning. Not in the reflexive sense of appropriation or whatever, but quite pragmatically, in the way that copied images are created anew, given new values and potentials. I suppose I’m interested in how these cultural systems cut across one another, how the same surfaces get animated by different forces.
Courtesy the artist