Cold Night Without End

Cold Nights
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing
15.09.17 – 17.12.17

Translated by Duncan Hewitt

The basis of the exhibition Cold Nights is the novel of the same name, which its author, Ba Jin, completed in 1947. The curator’s request was that artists Liu Shiyuan, Chen Zhou, Li Ran and Nabuqi should respond, in their own creative ways, to four characters in the novel: Shusheng, her husband Wenxuan, her lover Fengguang and Wenxuan’s mother.

Shusheng spends most of her time torn between returning to her family and fulfilling her responsibilities as a wife, daughter-in-law and mother, or retreating into the interior of the country with her lover to seek personal happiness and liberation. Her wavering is demonstrated clearly in the section The Best Is Yet To Come, which depicts her desires: wealth, love, a man she can rely on… This is vivid and colourful, rolling past like the film in a movie reel. However, Shusheng does not dare to shout ‘stop’, because she lacks the courage to face up to her desires.

Later, however, Liu Shiyuan puts Shusheng in the dock, to face either victory ( like the ‘fresh’ oysters ) or destruction ( like the bee, so bloated it will die ). This is a step Ba Jin never went so far as to take; for him, maintaining the continuously developing sense of tension in Cold Nights seems to have been more important. Why did Ba Jin add the sentence ‘She needs warmth’ at the end of the story? It’s unclear whether it’s Shusheng who says this in a monologue, or the author. Perhaps Ba Jin specifically wanted to leave a way out, leading towards new possibilities. But what is the meaning of the certainty and cruelty the trial brings? It seems that all it does is dilute the importance of Shusheng’s role.

In Chen Zhou’s film Blue Hole ( 2017 ), the female lead, Xuanxuan, is a variant of Wenxuan, a trapped beast in a blue hole.As Chen Zhou puts it, Wenxuan is ‘detached from his mother, wife, even from the entire external environment; he can’t communicate, his inner voice… a lonely echo’. But Chen Zhou focuses most of his attention on Wenxuan’s superficial loneliness and neglects the profound interior concealed beneath: the film also includes two girls whose appearance and dress seem cold and science-fiction-like, their dialogue a kind of ‘modernised’ synonym for loneliness, repeated again and again. Wenxuan’s conflicted sense of wanting to cry out but not being able to, his feeling of being ripped apart, caught between his wife and mother, and the pain caused by his tuberculosis, so powerful it crackles from the page – all of these brim with energy – far more so than this version of loneliness coloured by an urban artistic mood.

Nabuqi, At dusk after the rain… setting sunlight…where light spots in all sizes…fade,… washing out… and winding towards… the end, as a sharp honking is heard… disappear, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2017. Still courtesy UCCA 娜布其,《下过雨的傍晚……倾斜的阳光……大小不一的光斑……退 去,……被冲刷……蜿蜒延伸……终点,尖利的汽车鸣笛声……消失了》; 媒介: 装置, 200x200x240cm;灯箱,80x36x25 cm;2017 年;承蒙 UCCA 提供用图

Nabuqi, At dusk after the rain… setting sunlight…where light spots in all sizes…fade,… washing out… and winding towards… the end, as a sharp honking is heard… disappear, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2017. Still courtesy UCCA. 娜布其,《下过雨的傍晚……倾斜的阳光……大小不一的光斑……退去,……被冲刷……蜿蜒延伸……终点,尖利的汽车鸣笛声……消失了》;媒介: 装置, 200x200x240cm;灯箱,80x36x25 cm;2017 年;承蒙 UCCA 提供用图.

Of the four characters, Fengguang is perhaps the hardest to understand, because he very rarely appears directly in the story. He is always outside the narrative, yet suddenly intervenes like a ghost. The problem Li Ran’s film Night of Patmos ( 2017 ) seeks to resolve is how to depict a ghost-like character who is hardly ever seen. In the section of the film that describes heretical believers ‘performing rituals’, the leader of the religious sect is also a ghostly character like Fengguang. The accompanying narration comes from an essay Li Ran wrote himself. In this simple yet profound text, the high priest does not appear directly on screen either; he keeps himself separate from his disciples, but also has a talent for ‘plunging down to catch his prey’. His ghostly nature, however, does not rely on dialectical description – ‘depicting something that isn’t there’ – but is rather a kind of preordained order: people are told that the high priest must be invisible.

This is also why Li Ran makes use of archival texts on staging, from single-act plays of the revolutionary era; and why he considers that having an improvising actor playing the role of Isaac as a blind man is ‘very effective’; and why Joshua and Caleb can wander for a long time right in front of Esther and yet not see her. Because the stage, blindness and invisibility – as a kind of preordained order relating to what is shown, and what is not, in performing art – represent a metaphorical explanation of Fengguang. The reason Fengguang is not present in the story, is not visible, is probably not simply due to his own ghostly nature, but also to the fact that aspects of his surroundings actively drive him away – including Wenxuan’s jealousy, Shusheng’s desire, the mother’s hatred…

The question that first comes to mind is probably how a spatial installation should intervene in the narrative time of Cold Nights. The good news is that Nabuqi was dealt quite a favourable card – the character she was given was the mother. In the story, this character is actually not just a mother or a mother-in-law: her function also transcends the narrative itself – her stubbornness and her hysterical energy are among the forces that drive the novel forwards like a machine. In other words, she is both inside and outside the narrative – just like the light installation that Nabuqi has placed at the entrance to the exhibition space, which may be either inside or outside. In fact, the subtlety of Nabuqi’s work lies precisely in the fact that she has realised the super-textual nature of the character of the mother, and has therefore skilfully bridged the apparently insurmountable gap between spatial installation and narrative time: her work can suddenly turn on the lights in the exhibition hall, turning this into an intervention into the narrative by the mother. The sloping roof is transformed into a sense of oppression, aimed at the narrative.

However, in Nabuqi’s case, there are also some ‘blemishes’ that are worth reflecting on. For example, the artist hopes to use the reflection from the mirror to illuminate the other objects in the exhibition space, and to stimulate communication and dialogue between them. But it would be hard to describe the result as ideal: the mirror which encircles the room at best gives people a certain sense of the space having been reorganised, shrunk or reassembled.This effect succeeds in expressing some connections, but these remain excluded from the narrative created by the three other artists. It therefore seems ephemeral, even a little shallow. As for effects such as the sense of emotional exchange between the bee in The Best Is Yet To Come and the butterfly in Blue Hole, of course Nabuqi’s efforts play their part, but these little tricks, which are not far from being simply jokes, are not able to build on and develop the installation artist’s successful arrangement of lighting and control of the wind direction, which she turns into interventions in the narrative. Still, this is clearly not just Nabuqi’s fault.

So why choose Cold Nights as a theme? The story originally took place in Chongqing during the war years, when people’s lives were played out against a background of rumours, epidemics, terror and disappointment. The cruelty was blatantly obvious. Yet, although the curators repeatedly urge us to be aware of the links between this type of unsettling existence and the present day ( our information age ), when we stand in this exhibition space, dominated by trendy blue lights and music, and try to make sense of the relationship between the objects displayed in this white box and serious issues such as rhetoric, narration and structure, it’s hard to avoid a sense of awkwardness or embarrassment, as if there were an ‘elephant in the room’.


2017 年9 月15 日 – 2017 年12 月17 日

《寒夜》的潜文本是巴金于1946 年完成的同名小说。策展人的委托案是,刘诗园, 陈轴, 李然, 娜布其以创作的方式回应小说中的四个角色—树生, 她的丈夫文宣, 她的情人奉光和文宣的母亲。

树生大半时间都处在是回归家庭,做好妻子, 儿媳, 母亲的本分,还是随情人撤到大后方,追求个人幸福解放的关口上。她的摇摆不定在《最好的时刻还未到来》描绘她欲望的一段得到了很好的呈现:财富, 爱情, 靠得住的男人……它们缤纷绚烂,像电影片盒里的胶卷一样滚动着,但树生却不敢喊停,因为她没有胆直面自己的欲望。

但接下来,树生却被刘诗园押到了要么胜利 ( 像“新生”的生蚝 ), 要么灭亡 ( 像撑死的蜜蜂 ) 的审判席上。这是巴金没有迈出的一步。对巴老来说,维持《寒夜》中持续释放着的张力感似乎更为重要。为什么巴金会在结尾处加了句弄不清是树生还是他自己独白的“她需要温暖” ( 这句话也被贴在了展厅里 ) ?也许就是因为他想专门在树生的“结局”上开一个面向新可能的口子。但审判带来的确定性, 残酷性又有什么意味呢?好像只是稀释了树生这个角色的浓度罢了。

Liu Shiyuan, The Best Is Yet To Come, single channel video, colour, sound, 20min 30 sec, 2017. Still courtesy Liu Shiyuan. 刘诗园,《最好的时刻还未到来》 ( 影像截图 ), 4K 高清彩色单通.

Liu Shiyuan, The Best Is Yet To Come, single channel video, colour, sound, 20min 30 sec, 2017. Still courtesy Liu Shiyuan. 刘诗园,《最好的时刻还未到来》 ( 影像截图 ), 4K 高清彩色单通.

影片《蓝洞》中的女主角萱萱是文宣的一个变体,她是蓝洞中的困兽。一如陈轴的说法,文宣是“跟母亲, 妻子,甚至整个外部环境都是断裂的, 无法交流的,文宣内心的声音……孤独地回荡”。

可陈轴却将大半的注意力放在了文宣身上的一种浮于表面的孤独之上 ( 比如在影片中,还有两个在衣着打扮上有“冷冰冰科幻感” 的女孩, 她们之间的对话就是孤独的一种被“现代性” 了的同义反复 ), 却忽视了潜藏于此孤独之下的丰沛内里,比如想要呐喊而不得的矛盾感, 在妻子与母亲之间周旋时的撕裂感, 以及肺病带来的足以击穿文本的疼痛感,它们都是远比现在这个被都市文艺腔染了色的孤独来得充盈的能量源……

奉光或许是这四个人物中最难解的一个,因为他极少直接露面,他总在叙事之外,但又像个幽灵一般,会突然切入叙事之内。李然的影片《拔摩岛之夜》在解决的问题即是,如何让一个幽灵般的, 几乎不在场的角色显现?在影片中描写异端信徒“操练”的一段,教主就是奉光一般的幽灵:故事的旁白源自于李然自己写的一篇散文。在这篇致密的文字中,教主的在场也不是直接的, 他游离于信众之间,却也有“俯冲猎食”的能耐。不过他的幽灵性靠的不是“以无说有”的辩证书写,而是一种事先约定的秩序— 人们被告知,教主必须是不可见的。这也是为什么李然会使用革命年代独幕剧中关于舞台的文献档案,为什么他会认为即兴演员把以撒演成了瞎子是“很灵”的,以及为什么约书亚和加勒会在以斯贴跟前晃了半天也看不到她。因为舞台, 瞎眼和视而不见,作为一种表演艺术中事先约定的, 有关在场与不在场的秩序,刚好构成了对奉光的一种换喻式的说明—奉光之所以在故事中不在场, 不可见,也许不全是因为他本人的幽灵性,还因为某些他在的秩序对奉光的主动推离,比如文宣的嫉妒, 树生的想望, 母亲的憎恶…… 娜布其的

Li Ran, Night of Patmos ( left ), single channel HD video, black and white, sound, 20 min, 2017. Still courtesy UCCA. 李然,《拔摩岛的夜》,单通道有声黑白高清影像,尺寸

Li Ran, Night of Patmos ( left ), single channel HD video, black and white, sound, 20 min, 2017. Still courtesy UCCA. 李然,《拔摩岛的夜》,单通道有声黑白高清影像,尺寸:

《下过雨的傍晚……倾斜的阳光……大小不一的光斑……退去,……被冲刷……蜿蜒延伸……终点,尖利的汽车鸣笛声……消失了》是展厅里唯一的装置。首要的问题大约是,空间装置应如何介入《寒夜》的叙事时间?好消息是,娜布其手里的牌不错—她领到的角色是母亲。其实在小说中,这个角色不只是母亲, 婆婆, 她的功能也超越了叙事本身:她的执拗, 她充溢着能量的歇斯底里是让小说机器行进起来的推力之一,换句话说,她在叙事之内,也在之外,一如娜布其在展厅入口处放置的分不清内外的灯光装置一样。事实上,娜布其作品的奥妙之处就在于:艺术家意识到了母亲这个角色的“超文本性”,并基于此巧妙地弥合了空间装置与叙事时间之间貌似不可逾越的断裂:会突然点亮展厅的灯光,被改造成母亲对叙事的一种入侵;倾斜的屋顶被转化为一种指向了叙事的压迫感……

不过在娜布其这里,也有一些颇耐人寻味的“瑕疵”。比如, 艺术家希望能利用镜子的反射来关照展厅中其他的物件,并策动它们之间的致意与对话。但效果却难说理想:借由环绕全场的镜子,人们能看到的充其量只是些空间上的重组, 收纳或拼贴,此类效果确乎是一些关系的表达,但它们却始终都被排除在其余三位艺术家带来的叙事之外,因而轻飘,甚至有些肤浅。至于《最好的时刻还未到来》的蜜蜂和《蓝洞》的蝴蝶之间的传情效果之类,当然也少不了娜布其的一份功劳,但这些近乎玩笑的小把戏却没能延续这位装置艺术家在摆布灯光, 操纵风向,并拖拽着它们, 让它们成为叙事的入侵者时的那种游刃有余。但很显然,这也不全是娜布其的问题。

那么,为什么选中了《寒夜》?故事原发生在战时的重庆, 人们生活的底色是谣言, 瘟疫, 恐慌和绝望,其残酷性显而易见。虽然策展人一再提示我们要留意此类令人不安的存在与当下, 与这个信息时代的勾连,但当我们站在这个被时髦的蓝光和乐声占领的展厅里,读解着安放在此白盒子中的物件和修辞, 叙事, 结构之类严肃正经的对象之间的关系时,难免还是会感到一种“房间里的大象”式的尴尬或窘迫。