Following the Path Provided by Lockdown

Wang Bing: Scenes: Glimpses from a Lockdown
Maison des Arts de Schaerbeek, Brussels
04.09.20 – 08.09.20

Translated by Duncan Hewitt

‘Lockdown’ has now been named the word of 2020 by the Collins English Dictionary, along with other phrases from the same linguistic family such as ‘coronavirus’, ‘global pandemic’ and ‘social distancing’. In this year that will soon be over, this phrase – indeed all these phrases – have been used with unprecedented frequency around the world; it’s the reality we have lived through for the past year.

It denotes a common experience. This experience goes beyond nationality, race, gender, age and class: it has spread across the widest area imaginable, at the fastest possible pace and throughout, and cannot be diverted by the will of any individual – its durability and ferocity have gone far beyond what almost anyone could have imagined. And significantly, as this year turns into the past, there’s no sign that this experience is coming to an end; indeed, in some regions, such as Europe and America, it’s only intensifying. In the face of this trend, the term ‘lockdown’ has naturally acquired a broader, more profound, significance.

It implies things coming to a standstill, being interrupted. At the level of society, as an emergency measure of control, it inevitably implies a certain sense of anxiety and crisis; on an individual level, it implies solitude – so to discuss the question of freedom at this moment seems like something of a luxury.

But that certainly does not imply that this experience is homogeneous. For this kind of common experience is made up of countless individual experiences. And such individual experiences vary from person to person – so it is only when it is expressed openly that we are able to inspect how the lockdown has been used and perceived, its shape and temperature, where it is leading.

Wang Bing himself used the term ‘Lockdown’ in the proposal for the work he submitted to this year’s Kunstenfestivaldesarts ( KFDA ) art festival, in Brussels. KFDA was founded in 1994. Wang Bing was first invited to participate in 2006, and contributed the original version of his documentary film, Fengming, A Chinese Memoir. This time, his work Scenes: Glimpses from a Lockdown blends performance and video installation. It was originally scheduled to be put on in May, but at that point the pandemic was rampant in Europe, and the whole of society was in lockdown. Finally, as summer turned to autumn, Wang Bing came here during a break in the pandemic. His fourteen-day itinerary for Glimpses from a Lockdown was also in line with the city’s quarantine policy, so he underwent genuine self-isolation throughout the process. His work was included in a section of the art festival called ‘Every Interior has an Exterior’, and consciously or unconsciously became an accurate interpretation of this statement.

The venue where the work was staged was the Schaerbeek Maison des Arts, which was originally the mansion of a nineteenth-century cloth merchant. Although it is now a public space, it still retains the original unpretentious style and welcoming atmosphere of a traditional family home. Wang Bing’s work was housed in a semi-underground space in a row of side rooms beside the back garden. It was spacious and secluded, the surroundings gloomy, rather like a little car park. The only light, which shone through the gaps between the square pillars, emanated from the middle section – this was a specially built temporary studio, and the place where Wang Bing was based.

The studio had been erected against the wall, but was surrounded on its other three sides by a Perspex-like material, giving the whole structure a completely transparent quality – visitors could observe from three sides, and the interior layout and activities of the person within could all be seen at a glance. The space ( around 80 square metres ) was divided up into four functional areas, for working, sleeping and eating, along with a sitting room. The different spaces had brighter or darker lighting as appropriate, and the corners were decorated with plants. This realistic style created an authentic lockdown atmosphere, in which nothing was lacking, but nothing was in abundance. Wang Bing stayed here for five days and nights, with visitors permitted for six to eight hours every day in the afternoon and evening. During these times, he acted out his experience of lockdown during the pandemic for the benefit of the audience.

Actually, ‘acted out’ is not a completely accurate description. Because in the midst of all this, Wang Bing did not attempt any creative reorganisation of his situation. He simply worked and lived as normal. The only difference was that what would normally be his personal space had been shifted to a public venue, and so was opened up to the public gaze, in a plain and unembellished way. Thus, a link between private and public space was created, and in the process Wang Bing’s identity was expanded: he was no longer purely a creator – he also became an element in his own work, and a vital, indispensable element at that. To be precise, in the space provided by this work, he became an object to be observed. Considering that his identity is also that of a filmmaker, this visual relationship involved an inherent reversal – one that enriched the image he has acquired over time, of always observing this world and other people via the lens of his video camera.

But this is probably not important at all. In fact, that kind of classic visual relationship is still embodied in this work. Next to the studio, another broad, sunken space had been separated off with long curtains to create a projection room, where Wang Bing’s video work, Scenes, was being projected on a continuous loop. Its 54 minutes were filmed by Wang Bing in Lagos, Nigeria, late last year. He went there to follow Nigerian migrant Kingsley, as a continuation of the Africa project he had previously begun in Guangzhou, China. This was the first time he had set foot on this continent, which has such close ties to China. Scenes resembles a video diary, preserving some of his first impressions from just after he arrived in this city. And his arrival here was not without its difficulties. In several ‘fixed empty shots’ at the start of the film, the sound of local people trying to interfere and stop him filming can be heard off camera.

More responses came from within the studio, from the two large television screens hanging above the head of the bed. These served as monitors, and were connected to the computer on the desk opposite the bed, continuously showing other footage gathered by Wang Bing in Lagos. He filmed Kingsley’s family, observing their everyday life, and following them around their local community. These various images and sounds from that other place interwove and echoed through the exhibition hall. They did not create a narrative, but they served to open up a different space, along with the audience’s imagination, regarding that space. They provided another location.

This location came from the African continent, but was provided by a filmmaker who is Chinese in identity. It germinated in a lockdown situation, in a place often described as the ‘centre of Europe’. If lockdown is a metaphor, what it shows us is a situation where globalisation has been slowed down. And from a historical and contemporary perspective, this work has undoubtedly used such elements to construct and demonstrate some highly complex and convoluted relationships, in the simplest of forms and the most limited space. These relationships touch upon the current state of geopolitics involving the major powers. They occur in areas where power intersects, and which are capable of destabilising the global landscape. They are real and intense. We may, for example, accept that relations between China and Africa are not just a relationship between those two places, but rather a relationship between China and the world, and particularly between China and the United States. Of course, Europe cannot be left out: since it is a former coloniser, people here were quick to identify this work as dealing with a topic related to globalisation and neocolonialism.

Wang Bing does not agree with such interpretations at all, but he does not seek to dispute them. He simply emphasises his identity as an artist. And as an artist, and thus an individual member of society, his approach and his viewpoint, the things he is interested in, have never been connected to ideology or mainstream power – in other words, he is certainly not a servant of such things. Wang Bing’s twenty-plus years of filmmaking practice have proved that this claim is credible and persuasive.

This is why the presence of Glimpses from a Lockdown in this exhibition space gives one a sense that it contains a pent-up energy, which has yet to be unleashed. It touches on a topic that is absolutely contemporary and profoundly necessary and urgent. In this place, at this point in time, it demonstrates, on an appropriate scale, that even in lockdown, the capability and power to intervene remain intact and undiminished. It is like a faint pathway, which people expect will be extended. It’s an order that is cracking, and one that has yet to be formed; it’s a current that has temporarily stagnated yet cannot be stopped; it’s the difficulty of integrating, and the effort to survive; it’s the uncertainty and the possibility of whether we can coexist, and how to coexist. Art cannot provide the answers to these questions, but this work can bear witness.