Artist Yang Weidong’s New Project Asks What Chinese Really Need

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Yang Weidong interviews a subject for his documentary project "Signal" (Photo: Yang Weidong)

A work in progress by Beijing artist Yang Weidong was recently shown in Hong Kong. Named “Xu Yao” or “Need” in Chinese and “Signal” in English, the documentary comprises of roughly 20 minutes of edited video interviews that Yang conducted with 237 notable Chinese subjects over the past three years. Yang asked each person the same question: “What do Chinese people need most today?” Among the interviewees were director Jia Zhangke and contemporary oil painter Liu Xiaodong, who appears as himself in Jia’s documentary Dong.

The premiere of Yang’s unfinished film project coincided with the publication of the first book in a series, also by him, named Li Ci Cun Zhao: 500 Wei Zhong Guo Ren De Xin Ling Ji Lu (Di Yi Juan) [For the Record: 500 Chinese People's Inner Thoughts (Volume I)]. On July 22, 2011, he was invited to hold a press release for the book at the Hong Kong Book Fair, which was also the venue for the first public screening of “Need.” This event has been recorded in full by the Social Record Association (aka SocREC) of Hong Kong.

The concept for Yang’s project can be traced in the Chinese documentary tradition. Back in 2000, independent filmmaker Ju Anqi made There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing, in which he and his crew famously confronted people in both public and private space in Beijing with the same question of whether they thought that the wind in Beijing was strong. Though absurd, this question sometimes opened up the conversations, tricking people to divulge what was really on their mind. Compared to Ju’s film, which is certainly more spontaneous and experimental in nature, Yang’s “Need” is more serious and urgent in tone, and the reason must be traced to Yang’s initial motivation for the project.

As stated in the preface of his book, Yang began the project two years after the death of his father. He sought justice with the Chinese authorities about the matter, but soon experienced an existential crisis. As their prolonged communications showed, the values held by those in power could hardly align with his own, and vice versa. To get the real meanings of the universal values that have kept coming up in their conversations, he decided to consult contemporary Chinese elites for an answer. The people that he has approached so far include university professors, independent scholars, retired party members and authority figures, writers, artists, industrialists, and so on and so forth.

In his attempt to interview these subjects, rejections have been common, especially among those who are still working in the system under the auspices of the Chinese government. However, contacting elites who worked outside the system alone was not a solution, either. Yang made contact with a number of politically sensitive men whom had been marked by the state and consequently he became listed as one of them. He has been closely watched by the Chinese state police ever since. In a press release, he mentioned an incident in which nine Chinese security officers came to his residence one night and questioned him until dawn. Fortunately, as far as it appears to be right now, he is not in any grave danger at the moment. He said admittedly that he would always try to negotiate with the authority figures when they came to stop him. By conceding to some of their requests, he would at least manage to complete his project.

The existing short shows only a glimpse of the project, as different answers to the same question come on screen in flashes, and explanations to the answers are left out entirely, it is meant to be seen a collage of every one’s thought about the same matter. And it goes without saying, viewing the documentary is best complemented by reading the book, which has the best thirty interviews on paper. For a sneak preview of the interviews as well as a general sense of people’s answers, John Garnaut’s article on The Sunday Morning Herald is a good guide. As he succinctly puts it, this is a film about “China’s thirst for freedom.”

Yang looks forward to finishing his project. Lining up for his new round of interviews are Chinese elites living overseas and even top political leaders including the Chinese president. As both an artist and a Chinese national, he refers to his actions as an instance of performance art, injected with sincere and legitimate social concerns and responsibilities of a true member of a civil society.

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