Blurring the Boundaries Between Art and Film in China

Meishi Street (dir. Ou Ning)

By Sara Beretta

Everyone, in a sense, is an artist, in that we all strive to better express ourselves. As bricoleurs, we all do our best to depict our thought, wishes and fears, making use of the media we were given (voice, gestures and action, broadly speaking) and employing techno media, in the big and blurry cloud of creativity, communication and experimentation. People mix sounds, images and what else occurs in order to be better heard and understood or, on the contrary, to conceive meanings in different and alternative, sometimes obscure and imaginative, ways.

It’s not that surprising, then, that boundaries are blurring in art, as more creatives are exploring liminal areas and practices to narrate themselves and the world they live in. This is true for contemporary Chinese artists and filmmakers, mixing practices and channels to convey their ideas. Renowned examples include artist Ai Weiwei’s work in documentaries, Ou Ning and Cao Fei’s projects in video art and films (including dGenerate’s titles Meishi Street and San Yuan Li, as well as the productions Renminbi City and Vitamin Creative Space), multimedia works by Yang Fudong, and Song Tao’s Birds Heads. In a recent article in Red Box Review, curator Samantha Culp expresses her wishes for the outcome of this mixing, specifically in how it might help sustain China’s independent film scene:

Hopefully China’s independent filmmakers can appropriate some strategies from their art-world counterparts about creating a sustainable practice through commerce, and artists can start playing with the intriguing funding, distribution and presentation possibilities opened up by crowd-sourced fundraising, quasi-curatorial festival programming, and online dissemination of works.

All of this is presented to describe a sort of ethnographic turn happening in Chinese art, especially in video and visual production, which these days often mixes up fiction and documentary practice, as if we had to transcend into the imaginary to narrate the real, to understand and deepen it. These artists occupy a unique realm that occasionally intersects with the commercial success of mainstream Chinese cinema and globally acclaimed contemporary art. Independent filmmakers may show their films in the art world, while works of artists are screened in film festivals and. We can even see a dancer documenting himself in a long experimental work (Li Ning’s Tape), rising debates and discussions after screening. In this new panorama, there are a few developing points to look at, and that my own research is focusing on. Just to mention a few: artists’ creative engagement in telling life and, maybe even more significantly, audience’s response to new art forms and showcases, actively participating different selling and distribution channels, hybridized contexts, including the web and social networks, that give chance to non-specialist to get in, appreciate and discuss. In China there’s a growing public sphere of art, that’s opening to (self)representations.

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