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Dong Bingfeng

Dong Bingfeng is an independent curator and producer based in Beijing. Since April 2012, he has been assuming his position as the Artistic Director at Li Xianting’s Film Fund. He was born in Xinzhou, Shanxi Province in 1974. After graduated from the Department of Oil Painting of Luxun Academy of Fine Art in 1999, he taught at the Attached Secoondary Art School and the New Media Department of LuXun Academy of Fine Arts until 2004. From 2005 to 2012, he worked as a curator in Guangdong Museum of Art, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, and the deputy director of Iberia Center for Contemporary Art. He also was the chief-editor of four magazines: Art&Invensment, Contemporary Art&Invensment, ARTINCHINA, and The Independent Critic from 2008 to 2012.

CCAA Announces the Outcome of the 2013 CCAA Chinese Contemporary Art Critic Award

This year’s CCAA Critic Award is granted to Dong Bingfeng for his book proposal“Cinema of Exhibition: Film in Contemporary Chinese Art.”

The book will trace a range of developments in the evolution of the moving image as one of the central motifs in Chinese contemporary art: From the debates that arose in the 1980s over terms like “video art” and “independent cinema”, to the growth of installation methods producing interdisciplinary genres of moving image work in the ‘90s, to the prevalence of Chinese film and video in Biennials and public discourse following China’s semi-official sanction of contemporary art in 2000. Inquiry into the work of artists like Feng Mengbo and Yang Fudong as well as film makers such as Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai will demonstrate the increasingly fluid relationship between once discrete systems of production and presentation. He sees similar developments occurring simultaneously in the West. The jury commends Dong’s proposal, which gives due attention to a medium that has represented the political realities of 21st century life in China to audiences domestically and abroad--a medium that has burgeoned in spite of an art market that tends to ignore the value of time-based practices.

Cinema of Exhibition: Film in Contemporary Chinese Art


When did film become a central motif of Chinese contemporary art? Or, when did the cinema of exhibition[1]become one of the themes and manifestations of contemporary art exhibitions? Furthermore, what is the relationship between cinema and Chinese contemporary art? What is the historical evolution and the key subject of these two entirely different categories of arts through which their connection and interaction become manifest? Will we see the emergence of a new kind of history of Chinese cinema[2], interwoven with questions of local identity?

The following thesis intends to observe and reflect on the above issues through a historical perspective and thereby respond to the crisis and future of Chinese contemporary art.

The Myth of Origin

First of all, let us go through a set of facts that intimate the interaction and conceptual formulation between cinema and contemporary art.

The commonly agreed starting point of independent cinema in China and the New Chinese Documentary Film Movemen[3], is based on two works from 1990: Zhang Yuan’s feature film Mother and Wu Wenguang’s documentary Wandering life in Beijing.

Around the same time, Zhang Peili’s video 30 x 30 from 1998 marked the birth of Chinese video art. 30 x 30 made its initial appearance during the Huangshan Convention, but its impact was soon diminished by the clamor over the China Avant-Garde Exhibition held in 1989. Concurrently, the Independent Cinema Movement and New Chinese Documentary Film Movement had drawn unexpected international attention.

The ‘90s is recognized as a period of rapid expansion of film art, promoted by self-organized artists and the birth of DV. The First Guangzhou Triennial in 2002 entitled Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art (curated by Wu Hung and others) “re-interprets” Chinese art production from 1990 to 2000 by including sections of video (organized by Qiu Zhijie), documentary film (organized by Wu Wenguang) and film (organized by Zhang Zhen, New York University) for its range of research and reflection.

In addition to the above hallmark events, there were also many performances, experimental theaters, and filmic happenings taking place during the 85’ New Wave. Apart from the case studies presented in the exhibition Out of The Box: The Threshold of Video Art in China 1984-1988 (出格:中国录像艺术的开端1984-1998)[4], small movements such as the Three Steps Studio (三步画室) in Taiyuan, Xiamen DaDa in Xiamen, and the M Group of Shanghai (“M群体”) were also significant for the general landscape of film art.

However, whether these practices in the ‘80s should be named “Video Art” or “Independent Cinema” has been questioned. These debates are centered on the ways in which video art can be defined and what such definitions hold for the future development of this art form in a local context. In the ‘80s, there were no, or at least very few, articles introducing Western video Art (one would have to wait until ‘90s for the influx of such material), which begs the question of how these Chinese Artists/Directors developed their own unique practices related to the moving image and interact with Chinese society and culture at that time. This is the main issue to discuss in this thesis. For example, it was found that some televised documentaries (e.g. The Sculptor Liu Huanzhang, by Chen Hanyuan, 雕塑家刘焕章) in the early ‘80s had some radical experimental characteristics and a close connection with the “Ideological Emancipation” social atmosphere at that time; similarly, the New Documentary Movement (新纪录运动) in the early ‘90s also had the distinction of being supported by the official system.

From Film to Installation

Similar to the development trend[5]for video art in China, some artists and film directors refused to adhere to the existing mechanism for film at that time, and adopted a more experimental and interdisciplinary approach in their thinking and production.

These cross-field practices are reminiscent of the Avant-Garde Films Movement (先锋电影运动) instigated by European writers and artists at the dawn of the last century. For instance, many of Wang Jianwei’s works, from earlier in his career, such as Production (生产, 1990), Living Elsewhere, (生活在别处, 1998) to the more recent Extending Film projects (延展电影) entitled Time, Theatre, Exhibition (2009), have been shown at various international documentary films exhibitions. Other significant works include Feng Mengbo’s Films series (he calls them “film rituals”), including My Private Alum, Q3, and Q4U 2002 and Yang Fudong’s “other cinema”[6]such as An Estranged Paradise and Seven Elites in the Bamboo Groves (竹林七贤). In a more fundamental sense, the interrelationships and reciprocity between film and contemporary art production have been developed by the rapid development of technologies related to film production. These technological advancements provided new possibilities for social and cultural investigations by the individual, and enabled interaction and the crossing of traditional boundaries between film and contemporary art. Meanwhile, viewed from the global context, what was happening in China corresponds with large-scale alternative film events and the participation of film directors in exhibitions that were becoming prevalent in Western museums. Artists associated with this trend include Pierre Huyghe, Isaac Julien, Tacita Dean, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Douglas Gordon and Stan Douglas. Film directors that could be considered part of this trend included Jean-Luc Godard, Harun Farocki, Chantal Akerman, and Peter Greenaway. Mark Nash pointed out in Art and Cinema that “film has redefined the way we understand contemporary art.”

Subsequently, a group of Chinese film directors with backgrounds in the visual arts such as Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke extended their involvement in the world of contemporary art, developing extensive collaborations with other artists that were often commissioned for specific exhibitions. Noteworthy contributions include Jia Zhangke In Public (2001), City Regeneration (城市再生) commissioned by the Shenzhen Architecture Biennale, and Wang Xiaoshuai’s film installation Await for the 2010 Shanghai Biennale.

These “films by artists” and “art works by film makers” both indicate a clear turning point in contemporary film production, which corroborates with the proposition of Luc Vancheri’s Cinémas contemporains: Du film à l’installation.

This transition has had a tremendous aesthetic impact: Hubert Damisch posits that the screen is merely a temporary carrier or transitory stage of the image, which is resuscitated every time when it is shown[7]. Godard believes that film can only be liberated from the theater through projection[8], which also allows it to assume the authentic possibility of thinking and action. According to Liz Kotz, projection is the crucial means of integrating the viewing subject, moving/static images, time, and architectural space[9], thus making the transition from screening to projection a vital aesthetic form and a critical consciousness of contemporary image production. In the words of Chen Taisong, this transition is also the transformation from “filmic sense” to “filmic nature”. Independent film or artist film can make no real breakthrough as long as they stay within the confines of traditional modes of perception and aesthetics. Projection challenges the rigidity of established ways of beholding, and moves our encounter with image outside of the black box---be it the museum or theatre--- to achieve total immanence[10]while, at the same time, providing a real response to the “post-media” [11]condition of cinema.

Beyond the Screen: Politics of Presentation

The transition from film to installation marks the advent of the cinema of exhibition. After 2000, with the “legalization” of contemporary art in China, the cinema of exhibition was frequently presented at large-scale biennials and triennials, even becoming a key subject during panel discussions. In the meantime, many independent film festivals organized by NGOs began to form alliances with contemporary art, more and more independent projects were being shown in theaters and exhibition halls.

Due to these new opportunities and conditions, many major research and exhibition projects centered on the moving image and video art began to emerge nationwide: besides the First Guangzhou Triennial already mentioned, there are other events such as Beijing International New Media Arts Exhibition & Symposium, Media Arts Triennial by National Art Museum of China (Synthetic Times, 2008 and Translife, 2011); The 2004 Shanghai Biennale: Techniques of The Visible; 2009 Shanghai eArts Festival: New Media Archaeology; Looking Though Film: Traces of Cinema and Self-Constructs in Contemporary Art, OCAT Shenzhen, 2011; Out of The Box: The Threshold of Video Art in China 1984-1988, Guangzhou Times Museum; Moving Image in China 1988-2011, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum.

On the one hand, the flourishing of these mega-events related to the cinema of exhibition suggests the possibility of film/moving image heading toward a new direction of production and criticism in contradistinction to that of visual/fine art. On the other hand, it also attests to the fact that, since the growing systematization of research and infrastructural development of the museum, the formats of exhibiting have shaped the moving image to become an irreplaceable, interdisciplinary art form.

The existing relation between image and contemporary art in China has received international attention: Chinese Realities/Documentary Vision 1988-2013, presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013 reviewed key documentary, video art and film works from the past 25 years. This exhibition foregrounds the complex yet interwoven nature between contemporary art, social realty, and tradition.  

The realm of influence of the cinema of exhibition also extends outside of the art community, museums, and film exhibitions, and is reflected in divergent social phenomenon (especially in terms of Chinese independent cinema and documentary films), institutional critique (such as Yang Fudong’s reflection on film production in the Fifth Night 2) and more radical civil movements (Ai Weiwei and Ai Xiaoming’s Citizen Documentary[12]). In this way, a new trend is cultivated in the cinema of exhibition, namely, museums are no longer solely the safe havens of art or the exclusive spaces in which certain culture/capital manifests itself, rather, they must reflect and respond to the exigencies and demands of China’s gradual democratization process[13].  

Author: Dong Bingfeng, current Art Director of Li Xianting’s Film Fund, former curator of Guangdong Museum of Art and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, former Deputy Director of Iberia Center for Contemporary Art.

[1] From Jean-Christophe Royoux’s article with same title, Pour un cinéma d’exposition.

[2] Defferent from the New Film Movement of Taiwan, the Fifth Generation Film in the Mainland context is not entirely “modern cinema.”

[3] Offically coined by the Chinese scholar Lv Xinyu in his monograph Documenting China: Contemporary China New Documentary Film Movement.

[4] Out of The Box: The Threshold of Video Art in China, Pili, 2011

[5] Such as ’96 Video Art Exhibition (96录像艺术展), and ‘97 Chinese Video Art Observation curated by Wu Meichun and Qiu Zhijie.

[6] See Of An Other Cinema by Raymond Bellour.

[7] See La Denivelee: A L'epreuve De La Photographie Essais, 2002.

[8] See Dominique Païni , Le cinéma comme un art plastique and his proposal of Film Museum.

[9] Liz Kot, Video Projection: The Space Between Screens.

[10] Boris Groys discusses the way video installation challenges the traditional aesthetic experience in the museum in his On the Aesthetics of Video Installation.

[11] This concept is borrowed from ZKM’s exhibition, Future Cinema.

[12] Art, Affect & Activist Documentary, Zhang Zhen.

[13] Museums in Late Democracies, Dipesh Chakrabarty.