Wang Bing “Experience and Poverty“ at Magician Space, Beijing
Wang Bing and Francesco Tenaglia in conversation
Wang Bing is one of the best-known Chinese filmmakers in the West. He is mainly active in documentary but also has worked in fiction, notably presenting The Ditch—a history of struggle, adversity, and death in the Jiabiangou forced labor camp in the Gobi Desert, where Chinese political dissidents were imprisoned in the 1960s—at the 2010 Venice Biennale. Traces (2014) was conceived and realized during the production of this film, and it’s included in the exhibition Experience and Poverty at Magician Space gallery in Beijing, along with Mrs. Fang (winner of the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival, 2017), 15 Hours (presented at documenta 14), and a photographic series.
Francesco Tenaglia: Let’s begin with a few words about Traces.
Wang Bing: Prior to filming the work Traces in 2005, for a number of years I had been collecting a lot of 35mm film , which I hadn’t yet had the chance to use. It was when I was preparing to work on the feature film The Ditch that I decided to take this material and shoot the additional content that was eventually used for Traces. After shooting, it stayed in my studio unedited for a while. Later, in 2014, when I was invited to have a retrospective survey at the Centre Pompidou, I decided to use this material to make Traces into a completed video work.
FT: The curator Yang Beichen, with whom you worked on the exhibition, uses the word “detective” to describe your activity. Sometimes your corporeality is revealed by the sound of your breathing or your shadow entering the scene in this historically charged land. It seems like an empty, imposing, strangely beautiful desert that slowly ceases to be merely a natural presence and reveals an untold story.
WB: Yang Beichen is a very good friend whom I have known for many years now. I’m so grateful for his work in preparing and curating this exhibition. Traces begins in a quiet part of the Gobi Desert and slowly searches for the remains of bodies left exposed there through wind and rain after sixty years. It is an attempt to explore the suffering of starvation and death that had been that had been crushed by the history of this place.
FT: Do you think about the difference in the reception of your work in a movie theater environment versus a gallery space (where the visitor can enter when the film has already started, or not stay for the complete film, and so on)?
WB: Viewing a film inside a cinema is much more linear and fixed. The narrative starts with the beginning and then moves in a forward progression until the end. With an art exhibition, each audience member has a fluid relation to the presentation as soon as they enter into the space. It can be more fragmentary, and for the majority of cinema works this can bring about many obstacles. For my part, I am slowly trying to find out how video can be presented to suit the rhythm of an exhibition through both its narrative logic, but also the time of the narrative. I had all this in mind when I was producing my two new works for this year’s documenta. Mrs. Fang used a relatively conventional cinema method in its narrative. 15 Hours uses a continuous shot, without any editing to structure the film’s narrative. The original recorded footage is presented in its entirety in order to convey a truthful image to the viewer.
FT: Mrs. Fang and 15 Hours—and probably this can be said of a large part of your work—share a form of disillusionment. You portray some passages of human life as inevitable, for instance the approach of death, or the hard work of people coming from the countryside to the city, in a very cold and concise way that seems to cancel space for illusions.
WB: The most fundamental aspect of the moving image is its ability to directly copy an action in order to show us the physical world. Moreover, this direct way of recording something happens to be a method of filmmaking that I particularly like. For me it holds the most creativity. It is also about finding a rational way to analyze things. Images possess an idea of truth that makes them (in the widest sense) inherently documentary; they also provide us a way to decipher the foundations of this truth.
FT: The exhibition at Magician Space also includes photographs. How do these pictures complement Traces, 15 Hours, and Mrs. Fang?
WB: The photographs were also taken in 2014 for the Pompidou retrospective. Actually, it had been something like twenty years since I had taken a photograph and I am still not too skilled at it technically. I shot them in the middle of the night using a torch to shine light onto the subjects. There is a mysterious quality to the wrinkles and textures we see. It was as if standing in the middle of the Gobi Desert, illuminated by the nighttime stars, gave me an unbounded possibility to imagine the narratives behind the remnants of these departed people.