Bend the earth: absurdItIes of everyday lIfe

Artist in Conversation: Hijack 打劫

During the COVID19 pandemic, the artist duo, Hijack (Jing Xie & Qiong Zhang) was forced to cancel their planned trip to Folkestone, UK, and instead, carried out a remote residency in their respective hometowns in China. The new body of work entitled, ‘Shooting in the Dark’ 白日摸瞎 came out of this highly unusual period, a creative process that translates quotidian experiences into a set of poetic/absurd gestures and metaphors. 

COVID19 erected geographic barriers, and in many ways, it also reinforced cultural divides. Under imposed lockdown, our perceptions of the world had become increasingly insular: the daily news temporarily re-enacted war-time rituals, and flattened the multifarious experiences of daily living to a set of numbers, targets and rules. In our own state of confusion, anxiety, uncertainty and helplessness, we cannot help but wonder, what lives on the other side of the world look like.

After ‘Shooting in the Dark’ was screened for the first time in Folkestone in May, Nina (HOP’s co-director) invited the artists to share their personal perspectives on their latest performance, and the new daily realities they’ve experienced.

‘It alludes to a situation where people deliberately refuse to see the obvious in front of them and pretend to work hard to solve problems that are not there but appear to be problems inexplicably. People spend energy doing something that they know won’t work…’

‘[…] it is a process of trying to find a place to stand firmly in order to acquire a sense of security, a state of perpetual struggle.’

[Nina]: Could you please talk a bit more about the title of the work: 白日摸瞎 (‘Shooting in the Dark’), is it a Chinese proverb or idiom?

[Qiong]: The title looks like a common four-character idiom, but it actually isn’t. It’s been manufactured, a fake, but it reads very smoothly. If you ask someone who is familiar with the Chinese language, it might take them a while to mull over and the answer may be uncertain.

[N:] What does it mean?

[Jing]: “白日” means daylight, “摸瞎” means blind. 

[Qiong]: Literally it means to touch blindly in the daytime. 

[N]: It is probably difficult for non-Chinese speakers to grasp its full meaning through a direct translation alone. What sort of quality, or scenario does it allude to? 

[Q]: It alludes to a situation where people deliberately refuse to see the obvious in front of them and pretend to work hard to solve problems that are not there but appear to be problems inexplicably. People spend energy doing something that they know won’t work. So if you read it literally, it alludes to a feeling of confusion and anxiety, when one is heading for an uncertain future.

[J]: The ‘blind’ is a traditional game played by many Chineses in their childhood, including myself. I wanted to put these two words together, ‘白日’ and ‘摸瞎’, as it talks about a situation where people have been blinded during the daylight, and it alludes to the feelings and sentiments during the whole epidemic period. People could only receive a certain amount of information from the outside world and they were in a state of confusion. They couldn’t figure out which was the truth, and which was fake news, and they were exhausted in the process having to repeatedly subvert their judgments about everything, and then to fall again into self-doubt. They had lost direction, there seemed no way forward, and they were powerless…Hence it was useless to exert effort, since this led to nowhere, and they could only stand still and wait. It is a process of trying to find a place to stand firmly in order to acquire a sense of security, a state of perpetual struggle.

[N]: To me, there is a sense of absurdity, and futility in the toil implied by the titles: 白日摸瞎 (Shooting in the Dark), 扳沙 (Bend the Earth), 伤口撒盐 (Salt the Wound). Could you talk about the use of these gestures or humour in your work, if you also find such qualities to be relevant or important?

[Q]: Absurdity appears in our work from time to time. But it isn’t necessarily an intended quality when I embark on a project. Perhaps since everyday realities in China are even more absurd, when a piece of work emerges from it, such qualities become part of it. The work quotes quotidian gestures that take place in people’s daily lives. When we put an eye on it, observe and extract it, the absurdity comes out here and there.

[J]: The inspiration for the action of jumping, kicking and destruction came from the fact that during the epidemic, violent evictions occurred in different parts of the world. Members of the management officials violently beat the crowd with sticks when enforcing the social distancing rules and preventing crowds from gathering in public spaces. There were also acts of violence against vulnerable groups under the name of law enforcement. So I was jumping, violently kicking the bed, making it sink and eventually causing it to be buried. Compared with the action of jumping on a trampoline which is often associated with joyousness, the image of the sunken bed is connected to the demise of life, and the life experience that began to fall due to the infection.

A mask was far from enough, gradually people covered their eyes, nose, their entire heads!’

[N]: Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between the written language(s), Chinese (and English) and the specific visual languages used in your work, ie. symbolism, colour, gestures, costumes, so on and so forth?

[Z]: We tend to choose a very direct language to describe the works. The title usually says what we intend to do. Poetry sometimes emerges from ambiguity, and sometimes from accuracy. Sometimes it is also more about irony rather than poetry. The irony comes from the daily life: 白日摸瞎, or the action of groping in the daylight, seems stupid, false and unnecessary. 

During the pandemic I felt that people were walking around blindly, trying to find a way out, confused and anxious. The process was like a game I played when I was a kid, I was blindfolded with a red scarf in an effort to reach out to other kids with my arms spread out. Anticipating my actions, the kids went and ducked around me, teased and laughed at me. When this idea went through my head, I was sitting in my parents’ living room, being surrounded by lots of plants. I imagined putting my head inside one of the pots and I could almost hear the sound of my breathing being exaggerated by a natural sound box. Using a plant pot was also a good solution during the pandemic as there were many choices available on Taobao (a Chinese online shopping website), and this one looked simple and big enough to cover the whole head.

The idea of covering one’s head with a plant pot came from how I felt when I had to put on a mask to go outside. On the news, more and more cities were shutting down, and people became infected because they went through the same hallway as someone who was an unconfirmed COVID suspect. The panic induced was huge. A mask was far from enough, gradually people covered their eyes, nose, their entire heads! In the news people wore transparent plastic buckets on their heads so that they could see the road. In the story of Saramago’s Blindness, people dropped everything and walked blindly in the city after they became infected in an epidemic. The situation described in the novel shared many similarities to the realities we were experiencing.

扳沙 (bend the earth), comes from a comment Jing heard from a passerby when she was jumping on her sand mound, which in her dialect means one has nothing to do and tosses around. I couldn’t get that meaning at all by simply reading the words, but I found these two characters interesting. I translated them into Bend the Earth verbatim. In this piece, I was jumping as high as I could, trying to get off the ground, whilst Jing stomped hard on the mound under her feet, trying to flatten it. Each of us worked to disengage and to change something in that environment. When the two images were put together, it seemed that our combined actions were enough to bend the earth. But the ‘earth’ here was translated distortedly to 沙, meaning ‘sand’, so it is very possible that all our efforts were totally useless.

[N]: Travel bans during the pandemic had forced me to rethink your residency, which was originally planned to take place in Folkestone. But this change of location has also made me re-consider the context in which this particular piece of work would be produced, i.e. in China: a country that was wrapped in geo-political and economic tensions with the West even before the outbreak of the virus. Since COVID had badly affected many countries in the West, it has been blamed for starting a global pandemic, and targeted by many anti-Chinese rhetorics. I feel that in the mainstream media, the image of China is unstable and subject to political temperaments. The imagery we see on the news coming from China during the pandemic was a kind of sci-fi-esque and militarised state, devoid of human beings, heavily surveilled by drones and phone apps. People’s daily lives were invisible. What I find very interesting in your performance work, is its power to reveal: behaviours, prejudices, the environment, so on and so forth, and makes us see things in a new way. The work has revealed a very poignant and personal perspective: the details of the lives of those from the ‘inside’ – incredibly rich and humane, full of society’s contradictions and absurdities. 

[J]: Your commentary reminds me of a small episode, that is, when Covid19 was just becoming widespread in China, I wrote about it in an email to ask you to pay attention and take precautions. However, when I looked up its name in English, I found this from the BBC News -“China Covid19”. So I actually quoted these words as I thought it was a common translation for this particular virus used by the official media in English-speaking countries, but I wasn’t aware that this language was not factual, nor objective but discriminatory. When I realised what it actually meant, I felt like I did a stupid thing. Language as a tool for expressing ideological differences has become more prominent during the epidemic, and when English is the world’s universal language, I felt it was a double oppression from the anglo-centric world order. 

[N]: That is a very sharp observation. We can talk a lot more about the ways in which media was used in both countries as the dominant source of information and propaganda during the pandemic. In the meanwhile I wish to draw our attention back to China. I wonder if you can talk a bit more about the sites that you had chosen for your performances. What significance do they have, politically, culturally, symbolically, or perhaps artistically? How do you relate to these places, before and during COVID?

 

Qiong Zhang’s performance took place at The City Plaza – Dongfanghong Square in Lanzhou & the Yellow River

[Q]: Lanzhou is the city very close to my hometown and it is a place that connects me and the outer world since I was a child. It is a transport hub in the northwest of China. No matter where I went, I’d always go to Lanzhou first to take an airplane or a train. During the pandemic, all my travel plans were cancelled, and Lanzhou became the farthest place I could visit. As a child I had weak sight in one eye and my parents brought me to Lanzhou to visit the doctor every summer. The doctor put an ointment in my eye to diffuse my pupil. It was a slow process that lasted several days, and during which I couldn’t look at things under direct sunshine otherwise I got dizzy. I always stayed at my aunt’s place which is very close to the Dongfanghong square. Sometimes I was taken there for a walk, wearing sunglasses to avoid the sun. It was not normal for a kid to wear sunglasses at that time, so I attracted lots of attention. I remembered the square was busy and lively. Now it looks cold and inaccessible, being cut off by traffic and walls, and people who pass through it just hurry on.

[N]: What does the billboard say?

[Q]: People who left their hometown to become a day labourer in big urban cities are called 农民工 (farmer worker). They have almost zero basic life guarantee as they lost their land in the country and they make very little money in the city. They are ‘the floating population’ in China, who are being discriminated a lot. Sometimes they were praised by the media as ‘the builders of the city’, sometimes they were called ‘低端人口 (low-end population) ‘ by the government and need to be ‘cleaned out’ from the city.

When I looked back at the documentation of ‘Shooting In the Dark’, I found the words ’文明’ (civilisation) printed on the wall appearing again and again. ‘Civilisation’ has been used and advertised as the socialist core value which frequently appears on official media. The photographs show these words and slogans on the walls, on the body of buses, and on the displays signs above the taxis. In relation to your concern of the new geo-politics and economic tensions between China and the West, I feel this word ‘文明’ (civilisation) might be the key to many issues. When someone puts too much emphasis on one thing it usually means he doesn’t have it. China once had a glorious civilisation thousands years ago. But in the last hundred years, the modern history of China was filled with humiliation and madness. The madness and trauma have been masked beneath the surface of its economic prosperity and development in the past 30 years, which happened to be the same age as me. It is funny that in China, smartphones are very popular even amongst the elderly and those in the countryside, but many people’s (even those who are very wealthy and well educated) mentalities still remain in feudal times. So I had a very strange and complicated feeling towards the word ‘文明’ (civilisation) when I found it appearing like a ghost in the background when I touched blindly in the square.

[N]: The architecture on the plaza seems really monumental and imposing, almost defensive and hostile. Could you talk a little bit about this particular site?

[Q]: The area where I did the first performance is actually the rostrum of the city centre square. The main square is even bigger and more square-like. At first I was thinking of doing the performance at the main square. In my memory, this was a lively place, full of people exercising, relaxing and dancing. But it was in maintenance when I checked it. As you can see in the video, it is on the other side of the road, being surrounded by walls. The rostrum area appears to have been refurbished not long ago, and it also looks different from the one I remembered. The name Dongfanghong is a name full of zeitgeist. It means Oriental Red, just as the famous Chinese song with the same name in 1960s, in praise of Chairman Mao, who was compared to the red sun by the whole country. In my memory it was surrounded by warm-coloured flowers and decorated in Dunhuang Apsaras fresco in 90s. People came to visit it and took pictures as souvenirs. Now all the ornaments have been removed, and the new colour feels cold and serious, people come and go in a hurry.

[N]: Could you talk a bit about the time you chose to carry out the performance?

[Q]: I arrived at the square at around 5:40pm. It was a time when the light was very beautiful and many people showed up from all different directions – those who have left work, those who took a stroll after dinner, and people who did exercises. The site is located right next to the Provincial Public Security Bureau, and I saw some men in police uniform on duty near the rostrum that afternoon, which made me anxious before the performance as I was prepared to be stopped anytime by the police. Choosing the darkening dusk light helped to alleviate this potentially problematic situation in a way, at least on a psychological level.

[N]: What was your experience when carrying out the performance? Did you feel vulnerable? 

[Q]: I arrived at the square and put my head into the plastic pot at a time when the light was strong just before the sunset. I couldn’t see around me, which made me think that people couldn’t see me either and I felt invisible. My body became free. I felt my hands and feet become more sensitive, stretching freely and strangely. I touched here and stomped there with my eyes closed, as if I had escaped the pull of gravity. The connection between myself and my limbs was strangely different. My sense of balance was different. It felt like learning to swim in these new circumstances. Time slowed down. I was suddenly separated from the world around me. I went into a completely different kind of time flow.

The process kept reshaping my relationship with the sound. I began to hear unusually rich sounds. My ever-changing breathing, the footsteps and conversations of the passers-by, the sound of cars passing rapidly, the sound of sirens… I even heard the sound of the sunset at some point, which was like the sound of a whale sinking in the ocean. My head hovers in that pot collecting the odd sound. It blocked and converged all the sound around me all at the same time. 

[N]: What were people’s reactions (as you have deliberately chosen a busy site)?

[Q]: My experience of walking in public places in China has usually been of people crowding around and bumping into each other. With my head being covered, I could constantly hear and feel people passing next to me and disappear. At some point I panicked. I expected to be noticed but people were avoiding me, pretending not to see me, which made me feel ignored and abandoned by the familiar world. After a while I wanted to get some connection with the familiar world, I wanted to be seen. I felt like someone stranded on a deserted island, waving desperately to get people’s attention when a ship passed by. There was one kid who became very interested in me. She came to me back and forth, circling me around, ignoring her grandfather’s calling. She had a very different energy compared to the others.

[N]: What is the significance of the Yellow River?

[Q]: The Yellow River runs across Northern China from the west to the east, along which many ancient Chinese civilisation sites have been located. As the river flows through the Loess Plateau, the colour of the river turns gradually to yellow with the flow. There have been anecdotes that my grandfather used to conduct business on rafts through Tao River to the Yellow River at a time when cars and trains were rare. It is a river that carries many of my family’s stories and my imaginations. When I carved the wound along the river bank with the knife, I felt I was reading through the lives of the numerous people who had lived along the river at different times. I was turning over the grief and history of those went by with that knife in my hand. 

[N]: Where did the second performance, 扳沙 take place?

[Q]: I stayed at my cousin’s place for several days in Lanzhou. That area was a new-built residential subdivision. All apartments were sold and some had already been occupied even though there is almost nothing in the neighbourhood. On one side of the block, a brand new commercial street was being built. On the other side, another planned residential building was digging its foundation. Each time I went outside to find food, I walked past that mound. It looked spectacular and bizarre. Cars and motorcycles passed by from time to time, giving the place an alien and modern feel. One afternoon I walked closer to check the site, a sudden sand storm attacked me. It was an occasional weather, but it appeared again when I was doing the performance several days later and almost buried me a couple times.  

 

Jing Xie performed at the market of Makou Town in Hanchuan – (a city nearby Wuhan), and the Yangze River

[J]: These three pieces of works were all done in the small town where I was born, where it contains many of my memories despite the fact that I no longer live there, but I frequently go back. From high school to graduate school, I lived far away from home, therefore every city has a kind of strangeness for me, including my hometown, and I don’t know where I belong. This time, I lived at home for the longest period in ten years. I re-recognised my hometown through these performances with my body which made me feel good. I felt I got closer to it.

The place where I chose to make Salt The Wound is nearby the embankment of the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze River. In my childhood memories, when the river flooded every summer, many people came to fight it. They threw thousands of sandbags into the river. As a kid, I thought this was incredible, I couldn’t believe that this enormous river could be filled with sandbags to lower the water level and to prevent it from breaking the embankment. But it was made possible through the sheer collective power of a large number of people.

[N]: The photographs of the market are incredibly beautiful. Could you tell us more about it?

[J]: This performance took place in Makou Town in Hanchuan. Originally there were stalls randomly laid out on the street (the stall owner avoided the fee) near the vegetable market in the town centre, but because chengguan (urban management and law enforcement staff) drove the vendors out, they need to find new places to sell. The main function of the chengguan is to implement the national and municipal laws, regulations and rules on urban management, and to govern and maintain order. They often had to face people at the bottom of society, and in many places chengguan has become the focus of various social contradictions.

 This area is actually a playground, as more and more stalls gradually  accumulated there, it has become a temporary new outdoor vegetable market. The vendors needed to pay a small fee but the market was loosely managed, they needed to occupy their sites early everyday. These stalls actually exist in a mobile state. From 3 to 4 in the morning, the sellers gradually arrived to set up the stalls and the market ends at around 11-12 noon, in the afternoon this area would be restored back to being a playground. This repeats daily, so in this performance, I started to perform from dark at 4 o’clock until dawn.

The indoor vegetable market was nearby and still in operation, where the organisation is more regular, the stalls fixed, and the fees were also relatively higher. Due to the epidemic, anyone who enters the old indoor market had to have their body temperature measured, so this new outdoor vegetable market formed another centre.

There has been an interesting phenomenon emerging from the relationship with Chengguan and the pedlars. The government began encouraging stalls selling to stimulate the economy. So some Chengguan began passing on the news to the pedlars and even encouraged them to come out to set up stalls, to their great disbelief. The tension between them in the past has been eased at this moment as Chengguan no longer drove them out, and the pedlars no longer had to try and avoid them. This method of selling was temporarily legalised, which I think has been a positive change.

[N]: Could you also talk a bit about the time that you have chosen to carry out the performance?

[J]: Out of all three performances, the element of time is the most important in ‘Shooting In The Dark’. At the beginning, I was planning to find a really dark place, as we were going to apply reflective materials on our gloves during the performance. But when I was searching the location for the performance – that temporary market, I knew that the sellers would gradually set up the stalls from 3 to 4am, and stay there until noon. So I decided that I would start the performance from dark to dawn to daylight, so it would become a process that changes over time.

[N]: What were people’s reactions? 

The name of 扳沙 (Bend the Earth) comes from people’s reactions. When I was jumping on the sand mountain, a passerby told his friend that this is the ‘real 扳沙 (Bansha in Pinyin)’. 扳沙 (bansha) comes from our local dialect, many young people no longer express it this way. It is used to describe people who are idle and do things that are irrelevant or unvalued. I thought it was humorous, so I wanted to use it as its Chinese title.

During ‘Shooting in the dark’, there were lots of people with a lot of reactions. I included some of their conversations into the film with subtitles. They were very interesting – extracts from a trivial life, the impact and changes brought about by the epidemic, and the variations in their emotions. Repeated day after day this becomes very powerful.

[N]: There were so many people and traffic, especially in the early morning in the dark! Did it make it more of an obstacle for your performance?

[J]: Because that was the time when the sellers began to arrive with their goods so there was a lot of traffic and people. But this wasn’t an obstacle to my performance, and it allowed for unexpected experiences. For example, at the beginning, I was really scared. When I felt a vehicle approaching, I slowed down, but I could feel my toes trying hard and unconsciously to grasp the ground. Over time I found a way to ensure my safety – when a car approached, I stopped and stayed at the same spot allowing the driver to judge a direction. This prevented me from being hit if we had all chosen the wrong direction at the same time. This was so different from our experience of not being blinded – when we walk with clear sight, our bodies always immediately move in a new direction unconsciously to avoid collision if we see someone approaching, but we usually make the same choice and move at the same time. 

[N]: Could you talk a little bit about the second performance, 扳沙? Where did that take place?

[J]: I saw an image from the internet of some dug pits and coffins. Each coffin was lined up and waiting to be buried. It made a big impression on me – the lives inside the coffins were spent in hospital beds before they passed away. At this time, the position of life was shifted and there was another place to carry life.

There was a private sand factory near the dam. The performance took place on one of sand heaps. For this piece of work, I chose the time of performance to be at dusk, around 6.30pm – which was the time when people did their daily exercise after dinner in summer. (In China, people took great care to keep good health, especially those in their middle to old age). For many, taking a walk after dinner was essential so in the background, you can spot many walking through the dam in the distance. There was an interesting juxtaposition here, I was jumping continually, violently kicking the bed in my struggles, to bury it into the sand, but the people in the back were very relaxed.

[N]: Could you talk a little bit about your experiences of COVID19 since it began? How did it affect your daily life? Has it affected the way you make work?

[Q]: I noticed people talking about a SARS-like virus spreading in Wuhan on Weibo (Chinese twitter) last December, which was classified as a rumour and deleted by the official soon afterwards. The day before Chinese new year, when most internet censors went off for vacation, the information on situations in Wuhan suddenly exploded. The country outside of Weibo was still immersed in the atmosphere of new year’s eve. The public in other places started to realise that this might be a severe situation as Wuhan was in lockdown overnight. 

I had different travel plans for work and life for 2020, which all had been changed or postponed because of COVID19. At the beginning I felt this period would be wasted in my life. I couldn’t go anywhere nor meet people for a long time. But gradually it felt like a compulsory vacation without interference, or a reboot process for me mentally and physically. I finally got time to do some writings I had wished to do earlier, and read books I bought years ago. Working as a writer for years, I am used to working alone at home. But to work as usual as an artist in a performance seemed impossible, let alone that Jing was in Hubei, where the pandemic was at its worst in China. For the May residency at HOP, working together as an artist duo seemed almost impossible. But when HOP suggested that we could do a digital residency in China, I felt that it might be a perfect solution for our situation at that particular moment. The working process was very fun and fresh. There were some difficulties such as sending the videos at the final stage, which took us tons of hours. But it got solved at the last minute. The geographic barrier was not a big problem for the work process. I find it is an inspirational attempt for making future performances and to collaborate

[J]: My experiences and feelings during this period have been fully incorporated into my work. There hasn’t been too much impact on my daily life, since staying at home is my normal state. 

The remote residency has been a new way of making work. There had been some initial obstacles. For example, I spent over a month looking for a photographer to work with me, and began to lose patience. I made many attempts, but there simply isn’t a big enough artistic community in Hubei, and it has been an inconvenience for artists and photographers based in other provinces to travel at this time. So finally, I found a local photographer who documents weddings and without any formal artistic training. When the performance was carried out, it took some time for us to get used to each other. That was the biggest obstacle I encountered when making the work during this period. But the most special thing has been the participation of my family in my work. It was the first time they saw what I was doing, and it made us closer. I am very grateful for their support.

‘It is obvious that people’s physical distance has become further in this period, but social distance has become closer.’

[N]: What have you observed in the ways in which COVID19 changes society, or how people interact with each other in China?

[J]: It is obvious that people’s physical distance has become further in this period, but social distance has become closer. I had a wonderful experience some time ago – Godard created a live- stream event with netizens around the world, and Abramovich was invited to livestream by Tsinghua University. The atmosphere reminded me of a friend sitting opposite you in his/her own home, talking with netizens by Video Chat. That experience was so different from the way they would normally give a lecture at a public space, it was personal and intimate.

I believe that the epidemic has given people greater empathy, people care more about others, and about lives far away from themselves physically. At the same time, people also care more about themselves – physical machines that have never stopped but running all the time since the start keys were pressed. They have also begun to re-evaluate life, what to live for, how to live, and the gestures of their next life stage. Especially the elderly, I can feel that they are determined to care more about their own needs and live for themselves, rather than playing the role of selfless and dedicated victims in their family. This change is valuable. Since they have been living according to the traditional Chinese cultures and values for a long time, where they have been playing a role and suppressing their desires and values to strive for their family and the next generation.

[Q]: I felt that society is going through a big transformation during the last several months. People have moved their focus to online interactions in all aspects of daily life. This has been a shift that helped to promote many new opportunities. On the other hand, surveillance was becoming more stringent and pervasive. The Chinese society was already relying heavily on online payment systems connected via smartphones before COVID19, now the cashless movement has been pushed to the extreme. Whether it is to get on a bus or a taxi, in small stores or the hospital…people need to scan the QR code with WeChat in most situations where payment is required, even for a very small amount of money. The government promotes this policy so that all payments are recorded no matter where one goes or connected with whom. For the elderly, the disabled who may experience difficulties to do it properly, or those who don’t have a smartphone, it would be very difficult for them now to go outside. And I feel once these phenomena are normalised, there will be no way back.

Exhibition information:

白日摸瞎 ‘Shooting in the Dark’ – Hijack | Friday 29 May – Friday 5 June 2020, 8 – 11pm

73 Tontine Street, Folkestone, CT20 1JR