When I am Dead / Karen Smith / 2014
Guangzhou-based artist Qin Jin has, to date, made art using various mediums
and materials, but none fix her practice to one approach or style. Should a more
precise description be required, then the several artworks she has produced as
an independent artist since graduating from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts
in 2003, are, broadly speaking, conceptual. They are also largely ephemeral. Of
relevance for the 2014 solo exhibition For Those Who Are Superstitious, Sacrifice Is
Real, Qin Jin has occasionally realised her concepts in the form of moving image,
as a video work. The installation Twenty-Nine Years, Eight Months and Nine Days
completed in 2009, for example, contains a subtle, silent, yet powerful video
component. For this, Qin Jin filmed herself ironing various articles of clothing and
the final edit of the video is taken from a process that unfolded over three years
(beginning in 2006) and hundreds of hours of the artist standing in a darkened
room, sometimes with the camera running, sometimes not, patiently repeating
the singular action of running the hot iron over each of the dozen or so garments
that, through time and the use of pressure and heat, were ironed smooth and flat
like a wafer, also browned to a crisp. Suspended in mid-air on clothes hangers,
these fragile, empty vessels form a physical, yet ghostly, part of the installation.
In regard of the video portion of Twenty-Nine Years, Eight Months and Nine Days, it would be more accurate to describe it as a performance recording; a documentation of the artist engaged in an act that could not, for reasons of practicality, sense and time, be performed live. Thus, she recorded it, subse- quently editing the footage to complete the performative concept. Qin Jin’s new work, the extraordinary three-channel projection When I am dead, is, in every aspect of its being, quite unlike this conceptual-performance-as-video-art. The most immediate difference is scale or, rather, scope. Not only is the Twenty-Nine Years, Eight Months and Nine Days video a single-channel image of the artist in the act of performing, but its image was conceived and presented as an intimate experience, evidenced in the modest proportions of the monitor used to screen it. Conversely, When I am Dead is absolutely cinematic. Its action centres on a constructed narrative – constructed in the sense that all literary conventions are an invention of time, place and cast of fore-grounded characters – that, as with enduring literature, comes so close to reality as to be almost indistinguishable from it.
But there is always a difference. Film allows artists to work within its ability to imply associations and to leverage the viewers’ proclivity, given the right clues, for forming assumptions about what it is the artist wishes them to perceive. In this way, the viewer completes an artist’s film work by drawing from it their own story or version of the narrative, thus providing it with an additional layer; the ultimate conjoining with actual reality. Reality in this context, however, is relative and so, visually, When I am dead is able to be entirely ethereal. It is abstract, too, in a style well established by directors such as the Scandinavian Lars von Triers or, similarly, the great British film-maker Derek Jarman – there is, arguably, a parallel between When I am dead and The Garden (1990), Jarman’s most emphatically, melancholy work, for both mediate a reflection upon mortality. Being equally of its time, When I am dead has a vaguely MTV air, but one in which yearning lyrics have been replaced with heart-wrenching fragments of ambient sound. This is the realm in which we could imagine the writer Milan Kundera being at home: Qin Jin’s sequences are saturated with an aura of lightness of being, the emotive implica- tions of which are almost unbearable.
Cinematic though the work might feel, Qin Jin’s narrative for it does not follow customary convention, as evidenced by the non-linear nature of the telling. When I am dead is presented as an installation in which three different sequences are shown side-by-side to create a deliberately-sought visual repetition. The story has a spatial air and is woven into the fabric of the work as if a matrix at its core, to which all the visual and aural elements of the work are inalienably attached. So, far from being a distraction, the rolling medley of scenes is hypnotic, calming. It is one we soon learn to predict for When I am dead draws viewers into its rhythm – aided by the repeated visual reference to the rolling motion of the sea – and, before the passing of time becomes apparent in the mind, an entire cycle has elapsed. For this reason the three-screen structure functions in a subtle way, apparently denying the notion of “beginning” and “end” and, yet, it doesn’t take long – in terms of time – or a great effort of metal agility to identify a plausible start point and to grasp the inevitable conclusion that approaches again and again as the film loops continuously around; the film’s premise is, after all, that stated in the title.
Visually When I am Dead begins, or seems to take its cue from, an aged woman who sits in eloquent silence at a desk writing a letter. We don’t know all of what she will say. We never know if she completes the letter in the way she intended when the impulse to write placed her at the desk. She appears to us suspended in reverie, a ghostly presence that is accentuated by the two other female figures who enter the scenes. Both are younger and their relation to the elder woman we can only surmise. Daughter? Granddaughter? Is it to them she writes? It is posterity she contemplates? Instinct tells us she looks beyond the present, but to recall a past that is already lost to time? Is the film her dream? A recollection of her own childhood, youth? The three characters in the film are assumed to represent three generations and are yet one in the same person; just as every scene is precisely conceived, each element consciously invoked, the ambiguity here is intended. With the exception of the poignant contradic- tion achieved between the aura of alienation (the source of which seems to be the burden of experience that accrues to age, as implied in the posture and demeanour of the oldest female character) and, at the same time, the indisput- able interconnectedness of each aspect of the film, all else is poetically obtuse.
What When I am dead does most obviously share in common with the filmed sequence of Twenty-Nine Years, Eight Months and Nine Days is the element of time. This is made emphatic through actions or gestures that point to the passage of time. But time is also wrapped up in the fibre of the production, such as the period in which each project was realised. When I am dead also took almost three years from start in 2012 to completion in 2014; more if the period of ruminating on the idea and then the approach for the work are factored in. The extended length of time taken to complete When I am Dead is a measure of the artist’s awareness of time as precious, not to be wasted, where everything done in its course is to be right. In the relatively brief 39 - minutes of this final version of the video installa- tion, every moment of the days in the months of those two years has a presence. Time passed. Time passing. Time as a continuum that never ends as individuals are born, grow into adults, become parents and then reach an end, the space left in the world filled by new beings. And so the cycle continues ad infinitum.
Qin Jin pinpoints When I am Dead as beginning with bubbles. Not, as one might imagine, as an idea bubbling up in her conscious mind, but in the physical form of foam. When I am Dead deploys “bubbles” in a metaphorical and metaphys- ical sense – the sea touching the shore, pen nib dipping into the pool of ink used to write a letter, soap lather, and the manifestation of age marks on the skin of the elderly woman – and, as a metaphor, speaks of transience, of substances that can barely be touched, things that cannot be held or controlled. In the bath or shower, in the rain or on the sea shore, grasp at a bubble and you destroy it; it vanishes. Bubbles exist in a state of perpetual flux, not dissimilar to the world, to human existence, certainly to the individual’s life. The film contains multiple scenes of a bubbling mass of air that transforms transparent waters into a fizzing, gaseous state. Neither water nor air, we glimpse the heaving mass engendered as waves hit a rocky seashore, fizzing as air forces itself into water, pooling together even as these elements resist each other, ultimately escaping back to their separate natural state. This fascinating process, which can be observed with the naked eye, for Qin Jin holds an allure that is metaphysical, obsessive. Through her own creative process of extrapolation and analogy, she has come to perceive the chain of events by which bubbles are produced as akin to a virtual one, an invisible process in which particles of information, bytes, pixels, atoms of code, are released from one terminal – a phone, a computer, an i-Pad – to travel through space and time to be reformed and reanimated somewhere else entirely. The typed form of a message dissolves in transmission and, having submitted to the procedures of electronic transportation, first mixes with the ether and is then extracted to appear as if by magic on a terminal for the eyes of another perhaps a few, perhaps a thousand miles, away. This magical means of communicating is today entirely taken for granted, but even to the later years of the twentieth-cen- tury was a notion as mad as the paranormal phenomenon of mind transference; telepathy and telekinesis, an entire genre of Hollywood horror movies, and dark tales of mediums and mind readers, crystal balls and séances for of communi- cating with the departed, with lost souls, with those removed to another state of being entirely. These elements have a certain understated, unspecified presence in When I am. Qin Jin is not interested in fantastical imaginings for her focus is her world, close at hand; sensations that are palpable if not always tangible.
The invisible flow of information that prompted Qin Jin to create this film was a prescient memory, which behoves to her own personal experience. When I am Dead is not about Qin Jin. It is not intended to be autobiographical but the truth points to powerful personal experiences are at work behind the scenes, which some of us may be able to share. Qin Jin lost her mother as a child. Repairing the sense of innocence lost to this youthful encounter with mortality has been a consummate goal of her adult life and informs much of what she does via art. Qin Jin is not afraid of revisiting the experience. The camera shots are tight. We are confronted with the qualities of age as they become manifest on skin, of the face, the hands and in the fading tones of hair. There are moments when this proximity feels invasive. But it is experience the awareness of this invasion of personal space and privacy that you begin to understand the power of morbid fascination – a characteristic or flaw of human nature that is perhaps part of our DNA. It is morbid because the mind is forced to discover the boundaries of its own phobias about age, death, loss and the possibility (or, worse, the absence) of eternity. But these manifestations are scrutinized not as a morbid sense of decay at the descent into age, but with an air of wonder. Qin Jin insists she finds a beauty in the composure that comes with age, a richness in the textures and marks, the blemishes and lines that speak of a thousand days, a multitude of experiences and a depth of character written into each character of the surface and which point to a trove of remembered and forgotten memories: everything experienced of a life is imprinted on the skin. By comparison, the artist suggests that youth was a burden, a time of struggle and uncertainty that was less about the joy of finding out who you are and more about the insecurity that comes from not knowing. Time imparts maturity and with it the possibility to let go, to be set free like a bubble that forms, but must burst; to Qin Jin a form of release. That is the message conveyed by the eloquently silent posture of the elderly woman in the film. The act of sitting down to write a letter is prompted by a message received in the (sub-)conscious mind. It is a task that requires the mind to put thoughts in order, to conjure memories perhaps and to edit those that are pertinent into a communicable form. If memories are like bubbles in the subconscious, then ideas, too, are as pockets of air that inject themselves into our grey matter; try to catch them, to hold onto them, and they slip away, vanish. Perhaps making art is nothing more than the act of capturing ideas and pinning them down in reality; bubbles of inspiration as the mechanism that drives the work artists do in the name of art.
The film’s title is abrupt: the phrase “when I am dead” seems to leave little to the imagination and, yet, it speaks directly to the imagination in ways few other statements can: in the way the contradiction is similarly referenced as an impos- sibility in the enigmatic title The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living given by the British artist Damien Hirst to his first formaldehyde shark. This impossibility may be a fact and, yet, death is something we will each confront at least once in our lifetime, obviously as we approach our end, but usually long before that instance. Whether it comes in the bloom of youth or the prime of life it does not always serve to help us know what we value, or what we are neglecting. To judge by the pace of life today, most of us will be too busy to contemplate these issues until, there it is, we are that elderly figure sitting at a desk, before a mirror, contemplating the life we have lived, wondering how it happened that years flew by. Still, those loved and lost maintain their presence in our lives and so to encounter When I am dead is to be provided with a moment to reflect, although the mind may instinctually seek to avoid the question, to erase the thought fleeting though it may be…; when I am dead…
This is the work’s most urgent emotion; the essence of loss is the glue that welds the narrative elements together, to the core matrix. Qin Jin articulates it by means of referencing the ways in which we grasp at the past, at the future, steadfastly avoiding the present, and by suggesting the ways in which we try to hold on to the intangible, the immaterial; to the impossible. In conclusion, When I am Dead is one artist’s message transmitted into the ether, reaching out to an invisible soul, a spirit in a world beyond reality’s present. The clue lies in that letter, a metaphoric text message, the modern equivalent of a message in a bottle to a loved one lost. Thus, in the medley of sequences we see again the eternal motion of the tide on the shore, bubbling up in ever-changing but ever-predicta- ble cycle of which, we too are, for a period of time we call our life span, a fizzing, heaving, quivering, fission of conflicting, contradicting parts.
2015, February 25