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Hu Xiaoyuan

Beijing Commune, Beijing, China


Visitors to Hu Xiaoyuan’s solo exhibition are met with the four large vertical screens, side by side, of the video installation I Don’t Know How Long You’ve Been Walking On, and I Don’t Know Where You’re Going (2010). It is an arresting sight; each shows a moving expanse: three of fabric – emerald green, white and pink – and one of dark brown fur. Their surfaces swing, fold, stretch and crumple with the gait of their wearers (or ‘predecessors’), who have been filmed from behind and whose footsteps can be heard. Although the degree of movement varies, the steps maintain a rhythm. In the second room, a light-box shows a wrapped, grub-like body squirming on a white surface to the point of exhaustion before becoming still. Other screens suspended at eye level show videos of blurred and melting lights; one unwavering follows the beams of a car’s tail lights moving along the road. A trace of the artist is present in the four-channel video A Seamless Distance (2010), half of which shows a close-up of her eye reflecting shifting scenes; these are recorded directly in the second two videos playing opposite.

Hu Xiaoyuan is a prominent female artist whose work, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away (2005), was featured in documenta 12. The work consisted of embroideries on silk using her own hair as thread. Traditional Chinese imagery, metaphors for happiness in love and sexual parts of her own body thus evoked loneliness and ties of significance. To date, Hu’s personal and sometimes organic objects and materials – thread, compacted clothes, old furniture – have provided media for installations in which intimate feelings surface. The videos in this show depart from impressions of sentiments held and objects imbued with meaning. Here instead are patterns, beams, movement and reflections set in non-specific time. Speaking about these works, Hu describes ‘diluted temporality’, ‘optical illusion’ and ‘seamlessness’. The language leaves behind concrete motifs of feminine sensibility – the artist’s gender indeed seems irrelevant – moving towards abstraction and possibly detachment. The titles testify to this: the wriggling body is called No Reason Why (2010), the proceeding car lights, Where is There (2010).

The physical encounter with these pieces is different, too. Five years after A Keepsake… was exhibited in glass cases, the staging of these videos transforms the gallery almost entirely – visually at least – from white cube to black box. One is inclined to stand far back from the first four screens, each of which measure nearly ten square metres, in order to grasp the combined visual and aural effect. The smaller works, though more approachable, are equally absorbing. Hu says she gradually sorts through the questions she accumulates until she finds a new perspective. I Don’t Know How Long You’ve Been Walking… might be interpreted as a study of the abstract beauty present in the everyday, but is in fact a probing of the ridiculous ‘not only […] as a “predecessor”, but even more […] the “purposelessness and absurdity” of the follower.’ There is something compelling about this juxtaposition of amplified, near-sensual imagery and an apparently absurdist notion. Perhaps Hu’s own reflections on her environment are helpful here: ‘Beijing changes every day, and I float aimlessly along with the city’. Perhaps these videos simply trail the sensations, lapses and sightings of contemporary urban drift that are repeated every 24 hours in metropolitan cities – and which do not matter. Hu Xiaoyuan’s passage of contemplation continues, this time woven through visions of the exterior, spatial and temporal world, rather than what is held within.

Iona Whittaker


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About this review

Published on 02/11/10
by Iona Whittaker

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