Zhuang Hui’s latest exhibition at Platform China’s Beijing space had piqued my interest long before it even opened. Zhuang, an established artist who made an important body of conceptual and socially engaged photographic work in the mid-1990s, has been producing large-scale installations and working collaboratively with his wife, Dan Er, since 2000. On the gallery’s invitation email, I noticed that the show would last only a week and immediately assumed that the short duration must have been a conceptual manoeuvre. After all, this exhibition was the culmination of six months of work on a substantial budget, involving several trips to remote regions of China’s northwest desert, where the work was completed. If the life span of the exhibition in the gallery was so short-lived, I wondered, what was its existential counterpoint?
The project’s understated complexity slowly unwound as I spent time in the exhibition. The show opened with small-scale colour photographs documenting Zhuang’s own artworks, which he had placed in the desert in the months preceding the show, as well as murals he had painted on ruined buildings in another desert location. These photos were flanked by documentation of the artist’s itineraries and provisions, as well as a series of videos. What complicated this ostensibly traditional exhibition layout was that Zhuang displayed the documentation as work – by enlarging and framing exhibition texts, logistical details and lists of pieces on display – while his artworks took the form of documentation. Thinking of Boris Groys’s view of the irreconcilable dichotomy between these two categories of exhibition objects, I believed Zhuang was pursuing something ontologically slippery. As Groys wrote in his 2009 essay ‘Comrades of Time’ for e-flux journal, ‘For art documentation is per definitionem not art. Precisely by merely referring to art, art documentation makes it quite clear that art itself is no longer immediately present, but rather absent and hidden.’ If this holds true, then what was Zhuang presenting?
First, these were photographs of existing artworks – large sculptural installations made by Zhuang (sometimes in collaboration with Dan Er) over the past few years. Although only four of them were pictured – 11 Degree Incline (2008), Carpenter’s Scraps (2009), Untitled (2013) and Image Database Item A57104563 (2014) – they constituted a certain period of his creative output. Second, these artworks were ‘exhibited’ in locations deliberately chosen for their inaccessibility, with minimal chance of human encounter. It slowly became apparent that the actual exhibition wasn’t here in Platform China, but out there in the Gobi Desert. So, why these artworks and why that location?
Zhuang was born and raised in Yumen, a desert town on the northwestern edge of China, surrounded by landscapes like the ones chosen for his exhibition. Interestingly, Yumen is not far west of Jiayuguan, a gate on the Great Wall from which political undesirables were expelled from China before the 20th century. By extension, Zhuang’s images of his own works taken out to the western desert and left there forever are meant to evoke the historical Chinese idea of the political exile. They are his outcasts, his failed children who have not found new homes with collectors or museums. So, instead of giving them or himself the honour of an institutional retrospective, he condemned them to exile.
The second in situ artwork documented here was Seeking Mou Lili (2014): the aforementioned murals painted on ruined buildings. Further complicating the exhibition, this work refers to 24 years ago, when Zhuang and a friend travelled from the town of Luo Yang to Lhasa by bicycle, a 3,000 km ride crossing deserts and mountains. En route, they encountered a girl called Mou Lili and, during his research for this show, Zhuang went back to her hometown in an attempt to find her. Instead, he found a town of the same name in the wrong location and nothing but a ghostly ruin in the right one. As he no longer had any use for the photos taken in 1990, which he had used to try to find her, the artist made paintings of them on the walls of the ruined buildings, turning his documentation of her into an artwork in a ghost town and, in turn, documenting that artwork for this show.
Complicating Zhuang’s work about exile was the emotional connection between Seeking Mou Lili and the desert town where the artist himself grew up. Having seen those pre-exiled pieces in group shows over the years, I perhaps agree with his decision to let them go. However, instead of an undignified exile, what the photographs document is quite the opposite: despite the desert’s cruel reputation for extinguishing life, it has given these rejected artworks a dramatic backdrop against which they can live eternally, at least in our imaginations. Zhuang has left a little of himself out in the desert, something to keep himself constantly connected with it. As we celebrated the show’s opening, I imagined those works under the moonlight far away in absolute and beautiful solitude.