Young Chinese artist Tao Hui is a teller of absurd and disturbing tales; he is a fabulist and a social critic. Born in 1987, his childhood exposed him to the hardships of rural life and to Chinese folk traditions. After graduating from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute with a BFA in oil painting, he turned to new media to represent the bizarre realities of life in modern China. His theatrical video installations juxtapose the everyday and the bizarre, creating surreal scenarios that defy expectations, refusing viewers the comfort of familiar narrative conventions.
The moving image was a Western import into China in the 19th century, and it was seized with enthusiasm and an entrepreneurial spirit. By the 1930s, Shanghai was the center of a thriving film industry, with glamorous movie stars rivaling those in Hollywood. After the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, film, like photography, became a vital instrument for Maoist propaganda. After Mao’s death, the reform and opening policies of Deng Xiaoping provided new influences, and in the mid-1980s, simultaneous with the rise of the ’85 “New Wave” artists, a group of idealistic filmmakers graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. Video in an art context was pioneered by artists such as Wang Jianwei, Hu Jieming, and Zhang Peili. An explosive mix of new technical knowledge, the discovery of Western artists (including Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, and Bruce Nauman), and the influx of popular culture from diverse sources provided an experimental laboratory for the Chinese avant-garde. Tao Hui is of a new generation for whom the language of video is entirely unremarkable, allowing him to explore the emotive possibilities of sound and create immersive experiences for audiences.
It seemed appropriate that I saw New Directions: Tao Hui at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing’s 798 Art District on a long public-holiday weekend, its streets teeming with thousands of local citizens, including many teenagers wearing plastic vegetables, flowers, and bean shoots attached to their heads—the latest craze in China—and the carnivalesque atmosphere was strange enough to belong in one of the artist’s video works. I have been told that in the feudal past, grass put on a child’s head by parents was a sign that the child was to be sold to save the family from starvation. The contrast between this horror and the “cute” aesthetic of the young Beijingers wearing their plastic beansprouts is also found in Tao Hui’s oeuvre—a dark underbelly and a cutting humor characterizes his use of film language. As a small boy, Tao experienced the unnerving dislocation of modern China firsthand, moving from place to place with his family. A large part of his childhood was spent in a remote mountain village where the oral tradition of storytelling remained strong and vital; he was immersed in folklore and bizarre tales told by his neighbors. There is a significant strain of magical realism in traditional Chinese stories; Tao’s work reflects that tradition, as well as the uncertainty and growing awareness of moral decay felt by many in this “brave new world” of unequal wealth and rampant materialism.
His work presents the inner lives of people dealing with a maelstrom of changes resulting from urbanization, increasing wealth, the movement of millions to the factory towns of the south, and the disruptive demolition and renewal so characteristic of Chinese cities. Video is the vehicle through which Tao Hui explores the psychological impact of living in this time of transformation, presented in a manner both theatrical and cinematic, somewhat like a traveling cinema, or the raw performance and opera troupes still found in rural China. The Acting Tutorial presents amateur actors in an abandoned building, rehearsing extreme and brutal scenarios that culminate in them setting fire to a burning comrade. Suggestive of a violently cathartic psychoanalytical therapy, it also inevitably evokes the mass hysteria of the recent past, in the living memory of the artist’s parents, during the Cultural Revolution. It is a work about trauma—a subject that Chinese artists return to again and again, in different ways.
The video 1 Character and 7 Materials is a similarly absorbing and immersive experience. Headphones provide English and Chinese versions of a monologue in which a narrator tells her life story in an exhausted but strangely flat voice; the effect of this, juxtaposed with surreal images, is hypnotic. After she flees her small village beside the Yangtze for the squalor of the city, a doomed love affair with her music student results in a downward spiral, pushing her toward her inevitable suicide on the banks of the river. The repeated shots of a white-robed immortal steering a small boat across the immensity of the river is evocative and memorable, suggesting that imagination, dreams, history, and the present day all coexist in a jumble of images and memories.
I was less persuaded by Excessive, another surreal narrative of conflict: A young girl has an extra finger that causes grief to her family, so she cuts it off with a kitchen knife and burns it. It is reminiscent of Cao Fei’s video Haze and Fog, a similarly surreal expression of contemporary Chinese life, in which zombies roam the suburban supermarket and new apartment compounds; a bored housewife cuts off her finger and is then shown sprawled on her glamorous new furniture, having a manicure. In both Cao Fei’s and Tao Hui’s video installations, a sense of despair underlies the absurdity and black humor. Both artists are influenced by the broad acting style of low-budget Chinese TV melodramas, and by the excesses of contemporary popular culture. Tao Hui is interested in challenging the ways in which we traditionally experience video or movies, safely anonymous in the black box. In the gallery space, a vitrine contains the “ashes” of the incinerated finger, the burning projected on a back screen. It’s a trompe l’oeuil exaggeration that, truth be told, seemed to me as excessive as the work’s title. The overstatement renders the meaning less powerful, rather than more.
Despite this reservation, Tao Hui’s is a new and compelling voice in the crowded Chinese art world, with his own take on the strangeness of real life in a constantly changing society.
New Directions: Tao Hui is on view at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing through October 19, 2015.