Born in Chengdu in Sichuan, China, Shen Xin is currently based in Miní Sóta Makhóčhe, the land of the Dakhóta Oyáte, also known as Minnesota. They produce films, video installations and events that are both documentary and fiction, and seek to create affirmative spaces of belonging that embrace polyphonic narratives and identities. Their work has been seen in galleries across Asia, Europe and North America, including solo exhibitions at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, MadeIn Gallery in Shanghai, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts and Serpentine Gallery, London. Their work Commerce des Esprits features in the exhibition Language Is a River, which opens this week at Monash University Museum of Art.
They have chosen to discuss Hito Steyerl’s video work Lovely Andrea (2007).
Tell me about Lovely Andrea.
Lovely Andrea is a 29-minute work about Hito Steyerl going to Tokyo with a German film crew and her translator – who is a performer herself – to find an image of Hito in bondage taken 20 years prior, when she was a film student. The film is made in a documentary style. You get to see these directors, cameramen and workers who are involved in this pornographic industry being interviewed. Some of the workers had been involved in tricking and coercing young women into the business by telling them it was a different kind of work. A lot of really unacceptable things took place.
Their interviews are then overlaid with images of political violence, images of prisoners of war, and then scenes from American Spider-Man cartoons from the 1980s. Interspersed with those images of violence and war, you see Spider-Man casting a web at the viewer through the television. These images, layered together with scenes of bondage, tying and suspension, speak to something pervasive about power and control when they are then overlaid with the scenes of the male workers speaking.
Through that process of visual layering, the workers come to be seen differently. They are not seen as purely evil men who are luring young women into this industry and then tricking them into the labour.
Hito and her crew eventually find the photographer who shot her bondage picture 20 years ago, and he says to her, “Well you’ve changed a lot, I wouldn’t recognise you, but I really remember this picture.” It’s a very complex and humane moment.
He goes on to speak about the way the industry worked back then, because it was not legal. The film discusses how, when there were more restrictions on the content, there was a lot more demand for bondage photos. When the restriction went away, people wanted it less. There’s some visual play with pixels, with that aesthetic element of censorship, which travels across the images as they’re discussing the ban.
How does she relate to her past self in the film?
Hito appears in the film as her present image very little, maybe three or four times, and she doesn’t really speak a lot either. When she does, she asks questions, but she does not really offer her opinions, which is quite special. She’s letting the other people speak in order to understand what’s going on.
There’s a very humane moment of Hito’s introduction to the photographer, where she’s like, “Oh! Do you remember me?” Through those tensions you get to understand how she felt about her younger self. It’s not explicitly defined, which is perhaps the beauty of it. There’s a lot of light tension in the film. It was really light but so tense at the same time. That was seductive for me.
One of the central concepts of the film is bondage and its multiplicity of meanings. Hito is interested in Marxist theories of labour, and this is her way of thinking about what could be considered work. There’s a line of text shown on the screen that says “bondage is work” and another that says “work is bondage”.
Having that Marxist sensibility intertwined with desire, with complex situations that are not exempt from social conditioning, you cannot see bondage in a simplistic perspective, it becomes an access point through which you can see many things.
How do you relate to the idea that bondage is work?
Well, it’s in the deep understanding and acceptance that anything is work, in the understanding of what work is and what it means if we adopt the understanding that we have normalised working constantly. The labour of the documentary crew is also under scrutiny. You see these scenes of very frustrated producers asking Hito questions like, “What is this film about? What are we doing here?!” You see one of them leaning down to get a shot and talking about how his knee hurts.
The film has also really informed my understanding of image. Lovely Andrea is about understanding an often stereotypically presented image of Asian women wrapped in ropes, and trying to use that as an access point to understand what else can be brought out from it. It’s not just a dead image. It asks us to think about complicity as reality – that’s something I’ve really learnt from Hito.
I first saw the film in 2012 when I had just moved to London to pursue my master’s degree, and my understanding of it comes also from my own experience of being in London and beginning to understand myself as an image. Lovely Andrea was for me an introduction to how a documentary could be done in relation to oneself. The layering of language and translation in the film is like an act of putting many worlds together.
My practice is so much about parallel universes and multitudes of oneself and otherness; I make films which operate at the intersection of the documentary and fictional layers and I wouldn’t separate fiction and documentary in a straightforward way. That’s also something I learnt from Hito.
Have you ever had a similar impulse to investigate your younger self or your past work?
I made a film called Counting Blessings about my father for my grad show in 2014. When I was younger he took me every year to the Tibetan autonomous prefecture. He was a traditional Chinese ink painter and he passed away three years ago. I made this film, which looked back on these journeys where I would blindly follow him, and about feeling a sense of discomfort in what he was doing, which was photographing these ethnic minorities, then taking the photographs home to make paintings out of them. At times, he would also add traditional clothings to the paintings, while the people who he photographed were often not dressed in them. I was very uncomfortable with that and we fought a lot about it. So, when I was studying art, I made a work that was about reflecting on that conflict. Me and my father are both in the film, and in it he was looking at me and talking to me about many things, and the father and daughter love is very obvious. The tenderness is present, you can’t avoid that if you’re also going to be truthful.
Subsequently, when he passed, I found out he was also himself of Tibetan descent, and I’ve since been realising that it was my own lens that was limited. I was only equipped with the sort of decolonial critique that was born out of the Western institution, and there was another lens, which is about kinship, that I was missing. A lot of my work these days has to do with that realisation, and I think that looking back will never stop.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "Shen Xin".
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