Reel Life 

--  Fang Lu's Cinema  

Karen Smith


“Why is it possible t o learn more in t en minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 16,000 light -years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life?”

                                                                                                         ―Walker Percy1

 Fang Lu did not create Cinema as an aid to self knowledge, but this mesmerizing video installation is aimed at a discussion of the contemporary self and, as suggested by the quote above, a worrying lack of awareness thereof. And, in individuals, like you and me – intelligent, cultured people, no? – who have no rational excuse for owning that lacuna. Cinema asks, if you were watching your life play out on a cinema screen would you recognize yourself? With cameras covering every angle, if you could control the edit, are there things you would do differently? If you could alter the lighting, introduce an appropriate soundtrack, and guide "you" through each day in the manner you ascribe your perfect alter-ego, would you know yourself then? 

Cinema presents a young woman alone in an empty theatre. She is poised, graceful yet aloof. She seems conscious of her "self ", yet, her expression gives no hint of self-obsession. She might be actress, director or producer. We can't say and Fang has no need of us finding out. Lost to introspection, the young woman acts a role for herself in a time-place removed from the here-and-now. Her body language exudes conscious precision and, from the visual signs Fang provides, we quickly learn that several cameras are trained upon her; four, in fact, their footage projected onto a large screen, a virtual stage, in the centre of the space. Using the consol before her, she controls the camera feeds, but if testing ahead of a performance, it is one we are not permitted to see. She watches only herself simultaneously watched by the cameras, the whole scene watched by us, from beginning to end.

Cinema is in a way about vanity, a human characteristic currently enjoying unprecedented prominence. Throwing the specter of vanity in our unfamiliar faces, Fang plays. Coyly, provocatively, she reels us into her Cinema, seemingly offering that most tantalizing of possibilities, a space equipped with the technology by which we could, given the chance, take control of our life. Cinema thus confronts a contemporary paradox: the tireless energy we pour into constructing the self we'd like to be using the platforms technology places at our disposal, and yet convinced that, for the most part, what we project is the real, unvarnished true self. Simultaneously, Cinema points to a more sinister aspect of this paradox. We each think we have control in life, but are we not just unwittingly lost in our personal cosmos, neither aware of who might be watching us nor of how external forces guide every thought and action? There is little evidence to support the notion that ever y gesture and experience to which we lay claim is our and ours alone. To scratch the surface is to discover how deeply we are enslaved to our times, birthrights, and socio-political and ideological constructs. Challenging prevailing attitudes towards the public profile we each manage, the choices taken in the manner of revealing ourselves to the world, Cinema is an image-conscious work for an image-obsessed age. For all our concerns about privacy and unwanted surveillance, we are the ones opening ourselves up to public scrutiny, in the name of experiencing 15 minutes of fame perhaps, but most likely because we are no longer at all sure where the boundaries of our selves lie.

Fang understands human psyche and its ego. Her art is a systemic study in human nature and its perversities. The approach is all rules and regulatory mechanisms, which suggest that Fang loves to be in control, but having extended an invitation to individuals to participate, she does not direct them. Her idea is art as a social experiment using human subjects who, by means that she invents, earnestly engage in the "environments" she stages; earnest, even as she goads them into debunking social mores that plunge them into the conflicted space between political correctness and individual choices.

Audiences are implicated too. Cinema is a seamless example of how Fang cajoles the viewer into acts of people-watching. The scene's erotic sanguine glow ensnares to the audience by plunging them into the lush crimson light of the video installation. Thursly enjoined with the young woman in Fang’s Cinema, we gaze at her, snug in her red dress, under a flood of chroma-saturated light, against which her pale complexion gleams. She seems so safe in this virtual space, this psychological sanctuary, but this is art and we should perhaps ask ourselves how she came to be lost in this distant selfcontained cosmos. Cinema may feel like the pool into which

Narcissus gazed, but the moral here is beyond the self as object of desire. All that exists in Cinema is the illusion projected on screen, recognising illusion is an essential step towards recognising the self. Cinema speaks consummately of the role of image in circulation and of the absurd urge manifest in us all to give existence a fleeting impression of meaning to a race that "of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos – novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes – [is] beyond doubt the strangest."2


1&2 Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Las t Self-Help Book , Picador, NY, 1983, p .1

Text originally published in Whitewall magazine, Spring 2015 Issue. 

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