Fang Lu -- Between the Staged and Unstaged

Pauline J. Yao 

In recent years we can witness several vital changes to the landscape we know and affectionately refer to as “contemporary art”. Of particular note is the emergence of the so-called ‘post-expressive artist’, artists who are not simply self-confirming ‘creators’ but whom instead act as synthesizers, facilitators and manipulators of existing signs and objects. I use the word “act” here deliberately—not only as a way to denote a range of performative gestures on behalf of the artist, but to also to mark growing ties to the realm of theater. As artistic practices today increasingly edge out towards the participatory, relational or social, they avail themselves in equal measure to bodily or time-based experiments; and various layers of performance—carried out in planned and unplanned circumstances and undertaken by both actors and non-actors—provide new slippages between given reality and reality which is reproduced, manufactured or otherwise recombined through the mediation of various media.

Enter Fang Lu, a Beijing-based artist whose recent artistic practice focuses on strategies of staging, re-staging and performance through the medium of video. From karaoke style sing-a-longs to reenacted events to instructional how-to vignettes, Fang Lu’s work seeks to uncover the space between mimesis and veracity, repetition and singularity. It dissects and literally re-presents specific actions and behaviors in front of the camera as a way of elevating the mundane to the realm of performance and merging real-time action or making to the act of recording itself. By further binding these moments to the highly plastic medium of video, Fang produces something that gestures at reality but is not grounded in it, plies at being live and recorded while in the process remaining utterly subject to the mutability and modification of the recorded image.

Previously embracing the self-conscious posturing that comes with music videos or popular dance performance, Fang Lu’s latest suite of videos takes as its departure point something far more mundane and unglamorous: the realm of food preparation and cooking. Automatic Happening is a two-channel video ostensibly centered on the act of cooking, yet the twenty-nine minutes of continuous footage involving chopping, blending and kneading yields anything but a finely prepared meal. Instead we see a helmeted figure bobbing to and fro between different ‘work stations’—the tabletop, the cutting board as well as a stepladder and the floor—as he or she moves between various household tasks. Actions of cutting, slicing, and mixing are interspliced with domestic activities such as cleaning and mopping the floor, and yet neither leads to any tangible—let alone edible—outcome. The activities being performed are occasionally and willfully disrupted each minute by an audible alarm, prompting the performer to switch off, reset the clock and rotate to a different task. Episodes and behaviors repeat themselves, but little is gained in the process. Rotten, by contrast, is marked by an unwavering stillness on behalf of the central figure and viewers are witness to a steady process of accumulation. A young model sits motionless on screen for sixteen minutes while various raw and cooked foods are applied to her head, arms and legs. The elaborate process of food preparation and adornment unfolds in real-time, subjecting viewers to an accretion of materials that simultaneously weighs upon the slow passage of time. And still, as the title implies, Rotten points to the expiration date built into such organic materials as well as the human body itself.

Fang Lu chooses to film these works in one continuous take (with multiple cameras), a fact that transforms how we might interpret these works as hovering somewhere between the staged and the improvisational. They are of course staged and performed for the camera (no other audience is present) but the long take adds a sense of both carefully measured choreography alongside a spirit of uninterrupted extemporaneity. Encountered as a continuous span of time rather than as separate episodes that are later interlaced together to create a heightened dramatic effect, Fang also draws attention to the camera’s conflicted role as both “objective” witness or device used to record and document reality and a tool with the ability to manipulate emotions and elicit new forms of experience. Dancing the line between these two poles, works like Automatic Happening and Rotten embrace the construction and staging of specific scenarios, but each meanwhile retains an air of impromptu spontaneity and open-endedness that circumvents and determined or fixed outcome.

What is perhaps the most recognizable aspect Fang’s practice is not only tendencies to dramatize routine activities and to build tension between the carefully choreographed and the unrehearsed, but to do so in barren environments that conspicuously lack any overt ties to real time and place. One can find strong ties to the instructional type of play-acting derived from TV cooking shows or instructional programs, yet in Fang Lu’s works we find no internal viewer; in fact in some cases there is no trace of even the simplest stage décor or set design. The usual behind-the-scenes mess of props, equipment, and food scraps are not hidden but given full view. Staging these events with fold-up tables and makeshift equipment against an empty white backdrop, Fang wishes us to see the domestic tasks depicted in a context strangely divorced from any linkage to reality and utterly disconnected from the household spaces they normally inhabit. Even Housework Ritual, 2009, which in name suggests a domestic setting, takes place within the confines of a hotel room, with the washing, slicing and preparing of vegetables being carried out by uniformed hotel employees. The quirkiness that comes with seeing a bathtub overflowing with bell peppers and hotel room sinks filled with cabbage speaks to the improvised rawness that is embedded in Lu’s practice. We see these works borrow the behaviors and materials of drama but none of the accoutrements, leading our attention towards the course of action rather than an overly orchestrated desired dramatic effect. Situating known behaviors in uncharacteristic settings removes the standard frame of reference through which we associate food and cooking, reducing these chores to elemental movements and bare gestures. It is this crafty layering of improvisation, performance and documentation that lends Fang’s practice overlapping qualities that neither can be nor wishes to be fully resolved. In this context we can only continually witness see the ways in which the body is a conduit for movement and gesture, and how the camera works as a tool of interpretation—recording, revealing, showing what we know but at the same time subsuming it within the murky sea of our surrounding reality.


Beijing, 2011


(Eclipse, Fang Lu Video Exhibition, Borges Libreria Contemporary Art Institute, 2011)

Copyright © 2012 Fang Lu | Powered by: Aleph Creatives