By COLTER RULAND Dec 13, 2018
Every so often we all get the sensation that we are being watched. It is an innate feeling derived from something as simple as looking up to see a stranger looking back or seeing modern surveillance intrude more and more into daily life. During these moments, there is always the sudden but mild realization that some form of observation is occurring, and then it passes. Artist Yuge Zhou’s ambitious, thought-provoking video and installation work pushes these feelings of observation further into the uncanny. She doesn’t want such feelings to simply pass. If anything, Zhou wants you to know that she is “peeking into the window” documenting and rearranging the strange and intimate realities of modern life.
Whenever Zhou sets up her camera, she hopes to capture human beings at their most vulnerable, to watch them behave as though no one is in fact watching. She will often be set up far away, like when she filmed from a high-rise overlooking Oak Street Beach on the shores of Lake Michigan. The footage she gathered there would later compose her piece Soft Plots, a remarkable and lucid introduction to her body of work.
In Soft Plots, the video appears at first as a normal stationary scene observing beachgoers from the vantage of the high-rise as they engage in normal beach activities. One group in the center is playing volleyball. A man is throwing a frisbee in one corner. Another man is catching the frisbee in the corner opposite. Two other figures are sunbathing near an empty recycle bin. It seems simple enough, but then you begin to realize how meticulously crafted the scene is, that it is in fact many scenes. The volleyball net is actually several nets extended beyond its normal length, running down one-third of the scene. The group of volleyball players is comprised of several groups at varying distances. The men throwing and catching frisbees are disconnected. Even the sand is spliced together. The landscape suddenly becomes impossibly surreal. Hours and hours of footage are distilled into these intricate interactions attempting to harmonize despite their irregularities.
Plot, especially in film and literature, is often understood sequentially. Point A leads to Point B, and so on and so forth. There is a linear logic to it. Zhou treats plot in the literal sense: a plot of land upon which things happen. In other words, a space where disparate scenes occur simultaneously. In The Magic Hour (Winter), for example, the composition appears like a traditional landscape: there is a horizon (or at least the impression of one); there are objects carefully placed throughout the snowy foreground; people, cars, and a dog start to emerge and move around the plot; a rough, diagonal line of striking red leaves much to interpretation. These scenes are, of course, collaged together. They are not even from the same place or time. The dog that keeps running towards a figure but never quite makes it beside them is a dog filmed from another location and stitched in later. The imagination runs wild. Is this a scene of wintry dread or a simple wonderland?
For Underground Circuit, Zhou explains how the New York subway platform is a kind of public theater, and the people waiting for the train are like actors on its stage. “They can’t help but observe those on the other side,” she says. That platform, or stage, serves as the plot where urban movement is ceaseless. She captured an incredible amount of footage for this piece, creating symmetric rows arranged in a square, the footage running clockwise. While the people she films are unscripted and randomized, they “aggregate” and form what she calls the “essential rhythm” of a place. The way Zhou talks about her process, one wonders if she is observing us with a cold empathy as if we are specimen. In that light, one can view her work acting like a panopticon.
But sometimes it is impossible to remain detached and observe from afar. When she set up her camera on the busy streets of New York to capture the crowds for her piece Midtown Flutter, some people noticed her. A few smiled, some even posed. Most simply ignored her, unfazed. “Everyone in New York is an exhibitionist,” says Zhou. She found herself performing, too, as the observer. She often tries to go unnoticed, “almost like a voyeur.” As a fan of David Hockney’s version of voyeuristic, uncanny perspectives, Zhou’s own twist leads to even more surreal territory.
While voyeurism is often lonely and private, Zhou’s work elicits a shared voyeurism. Her work is sensuous like miniatures and dioramas are sensuous: one feels as if you can pluck the people right out of these carefully crafted scenes. These plots that she crafts are ways of exhibiting the movement and stillness of people who go unnamed and unrecognized, and yet it is this very anonymity that is so captivating. The pleasure we get from this is not without its share of anxiety as Zhou exploits the natural tension between familiarity and mystery present throughout all her work.
In traditional Chinese painting, Zhou explains, many narratives can happen simultaneously across the same plane. There is no one focal point. While her main aim is not to explicitly call out Western art traditions—linearity, focal points, the arrangement of landscapes, the hierarchies created by a depth of field—she nevertheless always manages to make some element in her work slightly off-kilter enough to offer a nuanced perspective on typical American life. That perspective has been shaped by many things, from her artistic inspirations to her background in science, but namely as an immigrant. Having lived in the United States for over a decade, Zhou says, “I feel like I’m part of this diversity, but I’m an outsider, too.”
When discussing herself in this context, Zhou describes a “sense of longing,” which is the essential component of voyeurism. We feel this when we watch her digital art, the same yearning to be a part of something that is removed or detached from us. Maybe we can only enjoy it because we will never be a part of it. Maybe it is the distance that is compelling. This is the “window” Zhou has created, the one through which she watching us all with a deft and strange eye.
Now Zhou wants to turn her eye inward. While her subjects have always been people she doesn’t know, Zhou is ready to explore more personal themes of family and mother-daughter relationships. Her new project will incorporate both herself and her mother, who still lives in China and who she hasn’t seen in eight years. The plan is to have them both filming during the same hour, separated by a twelve-hour time difference. Zhou will face the windows of her apartment in Chicago during sunrise. Her mother will face the windows of her apartment in Beijing during sunset. The two will record themselves speaking, and in editing the two will be projected across from one another, creating a simulacra of conversation.
It will be everything we expect from this young and daring artist. It will be intricate, serene, and, most of all, intimate. She plans on filming more of herself and her friends both here in the United States and back in China, looking to turn the tables on her signature themes of isolation and community. By becoming more personal, Zhou is hoping to deepen the experience of her art. And that seems to be the point of all this looking: to create a different kind of intimacy. An intimacy that doesn’t depend on whether or not we know someone, but one that sheds names and hierarchies and borders. An intimacy that is not free from anxiety but is also not crippled by it. To look at a random, chaotic universe and still be able to latch onto even the faintest of patterns. WM
Links to videos:
Soft Plots: https://vimeo.com/193747042
The Magic Hour (Winter): https://vimeo.com/268444380
Underground Circuit: https://vimeo.com/236258533
Midtown Flutter: https://vimeo.com/181002871
Colter Ruland is a writer based in New York City.view all articles from this author