Times Art Center Berlin is pleased to present Zhou Tao’s solo project developed from the commissioning of Guangdong Times Museum in 2019. Zhou Tao spent nearly two years in between the oasis and the Gobi village, capturing our modernist obsession and utopian desire to turn deserts into habitat. The result is a rich repertoire of images that swiftly alternate between landscapes of sandstorms, dust clouds, changing seasons, and portraits of humans and other species cohabiting on ephemeral ecosystems left behind as byproducts of industrial intervention. In a state of exception, even the sublime of nature is burdened by human traces: winds batter through the poplar trees, swirling sand scours the metal surfaces of voluminous flora lying hopelessly in the desert, and voluptuous red buds are abandoned to appeal to no particular audience.
Zhou Tao’s conception of cinematography can be referred to as the aesthetics of liubai in Chinese Southern School (or literati) painting, by which the artists create a sense of space by pushing the landscape to one corner or one side of the painting. Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, many Chinese literati had to withdraw from government service, and they gathered frequently to commemorate in paintings that conveyed ideals of a reclusive worldview. Painting was no longer about the description of the visible world; it became a means of conveying the inner landscape of the artist’s heart and mind. Zhou Tao transforms such lofty spirits into his images but didn’t adopt the literati’s escapism: he believes the act of filmmaking is a way of engaging realities heavily mediated by technology and of finding the shortest circuit between our bodies and the world.
There is a form of rhetoric in Chinese poetry known as yijue or tonggan (synesthesia), which can be literally described as the fluidity of sensations. Zhou Tao documents an assemblage of utopian bodies and images “projected as the senses swap places, lights doing double duty for sounds and then vice versa . . . whose pensée sauvage, divested of abstractions, must use each singular perception to express the other, then appropriating the other in order to return on itself to shore up its own existence as representation.” (1)
Situated at the core of Zhou Tao’s practice is the complexity and ambiguity of locales: the horizon in a tortoise’s eyes, the concrete overpass and the recreational activities it shelters, the ecological enclaves of the mine pit, the alien dome of an urban theater, the idyllic song of an occupied square, the reservoir collapsing into sands, the kid, the plant, the cow, the goat, the chicken and the dog cohabitate with the rusty machines . . . It is precisely by allegories of topography that Zhou Tao attempts to capture the organic coalescence between human, machines, and environment, to speak of planetary realities contaminated with local details and personal memories, and to allow particularities to fold back into the filmic space.
(1) Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York, 2005), p. 62.