Interview with Cheng Ran: Connecting Past, Present, and Future in Cheng Ran’s Diverse Works.
Born in Inner Mongolia and trained in the Netherlands, Cheng Ran has emerged as a prominent figure in China’s new generation of video and cross-media artists. Through his diverse artistic practice, which spans film, poetry, drama, novels, and installation, Cheng Ran has developed a unique language that challenges traditional conceptions of space, structure, and object. With an experimental spirit, he invites audiences to float between reality and imagination, exploring the poetics of nihilism and reflecting on the existential state of the Chinese young generation in the face of political and cultural globalization. In our conversation, we delve into Cheng Ran’s artistic journey, his approach to blending various forms of media, and his thoughts on the universal themes that inform his work, providing readers with a deeper understanding of the artist and his creative vision.
What initially sparked your interest in art and filmmaking, and how did you decide to pursue this as a career?
At first, my understanding of movies came from the wave of pirated DVDs in China in the late 1990s. At that time, I could see a lot of different genres of movies from all over the world. Also, inspired by art history, for example, the video artist Zhang Peili created a great number of video artworks in the early 1990s. What really made me decide to use video as my own creative medium was the five-year period from 2003 to 2007 when I participated in the shooting of a film by video artist Yang Fudong called Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, and I worked as an actor and assistant, so during this period I discovered that video is not a very single category, it has a very diverse exploration of content, and it is also very action-oriented. It is probably after that film, I decide to create in such a way myself.
Can you share some experiences or challenges you faced at the beginning of your career that have significantly shaped your artistic journey?
Whether in the early stage of my career or now, as a creative tool, video art has always faced great objective challenges due to its collectibility and non-marketability. Therefore, for me, I believe that using this avant-garde and cutting-edge form as a means of self-expression is a great challenge, but I did not give up as it is also very attractive because of these challenging factors. For me, exploring the experimental nature of imagery has always been my top priority. I might be the artist who created the most video works in China. I’ve made dozens of short films and three feature films until now. Some of them are in progress, some have been completed, which include the nine-hour-long movie In Course of the Miraculous, my recent work CK2K2X, which took five years to complete, and the one that is currently being produced is called L15A0, which is a story based on Chinese traditional romanticism poetry. This year, I will start a new project called 24-hour film, which is more about the current experience and a topic of connecting the past and the present. Therefore, for me, this kind of challenge is constantly present, and I am constantly accepting it and trying to surpass existing rules. For me, breaking the rules is what video art can bring. The challenge of video-making is more like a challenge to our own actions, a reflection on the current situation. In addition to making films, since 2017, I have also co-founded an artist organization called MARTIN GOYA BUSINESS, which is a community that connects more than 400 young artists, musicians, and creators in different fields. I hope that this kind of platform can bring more experimental activities and gather more young artists to present a collective force.
How has your background in Inner Mongolia and your education at the China Academy of Art influenced your artistic perspective and the themes you explore in your work?
The background of Inner Mongolia is not an identity that needed to be over-interpreted from a cultural perspective. It may have some influence on my personality, such as preferring an action-oriented approach and my experimental style. The college, on the other hand, has had little impact on me. The most important thing I learned from college is not to study or to become an expert because I am not an artist from a professional video-making background, and everything I do is amateur. Therefore, this approach allows me to have a more unique way of expressing myself through moving images. At the same time, this type of expression is non-traditional, so from this perspective, I think what college brings me is rejecting studying or rejecting the standardization of art.
Who are some of the artists or filmmakers that have had a significant impact on your artistic development, and in what ways have they inspired you?
Many visual artists have influenced me greatly, such as Yang Fudong, whom I mentioned earlier, and Zhang Peili, a highly influential Chinese video artist. From the perspective of filmmakers, I would say Jim Jarmusch, Werner Herzog, and David Lynch, whose images and unique personal languages have had a significant impact on my creative work.
As your career has progressed, have you noticed any shifts in your style or approach to creating art? If so, what do you attribute these changes to?
From my first short film in 2005 to now, almost 18 years later, there has been significant changes in my work, but these changes have remained positive and radical. From my earliest three to five-minute shorts to my later short-form works, I found that these fragments and segments were not enough to inspire my imagination. Instead, they created more visual inertia and comfort zones. That’s why I chose to make a nine-hour film, hoping to break the habit of viewing exhibitions and also break my own pattern of behaviour. After the nine-hour film, I started to experiment with adding performance, physical performance, live music performance by musicians, and more timely processing, including the application of more Chinese elements. During my early career, I was influenced by independent films from the US and Europe. The language in those films was mostly foreign, and from 2013 to 2014, when I was in residence at the Royal Academy of Art in the Netherlands and shooting in many different countries, the context was very diverse and foreign. After returning to Hangzhou in 2014, I began to create works with local Chinese culture. For example, I applied Lu Xun‘s first Chinese vernacular novel, “A Madman’s Diary,” and also referenced real stories from China, the romantic poetry “Li Sao” as inspiration for a new film.
What initially drew you to explore Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary “Chung Kuo, China,” and how did it inspire your own work?
My feature-length film CK2K2X was commissioned by BY ART MATTERS in 2017. In 2021, Francesco Bonami, the director of BY ART MATTERS, curated CK2K2X: Cheng Ran Solo Exhibition. This exhibition not only presented the eponymous feature film for the first time but also showcased the scenes derived from it, including a hundred videos and soundtracks. Therefore, CK2K2X has a very subtle connection to Italy, and of course, to Hangzhou, the city where I live.
Antonioni‘s Chung Kuo was shot in China in the 1970s and has been banned in China for a long time. What interests me about it is its very personal perspective on recording China. It does not tell the story with grandeur but rather sets up many fragments of images in a very open way. So, inspired by this, in CK2K2X, I used 100 segments to tell my personal experiences and scenes related to China, presenting a personal perspective on China. There is no grand Great Wall, only the broken Jiankou Great Wall, and the noise music festival performed at the foot of the mountain. So in my opinion, everyone should have their own concept of China, it is no longer a collective ideology of conformity, but rather the subtle connection and recognition brought about by personal awakening and individual identity.
What inspired you to connect the themes of Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” with your work set in Jerusalem?
I call this series of works Trilogy of Diary of a Madman. It originated from a residency I did in New York City in 2014, supported by the K11 Art Foundation, where I presented a solo exhibition at the New Museum. During the residency, I spent three months in the US and simultaneously shot 15 videos to present 15 different personas in New York City. However, these versions of myself were all illusory, such as the pigeons flying above Times Square, the homeless person in a water tower, or the madman in an abandoned mental hospital. I hoped to explore an unfamiliar city in a unique way and establish a connection with it. The name Diary of a Madman comes from a vernacular Chinese novel by Lu Xun, which describes the fantasy world of a madman who confronts the world alone.
The first part of this trilogy was completed in New York, while the second part was shot in Hong Kong. In the multi-screen video, my co-writer and I transformed ourselves into two representative but easily overlooked animals in Hong Kong: the black kite, a unique hawk specie in Hong Kong that always hovers over the city but goes unnoticed, and the Tang dog, a stray dog from construction sites in Hong Kong. Through their perspectives and in the complex Cantonese language, we narrate the stories, memories, and present of the city without using the conventional first-person or third-person perspectives. I believe it presents a more expansive viewpoint to reveal an open question about the meaning of the city to us.
The final part of the trilogy is made in Jerusalem, where I was doing an exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Israel at that time. The story is about a Chinese patient’s experience of being in a daze in Jerusalem. Therefore, I simulated the Hebrew language to present a poem, combined with numerous city fragments to produce this video. In this poem, I transformed many of my symptoms, illusions, and anxieties into the weighty issues of the city, such as my blood flowing turns into the city’s traffic and my consciousness, illusions, and anxieties becoming the beliefs of the city or a sense of entanglement regarding the historical issues left by the city of Jerusalem. I focused on discussing the possibility of this ancient city by resolving all the problems onto the individual’s medical issues.
How do you see the role of memory and the passage of time in shaping the way we perceive the present and imagine the future?
In my works, there is a lot of content and a large amount of text that discusses time and memory from different perspectives. From the angle of video as a medium, there are works that last only a few minutes or seconds, as well as films that last nine hours or even 24-hour films that are being prepared. All of these are related to time. Also, from the perspective of production, many of my works were filmed over a period of five or three years in completely different cities and regions, spanning time and memory. Therefore, these things are all applied as a kind of imagery in my works. I often use metaphors to describe things, which I learned from ancient Chinese scholars. It’s called “using objects to express one’s thoughts” or “using objects to describe people.” When we describe memories or a beautiful past, we don’t directly talk about it. For example, we describe separation through the description of the scenery, or we talk about dreams by describing wind or beautiful nature.
The presentation of video art is related to time and memory, as well as how space presents it.
For example, at the 2016 Istanbul Biennial, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and I discussed putting a movie on an abandoned ship. We also discussed it with the Turkish writer, Pamuk, because he wrote a novel about the ship’s history as a ferry on the sea. Therefore, I think an important aspect of video art is that it should not only exist in cinemas and black boxes but should also be related to specific times and places. It will bring a reshaping of time, memory, and scenes.
In your documentary-style videos, you mix the past, present, and future. How do you balance these different temporalities in your work, and what do you hope viewers will take away from this interplay?
In my works, this kind of mixed reality approach is frequently employed. Actually, it is a highly personalized perspective and a more open-ended question. It does not aim to provide readers with a definitive answer but rather hopes to open up a question in such a way that it is inspiring and ineffable. I still believe that art cannot be interpreted or understood. We only use different creative methods to showcase its uniqueness and subtle differences, and to inspire resonance among people and to generate imagination.
You mentioned that your work sets a direction toward a more personal and marginalized path. Can you explain why you chose this approach and how it impacts the viewer’s experience of your work?
On one hand, my work is focused on the framework of video art, while on the other hand, it’s focused on the framework of art in general. In my point of view, many breakthroughs and edges are aimed at the current situation in the art industry, which is overly commercialized and market-driven, leading to a singular goal and audience. I hope that art will always remain diverse, allowing each person to present their works with completely different viewpoints and perspectives. In my case, I’m just a tiny branch among them, presenting some relatively different perspectives and trajectories from the mainstream.
How has your visual language evolved over time?
In terms of visual language, I have made many attempts, such as using a mobile phone to shoot. In the early stage, I used a Nokia phone to shoot, as well as an iPhone, later on, I used Hi8, HDV tape, 16mm film, and of course, the best cameras, such as the Alexa or the Red One. Therefore, for me, these are just means of media, and I often choose to use different machines according to different themes. From the perspective of the team, sometimes I shoot alone on a glacier, and sometimes there is a team of 200 people. All of this depends on one goal, which is how to express the final image appropriately. This transformation of visual language is not from low to high, it is only based on the state I need at a certain time, and I use the most suitable way to capture it.
In your work, you often combine personal judgments with objective facts. How do you decide which elements to include and how they should interact in your films?
Usually, I don’t have a very complete script. I often start creating based on a simple idea or inspiration, even for a long film. I believe that the freedom brought by improvisation and randomness is essential to artistic works. But sometimes I also discuss with screenwriters to create more suitable situations and add them to the plot. This also depends on the direction of different works. I don’t think about how to present a work from the audience’s point of view. I think it should be like the moment when a stone is thrown into the water. As the ripples gradually spread out, it is the most important part of the film or the video work.
Topics: Cheng Ran, Chinese artist, cross-media, video art, installation, globalization, cultural identity, artistic vision, experimental spirit
Photos courtesy of Cheng Ran, a special thanks to Peiheng Tao