“Head Without Brain” installation view, courtesy of Vanguard Gallery, Shanghai

‘Head Without A Brain’: A Review of Zhu Changquan at Vanguard Gallery, Shanghai

For his debut solo show, the young artist Zhu Chanquan chose the title “Head Without A Brain,” evoking a zombie-like existence where the self has been hollowed out.

This prompts us to consider the enormous amount of information and images we consume on a daily basis. The head without a brain is happy to be hi-jacked; it surrenders the reigns willingly, glad to be free from the prison of its own thoughts, as when falling into a youtube hole, binging on a TV show, or playing a video game when you have better things to do.

I was reminded of that feeling while watching Changquan’s eponymous video in his show at Vanguard. The video consists of found pictures and videos plucked off the internet, accompanied by a cryptic monologue delivered in Mandarin by a female robot voice.

“Head Without Brain” video detail

The narration consists of disjointed poetic proclamations along the lines of “Escape from reality but enter another reality.” or “The past didn’t create the present; the present is itself.” The text repeatedly blurs and complicates the relationship between real and virtual space, as in “This space is only 200 meters. Really exists.”

Meanwhile, we find ourselves in just such a virtual space in the video, our perspective inexorably drawing us through a seemingly endless labyrinth of photos and video clips which float in a grey and misty digital ether.

A puppy yips, then freezes. A lizard’s tail twitches with no lizard in sight. A soccer player kicks a ball in mid-air but gets stuck in a loop, the harsh staccato noise of his foot smacking against the ball drilling into our skulls for what feels like an eternity, although it probably lasts less than 3 seconds. And then we’re off again, drifting through the moving sea of images, accompanied once more by the existential musings of an android airport announcement that appears to have attained consciousness.

The visuals and their accompanying narration always point back to the materiality of the digital. For instance, there is a cognitive dissonance in the automatic revulsion one feels when looking at a plastic bottle floating in a puddle of muck, although the image is clearly shown to be just that: an image. This forces us to acknowledge the very real affect that digital representations can muster.

The video installation is housed within a giant tent that fills the center of the space, and there are also three light-boxes around the edge of the gallery depicting digitally rendered forest scenes.

The fabric of the tent echoes the sylvan patterns from the surrounding light-boxes, making us feel like we are inside a dark and foreboding wood, while the artificial sunlight seeping through the overgrowth seems to tease us with the idea there might be a real-er reality out there, just beyond the web of digital images in which we find ourselves immersed. We hear what sound like insect noises from inside the tent and then robot woman drones on, quixotically intoning that that “you are walking through the real space, [but] still can’t understand exactly what you see.”

The natural world (or an artificial version thereof) is also a central theme in Zhang Quangquan’s concurrent installation in Beijing, featured in “The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017,” the latest iteration of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art’s quadrennial museum-wide showcase of emerging Chinese talent.

Jump From The Past, installation view at UCCA, Beijing

Changquan’s installation in that show, titled Jump From The Past (2017), also featured video installations and a light-box depicting a jungle scene, accompanied by a few plastic plants for further effect.

The light-box in Jump From The Past is different from the ones at Vanguard, in that it depicts a jungle or rainforest, and there are rectangular patches of red color interspersed amongst the leaves, functioning like glitches in the matrix that undermine whatever illusionistic aspirations the image may have possessed.

While it can be difficult at times to comprehend the meaning of Changquan’s work when approaching it from an intellectual/analytical perspective, it simultaneously makes perfect sense on a gut level, from what might be called a “head without brain” perspective, as accurately representing what it feels like to live entangled in virtual space.

The android lady provides us with a useful tip for navigating this territory:

“History is not important. Try to feel everything around you.”

Zhu Changquan’s “Head Without Brain” ran at Vanguard Gallery, Shanghai, from January 11th through April 2nd, 2017

“The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017" runs at UCCA, Beijing, from March 19th through July 9th, 2017

Professional Art Critic, specialist in SEA. Interests include crypto, travel & martial arts. Follow me on Instagram @wileydavewillis