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Stories from Beijing

An eye painting a page of time

When initially confronted to urban noise, crowds and expansive, unattractive streets upon arrival in Beijing, one naturally searches for calmness and beauty in different urban spaces of the city. It is only through aimless wandering that one can slow down and discover these environments of deeper relevance and resonance.

The storyteller

The project presents ten short stories telling the intimate relationship between a foreigner and the city of Beijing. As narrator, each story has explored a topic that has brought me back to a state of peace within the accelerated and multi-sensory contemporary city. Each topic has taken place in one specific urban space of Beijing, in which I have recorded sounds and moving images to create a two-minute video, laying the grounds for a poetry written in English, translated and read in Mandarin Chinese. The whole series offers an evolution in the personal experience of the individual within the city, inviting viewers to, in turn, reflect on the everyday places where they find their own sense of calmness.

Throughout the process, I could wander for hours until a place sparked my attention for a story, returning there as many times as needed with my camera and sound recorder to capture the area as an open theatre of contrasting atmospheres, where subjects and objects could interact before me unknowingly. Back at home, I would edit the footage, head out again if a shot was missing, then proceed to write a short text for my wife to translate and read before jumping to another video. As a designer and researcher, I never intended to create short films or even write stories, but I felt compelled to capture my initial impressions of the city through a medium that could combine sounds, words and images.

The result is a twenty-minutes film, where each story explores themes and feelings that delve into nature, culture, mobility, memory, history, leisure, communication, and other fields that bind the individual to the collective experience of the city. To mention a couple of examples, in the first video, “One Little Leaf”, I narrated my sense of detachment—­­­­a leaf severed from its tree, adrift in the vastness of Beijing, yearning for rest and respite. Qing Feng Park near Dawanglu, where I shot the video, held no particular interest, yet it served as sanctuary in my first month after my Chinese lessons. In the third video, “The bicycle bell”, I showed the shift in rhythms and sounds between the bustling main streets of Dongsi area and the adjacent hutongs, where silence reigns and the only constant presence is the sound of bicycles. As I continued, I found myself spontaneously filming moments of calmness whenever I could stroll at my own pace, undisturbed, or whenever curiosity struck, whether it was sparked by the roofs of the Forbidden City, the lively ambience of a traditional Chinese market, or the cardboard collected by a waste picker at the entrance of my building. As a necessary framework for each video, a change of rhythm was needed through a visual and auditory contrast, along with a search for beauty amidst the vast ugliness of modern architecture. Repetition also served as structure, enabling the collection of shots showing either walls, bikes, street signs, food, or people exercising, depending on what repeated element was meant to be seen.

If you are in China, you may have to activate your VPN to watch this video.

The flâneur

The short film has drawn my personal condition as foreigner who seeks to adjust to the city’s everyday life by reimagining myself in places and experiences while the city is, in turn, recreated through my senses. I thus became a Baudelairian flâneur in a post-modern era; a lonely poet with an attentive eye walking aimlessly Beijing’s streets, producing aesthetic narratives of local details. As empiricist, my body has been grasped by the city’s contrasted liveliness before analysing and representing audio-visually what was personally experienced. In this regard, an analogy could be made between the first contrasted impressions experienced by a Westerner living in Beijing to those of a Chinese person living in a Western city. How to detach oneself and find calmness in a new city?

The project not only marks my arrival in the capital in late 2017, a time when everything appeared slightly surreal, but it also initiates a series of visual works where observation takes over action. Although the videos revealed my amateur style in filming, writing and editing, bearing evident imperfections, they were essential in demonstrating that the modern city, with its ephemeral and fragile beauty, is intricately connected to the timeless human sentiment of insignificance. The city’s imposing presence can sometimes lead to a sense of feeling lost in the crowd, and it is only the curious, independent mind, who may feel liberated in crafting narratives to affirm its own existence. Similarly, the nihilistic feeling of nonexistence can also become a pleasure within the city, as when I wrote: “Once alone, I feel very small; a trace, a shadow and nothing more”. It may seem paradoxical to both enjoy and suffer from such overwhelming feelings of emptiness and acknowledge one’s total expendability while still trying to exist by telling stories. In this regard, the short film, although overly ambitious for an artist and too subjective for a researcher, is a significant step in realising that depicting the city does not need to span ten different areas simultaneously, as if the city was of a manageable size when it’s not, but could be done on a smaller scale within a single area—such as taking one and only street as field study.

Posted: February 3rd, 2018


I presented this project among other works through a thirty-minutes interview for CGTN's talk show "Quoi de neuf en Chine?'' (2019)

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