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Stories from Beijing

An eye painting a page of time,
2017–18

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

He [The rhythmanalyst] will listen to the world, and above all to what are disdainfully called noises, which are said without meaning, and to murmurs [rumeurs], full of meaning – and finally he will listen to silences.

Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 2004, p.29.

 

The liveliness of Beijing’s main roads in contrast to slower rhythms found in hutong alleys, parks and cultural areas, had motivated me, as foreign observer, to present ten short stories telling my intimate relationship with the city during my first three months. Each story took place in one specific urban space of Beijing, which had the capacity to bring me back to a state of peace within its accelerated and multi-sensory chaos. For each story, I recorded sounds and moving images to create a two-minute video, laying the grounds for a poetry written in English, translated and read in Chinese. This whole series offered an evolution in my personal experience as 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 could interact before me unknowingly. 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 observer, 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. Lefebvre believed that the rhythmanalyst could also be a poet, as both descend to the streets of the city to engage in verbal actions that have an aesthetic support and, in this project, I shared that belief of capturing the momentary while searching for meaning and memory.

The result is a twenty-minutes film, where each story explored 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. For example, 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 reigned and the only constant presence was 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 Chinese market, or the cardboard collected by a waste picker at the entrance of my building. As a necessary framework for each video, a contrast of rhythm from mechanical to natural was needed, along with a search for beauty amidst the vast ugliness of modern architecture. Repetition also served as structure, enabling the collection and classification 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 also drew my personal condition as foreigner, seeking to adjust to the city’s everyday life by reimagining myself in places and experiences while the city was, 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 was 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 within a new tumultuous city?

The project not only marked my arrival in the capital in late 2017, a time when everything appeared slightly surreal, but it also initiated a series of visual works where observation took over action. Although the videos revealed my amateur style in filming, writing and editing, bearing evident imperfections, they attempted to demonstrate that the modern city, with its ephemeral and fragile beauty, was intricately connected to the timeless human sentiment of insignificance. The city’s imposing presence could 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 could also become a pleasure within the city, as 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, was a significant step in realising that depicting the city did 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 of study.

News

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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