Beichen Zhang: When the label can’t speak behalf of the artifacts

Beichen Zhang: When the label can’t speak behalf of the artifacts

2020-04-05 17:09 Source: The Paper News · The Paper · Pai Ke

Original Three Shadows Photography Award; Three Shadows Photography Art Center


“The 11565 Kilometer project attempts to reconstruct the flow and transfer of a cultural relic from Shandong Province (China) to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania (USA). The video project focuses on the overseas circulation of Chinese cultural relics, the complexity of Chinese colonial historical archives, and depicts the long-term migration of Han Dynasty tomb fragments called Object#40-35-4 from China, the historical colonial background behind them, and the power dynamics of American museum institutions. The main works of the project include: a 31-minute prose film (4K image, color and sound), a photographic book, a photographic installation (soil, rock and photos), a 3D printing and exhibition practice in special fields.”

  • Beichen Zhang

[Picture 1: Video screenshot of “11565 Kilometer”]


Beichen Zhang

Beichen Zhang was born in Shandong, China. He received a bachelor’s degree in photography from Shandong Academy of Arts in 2016 and a master’s degree in photography and electronic media art from Maryland Institute of Arts in 2019. The main media and working methods of his works are based on narrative structure research and production of prose films and fieldwork that reveal hidden history, while extensive exploration of a variety of media, using audio, installations, photography books and other media to study and investigate the relationship between cultural relics and Asian colonial history, as well as image anthropology. His works construct a metaphorical and poetic visual experience through personal narration, and re-examine and construct a poetic visual language with his own thoughts through the interdisciplinary study of archaeology and anthropology, history and art. Beichen Zhang’s works have been exhibited in China and abroad, and now live and work in New York, USA.

In June 2018, Beichen Zhang began to study Chinese cultural relics of “coffin fragments” (object number: 40-35-4) in the Asian Exhibition Hall of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. His survey, which combines photography and historical inspection, spans a number of regions, from the east coast of China to the United States, which takes 17 months. Artists are involved in many dimensions, such as fieldwork, reproduction of cultural relics, study of historical texts and criticism of museum institutions. He tried to excavate and transcribe an unknown story of an artifact.Beichen Zhang regards the complex and secret exploration of historical images as a process of shaping his personal view of history and reflects on the dynamic changes of power behind the landscape from his personal narrative.




Beichen Zhang × Three Shadows

Zhang: Beichen Zhang.

Zhao: Jiexin Zhao (Three Shadows Media)


Zhao: Can you introduce the creative background of the work?

Zhang: This project traces the origin of a Chinese cultural relic in the United States: from its current location, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, to his hometown, Shandong Province, China, their geographical distance is 11565 kilometers, which is why the project is named.


The theme is to explore the overseas circulation of Chinese cultural relics based on the background of colonial history, including the colonial history of Shandong and the complexity of these historical archives. At the same time, I also want to explore a very important issue through my works, that is, the institutional, power and dynamic problems in the narration and presentation of Chinese and even Asian cultural relics in the American museum system.


[Picture 2: Video screenshot of “11565 Kilometer”]


Zhao: How to understand this problem?

Zhang: For example, for example, the cultural relic I investigated-the Han Dynasty tomb fragment Object#40-35-4, although there is a very clear file in the Penn Museum, telling the public that this cultural relic was purchased by Japanese antiquities merchant Dinjiro Yamanaka, but the history of how to get this cultural relic has been blurred. Therefore, in fact, there is a problem with the transparency of the whole transfer of cultural relics.


I believe that most of the audience, especially those who have no professional background knowledge, rely on textual exposition when viewing the exhibits in the museum. Because museums often display a large number of cultural relics to the audience, they have to use some strategies to educate the audience on their ability to observe and understand cultural history and cultural relics, and to use some relevant planning skills to convey ideas. In the process of arranging the framework, the museum relies on a number of steps to turn its cultural relics into texts and report them to the viewer. But through my observation, I found that this kind of narrative is not entirely accurate. Therefore, the problem with this cultural relic is not unique, but a product of institutional problems.


[Picture 3: Video screenshot of “11565 Kilometers”]


Zhao: So, it is also because of this reason that you started to create?

Zhang: Yes. Later, I also learned something about the history of the development of museums. At the beginning of their establishment, Western museums with a history of more than a century seem to be engaged in an ambitious competition to become the kind of great museums they imagine-to present the whole world in one building. The crisis implied by this ambition has an impact on the legitimacy of cultural relics. It is worth mentioning that in 1970, American museums signed the UNESCO Convention on prohibiting the illegal Import and Export of Cultural relics, while the cultural relics collected 70 years ago should be as open as possible. So, similar to the story of this cultural relic, if no one takes part in the investigation, it will never be changed. Object 40-35-4 is just one of many cultural relics, and the number of them is so large that it worries me a little bit.


[Picture 4: Video screenshot of “11565 Kilometers”]


Zhao: Why did you choose this fragment of Han Dynasty coffin as the protagonist of the project?

Zhang: In fact, the most famous exhibit in the Asian Hall of the Penn Museum is two of the Liujun of Zhaoling. Because of the fame of these collections, the museum described them in detail, but when I visited them, I happened to notice a portrait of a stone tomb of the Han Dynasty in the corner. For a moment, I felt that it was both familiar and strange, and what I was familiar with was that it came from my hometown. I have seen many similar collections in Shandong, but what is strange is the label description of cultural relics, which creates a sense of dislocation after reading, because it depicts a completely different time and space and region from the hometown I imagined. It is from the feeling on this cultural relic that I have a magnified reflection on the above institutional issues.


[Picture 5: Video screenshot of “11565 Kilometers”]


Zhao: Is there anything special about Shandong?

Zhang: In the process of investigation, research and shooting, I found that there are actually many stories about cultural relics in Shandong. This place has a long history and is a major province producing cultural relics. Therefore, I think the appearance of Shandong in the works is not only accidental, but also has an inherent inevitability.


Returning to Shandong for investigation is an attempt to re-enter the “Shandong area” depicted in the cultural relic text of the Penn Museum. In the process of investigation and walking, I kept reminding myself of the dislocation and historical connection between the area depicted in that museum and the land of my hometown where I walked in a down-to-earth manner.


[Picture 6: Video screenshot of “11565 Kilometers”]


Zhao: The works include the themes of colonial history, archaeology, the circulation of cultural relics, international trade and so on. With such a grand narrative, can we talk about the ideas of creation?

Zhang: This is actually the result of my investigation. I worked my way through several nodes and finally built the project. From today’s point of view, I will divide it into four stages:


At first, it was my curiosity about the Han Dynasty tomb fragment and the source of the museum’s cultural relics that drove me to investigate. In fact, this is more similar to the construction of a personal perspective of this cultural relic file (archive), has some text collation and summary.


The second stage was in 2018, when I went to South Africa and saw some antiques from China in the shops in Johannesburg’s Chinatown. It was a huge shock for me at that moment. In my hometown, in museums 11565 kilometers away, in more distant countries, and one day I saw a freighter from China in the port of South Africa and suddenly felt that it might be a huge network. So from that time on, I decided that the transfer of my investigation in space and history should not be limited to the history of an object, but should be interpreted from a broader perspective. During this period, I began to understand the story of the transfer of cultural relics, and the information, history and images collected gradually began to increase.


[Picture 7: Video screenshot of “11565 Kilometers”]


The third stage, which is also the most complex stage, is for me to discuss with some archaeologists and historians with the data I have collected. I have traveled to many places one after another, from the style of cultural relics and available information, trying to find this context. This process is very difficult for me personally. But in this process, I found that many historical events will be linked together, so this involves some discussion of colonial history. Because according to the museum’s archives, this artifact was auctioned to the museum by the Yamanaka Chamber of Commerce during World War II, and the previous information was very scarce, so I began to look for clues overseas through various channels. Through the investigation of the active path of the Yamanaka Chamber of Commerce and the southern Shandong region, these histories are inevitably linked to the colonial history. At this stage, I also collected many old photos from 1895 to the pre-World War I period (most of these old photos of Lunan were from European Tibetans, which also reminded me that this is a complex colonial history). In short, they overturned many of my previous understandings and imaginations of that era, and I was greatly affected, so I couldn’t wait to go to the fourth stage, during which I identified the core of what I wanted to say.


The fourth stage was in the third stage, when I started my creative project. I located it in combing the cultural relic may exist within the scope of circulation to shoot, repeatedly went to many locations, during this period also accumulated a lot of accidental stories, I combed these chapters together, and finally presented the project.


[Picture 8: Video screenshot of “11565 Kilometers”]


Zhao: Why did you choose to present it in the form of video, image and 3D printing?

Zhang: I made a choice in photography and video at that time. I think the advantage of photography as a medium is that it can seize a moment and then bring some metaphors and hints. But in this project, the mobility of time and space and the sense of substitution of on-the-spot sightings are my first consideration. at the same time, the metaphors and reminiscences in each paragraph of the work are spread out in parallel, completed by images and words together. only in this way can I create a rich space for the audience to see these landscapes and the intricate historical clues behind them. And then put them into that time and space.


Including that a large part of the video is a fixed shot, without using push-pull and rocking movies, I use a slow video to present more details, and at the same time, I hope to create a feeling of on-the-spot sighting. after you get the text experience, after you re-examine these scenes during the investigation journey, so that the different levels of hidden history behind them can be linked together to create a feeling.


With regard to 3D printing, this is the printing of a fragment of an artifact itself that I made. At first, I was trying to make a fictional cultural relic exhibition. I regard it as an interesting irony. In order to enhance the authenticity of textual objects, American museums often provide samples of cultural relics to support the construction of the environment. Because the sample is taken from the real world, it can bring authenticity and credibility. The role of this 3D printed specimen will also play this role, but this time it is part of an institutional reflection by me, an investigator, and becomes some kind of evidence.


[Picture 9: “11565 Kilometer” Photography device]


[Picture 10: “11565 Kilometer” 3D printing]


Zhao: How do you view the relationship between images and words (the story itself)?

Zhang: The story itself does not have a very strong plot, so it needs to be promoted by words. When I was creating the film, I wanted to make the text look like a chapter-style novel, or notes. I regard the text and the image as different materials, and let their combination produce a montage effect. I specially arrange the text before the image, and the text to construct a leading story structure, but the story structure is loose, not the documentary text; then there is the addition of the still lens, so that the audience can have a sense of eyesight. On the other hand, the feelings brought by the words before will continue to make new connections with the current images. I want to use such an event to enable the audience to think about and sort out the context of the circulation of cultural relics. It is just a microcosm, a microcosm under a huge chain of interests.


[Picture 11: “11565 Kilometers” Photography Book]


Note: [1] Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of Cultural property, 1970, UNESCO.


Collecting, writing, and editing: Jiexin Zhao


Recording arrangement: Xinyi Ma