An interview with Artist Beichen Zhang and his 11565 Kilometer Project

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An interview with Artist Beichen Zhang and his 11565 Kilometer Project

2020-07-16 17:48:50 Ta Kung Pao


” I stood on the shore and seemed to hear those ancient voices in the wind.”


This passage is taken from a clip from the prose film “11565 Kilometers” by artist Beichen Zhang, which shows a wharf sitting alone in the bushes and a huge ship sailing slowly towards the dock in the distance. This prose film poetically traces a piece of stone tomb fragments numbered “40-35-4” in the Han Dynasty, which was transported from the Shandong Peninsula in China at the beginning of the 20th century to the story of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where it is exhibited today. the history of colonial images of the Shandong Peninsula. The art project has been shortlisted overseas for the 15th Spanish International Anthropological Film Festival in Galicia and the Arizona Independent Film Festival. The exhibition “Resonance: the 2020 (12th) Three Shadows Photography Award Exhibition” is on display at the Beijing Three Shadows Photography Art Center, which has attracted wide media attention.


[Picture 1: The picture is excerpted from the prose film “11,565 Kilometer Project”, Beichen Zhang, 2020]


A history of cultural relic migration constructed by personal narrative images


Since 2018, Beichen Zhang has been paying attention to the history of the circulation and transfer of Chinese characters in the American museums. An accidental visit led him to discover a piece of Han Dynasty dolmen with an Asian artifact number “40-35-4” located in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He learned about the introduction of this artifact and its background story. He published a photographic archive survey called the “11,565 Kilometer Project.” He believes that archival photography projects are not limited to investigative projects onsite inspections. Artists can use their own photography archive thinking mode to compare modern and past images, retrospect and reconstruct, and construct their own narrative again. This kind of narrative is different from museums and other institutional narratives, and it can question the power dynamics of museums at multiple levels.


[Picture 2: 3D printed samples of cultural relics numbered “40-35-4”, 11,565 Kilometer Project exhibited in the main building of the Maryland College of Art, Beichen Zhang, 2019]


Since June 2018, Beichen Zhang began to study Chinese cultural relics of “coffin fragments” (object number: 40-35-4). 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. He is involved in many dimensions, such as fieldwork, reproduction of cultural relics, study of historical texts and criticism of museum institutions. An attempt was made to excavate and transcribe an unknown story of a cultural relic.


The scope of his investigation was carried out by the history of the artifact, from which Beichen Zhang began to think about the expressive relationship between the historical material and the text, as well as the meaning behind it. On this basis, his image survey is not only a single study of the history of artifacts, but also intervenes as an artist to integrate the colonial history of China’s Shandong Peninsula and modern American museum stories into the images he has created. Through his images, images and words are skillfully combed and presented. His images, with a bleak sense of space and highly commemorative, penetrate the missing clues and information under the representation of history with extremely calm and objective penetration. Because of the guidance of the investigation and the rich implication of the text, the landscape presented by the image leads the viewer into a shuttle between the modern ruins and the ancient sites. For example, in the ancient city wall he portrayed with a close-up, his slow and poetic close-up runs through the decline of the ancient city wall and the history of confrontation between nomads and farming peoples, accompanied by a chapter text structure. the subtle connection between words and images makes the vast image space of cultural relics 40-35-4 established. The related stories that are missing or replaced in history are presented again in a physical way.


[Picture 3: Picture selected from the prose movie “11,565 Kilometer Project”, Beichen Zhang, 2020]


Behind 11565 Kilometers: Every image is a file.


“in 2018, I visited 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 museums 11565 kilometers away, in more distant countries, I suddenly feel that there may be a huge network behind this. ” Beichen Zhang said in an exclusive interview with the Three Shadows Photography Art Center.


Since 2018, he has carried out another important part of the art project, the 11565 Kilometer Project, which conducts an extensive search for historical images, letters and text, and collates and collates a large number of private images about the history. Letters and images are regarded as a kind of evidence to prove the feasibility of the exploration route. At the same time, this kind of collection is also a parody of the collection behavior of Western museums. Through the personal collection, the artist makes archives by “narrating the personal collection in the tone of the museum”, showing a kind of disintegration and division of the institutional narrative, the legitimacy of cultural relics and the relationship between colonial history behind the metaphor.


[Picture 4: The 11,565 Kilometer Project exhibited at the Three Shadows Photography Art Center, Beichen Zhang, 2020, Image Courtesy: Beijing Three Shadows Photography Art Center]


His collection plan, along with his photographic book installation, was exhibited in the main building of the Maryland Academy of Arts, and the project gave visitors a huge clue to the fishermen in Jiaodong Port in 1890. you can also start with the view of the modern Chinese coast covered with landing gear, mountain villages invaded by imperialism and fishing villages full of rebellious spirit, and so on. Every clue he provides is related to his photography and the images he collects, giving the viewer an imagination and recollection of that time and space. The 11565 Kilometer Project, which he initiated, personally collated and archived the images of this historical story, and on this basis, gave them a new context and reconsidered the relationship between memory and power. He regarded the museum as an organ of power, deconstructed it through images, and raised his own questions about the authoritative historical translation.


[Picture 5: “11,565 Kilometer Project” exhibition in the main building of Maryland College of Art, Beichen Zhang, 2019]


Behind the unknown cultural relics 40-35-4 and unpopular cultural relics


Behind the promotion of their “star cultural relics”, each museum has added a lot of popularity and popularity to the museum. for example, two of the six Jun of Zhaoling, who are in the same Asian pavilion with cultural relics “40-35-4”, show purple and fist hair? It has always been the most important exhibit of the museum’s fame. As an artist, Beichen Zhang intervened from the perspective of paying attention to those unknown cultural relics. He believes that these stories similar to cultural relics 40-35-4 are not many examples, but a product of the institutional problems of the museum, so he presents the story with a complex archival photography project, hoping to bring the problem to wider attention.


This year, the project is also getting the attention of many Asian historians, and the film has also been shortlisted for the film screening unit of the annual meeting of the American Association for Asian Studies, and the 2020 North Asia Art Exhibition held by the Asian Art Center of Townsend University. “the 34th Japan East Asia Experimental Image Festival” and so on, this photographic artist is providing a new perspective for us to review this issue.


The artist is currently working as an intern at the Chinese American Museum, still focusing on related topics such as museum institutions and historical materials.