Wang Bing – Un geste documentaire de notre temps (Antony Fiant, 2019)

It’s been quite a while since I have reviewed a book. This was primarily down to my not finding the right ones, or my waiting for certain books to be published. Slow Cinema continues to enjoy a particular attention in France, albeit it is important to note – once more – that Slow Cinema is an anglo-saxon term and if you were to look for something on the subject in French, you wouldn’t find anything at all. Reason being that those films are written about in a “normal” way, meaning they’re treated like any other film. Of course, their specific aesthetics do stand out, but there is no focus on the long-takes, on long duration, on minimalism. French writers speak about what those films have to tell (which is the most important part) and only then they say how they tell their stories.

Quite some time ago, I wrote about Antony Fiant’s Pour un cinéma contemporain soustractif (2014), which was very much a book about Slow Cinema (the first one, I believe) without mentioning the word. It was a good read, because it was so different from anglo-saxon literature on the subject. Fiant, who is professor at Rennes 2, in the city where I live (and where he also teaches a module on Wang Bing!), is back with a book on Chinese director Wang Bing. The director is clearly the most important contemporary filmmaker and the pace with which he releases films that deal with the conditions of his country is exceptional.

Man with no name (dir Wang Bing, 2010)

Wang Bing – Un geste documentaire de notre temps (2019) takes a look at all of the director’s films, with Fiant trying to group them into “cycles” or “trilogies”. One only needs to read the chapter headings in order to get more than a good glimpse of what Wang Bing’s filmography is about: “Lutter contre une amnésie historique” (A fight against amnesia), “Communautés dépossédées” (Dispossessed communities), “Individus dépossédés” (Dispossessed Individuals), “Quelle faute avais-je commis?” (What have I done wrong?). Without necessarily having seen all of Wang Bing’s films, one can gather that his country is not in a good state, nor is it developing into the right direction. That said, it isn’t surprising that the director, as Fiant correctly points out, is working clandestinely (“un cinéma contrebandier”). His films are the harvest of what the Communist Party and their political decisions sow. He gives silenced and silent histories a voice and is therefore much more than a filmmaker. He is also a historian, an activist, someone who, on an international stage, counters the official narrative of the state.

In the context of West of the Tracks, Fiant uses a term that I find interesting and also important. I wrote something similar in my thesis, when I spoke about Lav Diaz’s Melancholia. Diaz’s film contains a scene in which a group of activists dig up the remains of a disappeared person. The camera work in one specific scene differs from all other scenes. Diaz and his camera become archaeologists, who, themselves, help to uncover the dark truth behind the desaparecidos of the country. Fiant speaks of “une contemplation exploratrice”, a specific form of contemplation that seeks to explore. Even though the author uses this term in the context of West of the Tracks, I find that it describes a lot of the director’s films. The act of exploration characterises Wang Bing’s filmography. Although there are clear differences between his “mobile” pieces, such as Man without a Name, and his “static” works, like He Fengming, the act of exploration is at the heart of every single of his films.

Three Sisters (dir Wang Bing, 2012)

The subjects Wang Bing explores in his films always, without exception, raise ethical questions, as is the case with documentary cinema in general. Fiant picks up this subject time and again and he speaks, in particular, about three ways in which Wang Bing avoids crossing boundaries. What is important in the context of documentaries, Fiant argues, is the position of the filmmaker/the camera with respect to the subject. Fiant identifies an aux côtés de, a face à and an autour de. Importantly, Wang Bing is never really involved in what he films. He is present, and one can see, or even hear, this clearly. At times there is the filmmaker’s shadow visible in the frame, at others we can hear his breathing. And yet, as Fiant notes, Wang Bing remains exterior to the actual action, which can be noticed in his instinctive choices, like this beautiful scene in ‘Til madness do us part, when he follows a young man who runs around the mental hospital.

The liberty with which he films, expressed through the sheer number of hours of rushes, allows him, in parts, to contain the aspect of ethics. I was positively surprised that Fiant mentions this aspect of Wang Bing’s cinema several times, because other than his formidable Mrs Fang, none of his films have attracted such a debate, even though ethics are at the centre of his filmmaking. The same is true of the anthropological character, which Fiant identifies throughout his book. And it is those notes by Fiant, which I appreciate most. His book brings in fresh material. It is not existing material newly assembled, which we have seen several times with literature on slow films. There are actually new points you can take away with and investigate further, also in respect to other slow-film directors.

Fiant’s book is one of already three excellent French-language books on the Chinese director. Remains to be seen if, and when, there will be an English-language translation. I, for my part, hope so because they all contain a lot of good material, which should be made more accessible. Fingers crossed!

(Wang Bing, un geste documentaire de notre temps by Antony Fiant is now available via Warm Editions for 20EUR.)

Book review: Contemporary art and time (2016)

Towards the end of my PhD research, I noticed that quite a few interesting works in my area have been published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes. In particular work that has come out of Université Rennes 2 sounded promising, and, indeed, there is a lot going on. The reason for its comparative invisibility is that the scholars publish exclusively in French, which is a real shame, because I believe their work could shake up English-language scholarship in some areas. Now that I’m living in Rennes, I see the potential even clearer. It’s not just Rennes 2, which is pretty successful in its scholarship (in my area). Rennes is also home to a branch of the famous ESRA (Ecole supérieure de réalisation audiovisuelle / Ecole de cinéma, de son et film d’animation) as well as the EESAB (Ecole européenee supérieure d’art de Bretagne), where a lot of good stuff is going on. So, in some ways it didn’t surprise me when I read in the Avant-Propos of L’art contemporain et le temps: Visions de l’histoire et formes de l’expérience, edited by Christophe Viart, that there is a special research group located at the EESAB looking into “forms of time”. What more does someone like me need!?

The books subtitle is Visions of history and forms of experience, and it’s a great round up of thoughts on the matter, well-researched, well-focused. What I personally enjoyed a lot was to read about time in art in general. I had been primarily focused on time in film for a long time, but I became interested in time, especially duration, in other art forms as part of my research into the representation of (post-) trauma. So L’art contemporain was a great addition, and a wake-up call for me to keep looking into these things.

Christophe Viart’s introduction got me hooked because of a curious anecdote, or rather a description of an artwork by Alighiero Boetti: a simple light bulb in a box. The light bulb lights up only once a year, for a mere 11 seconds. No one knows when that will happen. Quite evidently this has an effect on the visitor’s experience of time. It’s one of those artworks of which you could say that nothing was happening with it, or to it. It’s boring. But that brings us back to an earlier post of yes-boredom and no-boredom. Do you accept standing in front of the box, which contains the light bulb, with the pretty high chance that you won’t see it lightening up? Or do you just walk past it and dismiss the whole idea behind it?

Boetti’s lightbulb is a superb introduction to the book, which is varied in its foci. It ranges from an investigation of Du temps de l’art au temps de l’oeuvre by Jean Lauxerois to Relectures postcoloniales de la temporalité et de l’histoire de l’art by Emmanuelle Chérel to Le temps suspendu, written by artist Bernhard Rüdiger. It’s this mixture of researchers and artists which I value the most, because it is important to me to give artists a say, too. Scholars tend to ignore artists and just pretend that their reading of an artist’s work is the right one, because they have read about it and think that they found the key to understanding, say, a sculpture, a painting, or even a film. I know from experience that all this reading can carry you away and you don’t see the actual work. So hats off to the editor for including a chapter by Rüdiger, which is, I have to say, a thoroughly interesting take on time, image and sound. It’s a chapter on shocks and on trauma, albeit not as foregrounded as you might expect it.

Rüdiger describes the processes behind his work, and how he arrived at a solution to the discrepancy between showing and not showing. He spent several months in Jerusalem in 2000 and noticed that he couldn’t take photos. He just couldn’t. Something inside him prevented him from doing so. He was convinced that regardless of what type of photograph he would take, the photograph would turn into a cliché. I will not describe his entire process here. The chapter is well worth reading if you’re interested in Rüdiger’s work. The result of months of thinking about the problematic became a very special engagement of image and sound, a strange combination of visibility and invisibility: sound recorded as an image (see picture above). Again, a curious starting point to think about time, duration, and the way the viewer/gallery visitor experiences it.

Another thoroughly interesting chapter is Jacinto Lageira’s Voir, revoir, pré-voir, which is perhaps the most complex chapter in this book, demanding, at least of myself, a second and maybe even a third reading. I find his argument that plastic art creates time quite fascinating, something that we possibly never think about. But it is true that those art works never adhere to either historical time or biological time. They have their own time, they create their own time, which is at odds with the viewer’s lived time. I believe, even though Lageira does not mention this at all, his chapter lays the foundations for an interesting debate about boredom at the centre of which we always find a simple discrepancy between two different and opposing experiences of time.

One more chapter I would like to highlight. The book is overall great, but I cannot describe it all. It would be an endless post. Worth mentioning, however, is the chapter Relectures postcoloniales by Emmanuelle Chérel. Colonialism changes a peoples’ experience of time. This is very often neglected in studies on post-/colonialism, as far as I can see. Chérel argues that post-/colonialism requires a redefinition of time and space, and quite rightly so. As I discovered in my own research on trauma, and as Chérel argues a little earlier in the chapter, the postcolonial period is not just a temporal marker in a history written by European powers. In effect, past and present always interact, especially in postcolonial times. The postcolonial is exactly where our idea of a linear historical time fails (which would bring me back to trauma here but I really need to finish this post!).

If you’re reading/speaking French, and you’re interested in the intersections of time and art, it’s certainly worth buying L’art contemporain, or getting it through your library. And you should keep an eye out for publications from this research group at ESSAB, just like I will do 🙂