'Time is never exhausted - the hour hand pursues the minute hand in hopelessness;
Bliss is a scavenger, wandering behind the equal sign of a formula.'
- Jiutu (The Drunkurd), Liu Yichang
00:00 / 12:00 / 24:00
I confessed that making a giant clock and rolling it along the street was a very explicit visualisation of time. Then it came the cringeworthy attempt to cast a perfect clock. Casting is undoubtedly an extremely time-complicit process as every step, including mixing, moulding, and setting, has its own time sensitivity. The durational process further intertwined the casting procedure with the maker's daily routine- eat breakfast, arrive at the studio, pour the mixture, eat lunch, get the casted object set, clear the residue, take a snack break, have small talks with technicians, reset, make some decisions to leave the mould overnight, leave at sunset. The casted clocks at the end were all rife with flaws. The pursuit of impeccability was proven to be a steadfast utopian mirage, even a little bit quaint, hinting at the futility of trying to reify time in all these trials. Later on, I embarked on a number game of counting seconds, and the experiment with time started travelling across realms of geography and language. A seemingly grander ambition surfaced, but the format was still pretty overt. I came to realise that it was almost impossible to speak about time, because every time I started to ramble about it, the discussion became tame. This impasse is the eternity. A perfect ditch of time.
01:22 / 13:22
Moving on, I attempted to deploy newer tactics. For instance, I shifted the focus to the invisible, trying to sketch an alternative universe starting with people’s voices, deprioritising the visual as an augmented element, treating it as one that came after and was derived directly by the sound piece. The resulting multimedia work was shown in a performance event at the basement of the Modern Art Oxford gallery. The audience sat around the large projection on the wall, facing the flashing colour cascade generated by the sound-engineering software. At the end, a few people danced into the empty space in front of the wall. I was astonished by the fact that such a fictional dimension was actually, inhabitable. Long before I became aware, the work had taken its shape and conversed with the audience on its own. For this round (me vs. time), it seemed that I was, for the first time, on the upper hand.
02:12 / 14:12
That enlightening dance moment led me to a collaborative project with a choreographer in Hong Kong to continue with the lineage of time exploration. The performance was realised after 6 months. It was set in the middle of the sea, as I said that if we could not scout a performance venue in the water, I would rather not proceed with the show. How could I cast a slight chance of victory against time while standing firmly on the ground? How could I speak of the infinity of time when one is fully secured and stabilised physically? At the end, our team found an affordable barge to rent, but audience members had to take a 5-minute sampan trip to reach the floating stage at the centre of Victoria Harbour, the heart of Hong Kong enveloped by the world-class night glams and glitters from all the skyscrapers.
03:00 / 15:00
Inside the barge, we tried to minimise the set-up to allow the most space and flexibility for the dance. The only thing that we put alongside the 2m x 2m clock from previous performances was a digital clock in neon light counting down to midnight. Throughout the night, a total of 7 acts were planned and took place at various spots of the venue and hence the audience was moved frequently. The light was on and off. There was not really a clear aesthetic consistency. Everything seemed to happen casually and our photographer faced an immense challenge to document the event in clarity. When I went through the footage afterwards, quite a lot of the shots were out of focus, especially when he tried to zoom into the red-gleaming clock in darkness.
03:45 / 15:45
I wonder if the format of performance might have brought me closer to the core of these series of fragmentary experiment due to its ephemeral nature, which cemented the art language in experience and memories. Perhaps the more I let go, the closer I would get to the truth. In my ongoing research, someone told me that an ancient saying goes, 'simply close your eyes and the secret of time will reveal itself'. So later on, the idea of recycling all the past materials into new conversations in a film format seems to be a regressive decision, walking a broken circle.
Daily Routine (2017). Hong Kong. Documentation photography of a 110-min performance.
Nth Dimension (2018). Modern Art Oxford. Documentation shot of a 5-min Performance.
In collaboration with composer Noah Lawson. Gammatonegram-generated visuals with thanks to engineer Elden Tse.
Time Factory (2018). Hong Kong.Documentation photography of a 60-min performance.
In collaboration with choreographer Fung Sze Chit.
Dancers: Kerry Cheung, Men Tin Lam, Tang Tsz Wan, Emma Zhang.
Special credits: Karen Lau, Project Development; Photographer: Pan Chan.
et ce te ra et ce te ra (2019). 3-min excerpt of a 19-min film. Screened at Joan Jonas's special lecture at Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, 12 May 2019.
04:18 / 16:18
The film is essentially a medium of time with an inherited clock tick tick tick. Once the play command is released, there is seemingly no way back. Like an untamed horse, once unbridled, there is no hope to tie it back, for it possesses a liberated drive to dash forward and forward, and every step that it hurdles is mashed into smudged trails. Many must remember the desolate scene when Nietzsche collapsed into his lunacy after seeing a horse beaten by its owner. Both the lives of Nietzsche and the horse were forever frozen since that historic moment. In the novel, ‘Half a Lifelong Romance’, the Chinese author Eileen Chang described the passage of a century as a forward-moving train, leaving behind the archaic aroma of the bygone era, the tragic characters in memories, our guilt and unsettling regret - all vanished into the muddy darkness amid the rhythmic noises of the train. The rigour of a film's linearity, signified by the crystal clear and indisputable timecode, holds its own gravity parallel to the ever-expanding horizon on our earth. This is different from taking off in a plane where we ascend gradually, nor dipping ourselves into the water in which we smear bit by bit. Like a bullet, a film discharges.
There is almost no single theory formed without one entity becoming its own antithesis. Often, the emptiness of the canvas unleashes the loudest narrative. The void of life, the nothingness, according to Sartre, denounces the impossibility of being an absolute totality (being-in-itself) which at the end, liberates life. Hence, we can assume that film discourse is supposed to also possess the potential to reject its fundamental cornerstone in order to develop its own autonomous authority. As a time-based medium, almost every film encapsulates a specific time period within the frames. In elementary schools, we were encouraged to grapple with the question of ‘when’ first thing in learning to tell a story. Each film is constructed along a timeline, in a similar way every story is quintessentially outlined by time. Yet, once the screenplay time is denoted, the film as an object will find itself entering into an eerie dimension. Immortalised by its digital existence, people from all time could revisit the congealed moments in the film object at any time, again and again, as long as the world has not run out of electricity. Viewers from the past, the present and the future all converge through the alienated space-time in a film which, as the French writer/director/artist Jean Cocteau noted, ‘erects neither in the present nor in the past’. The film becomes the transcendental shrine where human from all ages finally reunite.
In the past, the film must go on. Yet it is a different story today. On the screen, the epic and profound life of the leading character is usually intercut by your irregular pauses of pop-up notifications or random coffee breaks. Every single day is sliced into numerous tiny segments falling apart from the 24-hour scale, while our life planning is fully integrated into the art of time manipulation facilitated by the language of edits – truths can be constantly rewound, revised and re-lived when messages sent can now be recalled in one click. You can now schedule your social media feed to be posted in the future automatically when your followers are the most active. This is how an algorithm fast-forwards your life to your most popular and sublime moments. And the view of the past is often clearer than the present considering the unbounded options of flashback, when the camera roll of my phone constantly churns out impressive slideshows to remind me what happened the same day last week, and last month, and last year. Such a sweetheart.
Eventually, multitasking becomes our contemporary cliché. The nuance is that multiplicity exists in parallel timelines, instead of multiple tasks (per se) happening along with the one and only linearity. The contemporary social etiquette allows us to gather each other within a spectrum of time zones, for specifying a meeting time can easily become a dangerous act, an over-commitment. There is a need to negotiate all those negative spaces between our intertwining timelines, especially in today when each of us possesses multiple. Hence, the deployment of ‘range’ becomes necessary to engender the breathing space for our ever-evolving schedules to cross over. We do not meet each other at a dot anymore. The dot is expanding into a space.
Meditation, mindfulness – all point to the most unsexy behaviour of looking at what is in front of you literally. It cannot be more basic, yet such a rudimentary living exercise of anchoring oneself at the moment becomes one of the most lucrative cash cows among the capitalists’ con. At this particular moment in history, the act of focusing is transformed into an enigmatic ritual. Hence, pinning oneself in the cinema for an hour or two carries a sense of nostalgic romance, but also a temporary retreat from the heavily layered contemporary lives. It is an exceptional dedication from the audience, something every filmmaker may not really take for granted anymore.
124/365 (2019). In response to the prompt,'Mottle', by Seven Voices Oxford
09:21 / 21:21
When all of these culminate in the process of film-making, a battle against the embedded timeline seems to be an inevitable outbreak. Walter Benjamin characterised film in which ‘the directives are more where the meaning of each single picture appears to be prescribed by the sequence of all preceding ones’. I constantly feel the stress to tear the singular timeline off. Layers over layers, flickering vignettes cross-fade into each other abruptly so that once a slight sense of time is almost pervaded, the stability must be stirred again. All of these are attempts to lure the audience to the cliff of the sensation of time: dreams, memories, diaries, imagination, et cetera. Everything that is shaking at the periphery epitomises the zeitgeist of the time, et cetera. Please don’t ask me if contemporary lives could be more confusing, et cetera, et cetera.
Indeed, following up on the fact that film is basically the very manifestation of time, even without the notion being explicitly stated, there is not a single aspect of the film language that does not imply the You-Know-What: colour, music, transition, rhythm, lost in translation. How could time be contextualised and experienced in a scale devoid of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years? I am particularly drawn into all the aggregated filtered layers in the editing panel. Ripping the ‘spine’ apart, the narratives that are able to be articulated, could the illiterate sensations become a new ribcage for the film to grow upon? There are many chance decisions to be made in editing the footage, yet I always remind myself that the goal is to allow the corporeality of the film object to arise organically, as natural as time. Yet, this is not a writing about film theories.
Heidegger was sceptical about how nihilism could be overcome if we maintained within the same linguistic system. To defy a concept and to scout for new meanings as alternative imagination requires a different language, not just about manipulating the established and messing up the grammar. I have always been alert that to thematise ‘time’ from something that is highly slippery into the realm of visual art would easily fall into the trap of kitsch, if we understand kitschiness as what contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton described as emotions that are too easy to be triggered, and meanings that are pretended to be meaningful. ‘Cheap and fake’, in short.
What is my authenticity in challenging time in all these years? At the end of the day, everything leaves no trace. The desire to capture time is futile. The urge to challenge the foundation of our understanding is just another simple example of human’s arrogance. The only certainty is that this sense of impossibility lives in perpetuum. But can one not speak? I left my home and completely shifted my field after my first 25 years of life, tearing off everything that I have built in the past and restarting life from scratch. I was left 8 hours behind my ghost from the past and the social circles that I had established, so there were constantly both time and spatial distance to where I belonged. Living among peers that were at a different life stage from me in a new environment, there was not a single day passed in the last 3 years where I was not confronting all sorts of questions revolving around the notion of time – an almost ascetic routine to redefine age, remap life, reconfigure expectation and rectify peer references. I have been pathogenically obsessed to the idea that I am a loser in the race of life achievement relative to age if such capitalist rhetoric and short-sightedness are to be excused, yet I still feel too scared to not moving forward. All these discursive experiments are fruitless, they are nevertheless inescapable. To accept and continue to negotiate and confront the impossibility to speak is probably my consolation prize at the end in this incessant labour of art, time and life.
13:07.33 / 01:07.33
et ce te ra et ce te ra (2019). Installation shot. Dolphin Gallery, Oxford, 2019.
et ce te ra et ce te ra (2019). 19.00min.
'Offcuts' Ruskin Screening, Dolphin Gallery, Oxford.
P.S. Because of the ageing of the machine or some unexplainable technical issues or whatever reasons, the film editing software kept quitting automatically and reopened in a recovered version. Hence, the current name of my file has evolved to become ‘Copy of the Copy of the Copy of the Copy of the Copy of the Copy of the Copy.prproj’. I suspected this is time trying to talk to me.