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Faint with Oxygen: Video and Photography
by Hanart TZ Gallery
Location: Hanart TZ Gallery
Artist(s): GAO Shi Qiang
Date: 15 Apr - 13 May 2010

In a certain sense, Faint with Oxygen is up to now the piece with the most anthropologic significance of all my works.

This video comes out because of an invitation- Ms. Guo Xiaoyan, the exhibition designer, invited me to participate in a creative-work series named the Disappearing Site. The shooting location was in the plateau of western China, where the Tibetan lives in compact communities and enjoys self-autonomy. To us common Han people, it remains a strange place full of mysteries.

Disappearing Site, to me, seems too of “Shangri-la imagination”(1), which entails some melancholy, some sighs and sorrows. However, such sentiment is only the imagination and recall of an exotic culture by the so-called “modern civilized society” with the eastern part of China in the center.

After arriving in the plateau known as “roof of the world”, I was determined to observe “people” through my camera so as to explore life and thought of the “people”, rather than to seek novelty with a certain cultural imagination in the exotic world and focus on those beautiful scenery and typical cultural subjects which could be found everywhere. So before shooting, I decided that close-up would be the main technique in this video as I wanted to record faces and explore the hearts full of thoughts through those faces.

In the snow-covered highland around 5,000 meters above the sea level, I finally found the “people”, found the story there – the cousin of our local guide and the story about this young man called Gairi Luosong Gelai.

Luosong was grown up in the big grassland. He had never left there and had never seen the world outside of it. Like most young people there, he didn’t receive any education. Day after day, all he saw was the wide grassland (often there was no one to be seen for couples of days.), blue sky, white cloud, cows, sheep and the changes of four seasons. He was only one among thousands of young illiteracies there. All of them were not required to go to school and had no motivation for learning. Because in the past decade, even if a Tibetan young man studied hard and went to the college, it was difficult for him to find a job upon his graduation. Even if he did find a job, the income was still less than that from herding cows and sheep at home. With the policies issued by the state to protect minority groups, they could live a decent life by herding or doing farm work at home. So, most people in the grassland didn’t want to go to school, nor send their own children to school, not to say to learn Chinese – for them, Chinese was useless.

But Gairi Luosong Gelai was different, in spite that his father had been objecting his learning Chinese. Though Chinese was of no use for his life, he taught himself Chinese through listening to the radio since he was young and turned to his friends and relatives for help when they occasionally visited his home from the city. Like his cousin said in the video, there is no chance for Luosong to walk out of the grassland and get in touch with another world (the world of the Han people? the world of modern civilization?). Because, he got married and had a child, which, to the Tibetans who are faithful to their traditions, means that he had to stay with his family till his end.

However, Luosong was still crazy about Chinese. When we were shooting, he always kept close to us, taking all chances to speak with us (in Chinese of course!). That was really surprising! Why did he try so hard to do something useless?

In my opinion, that is because of one’s faith in cultural imagination. Like what people in cities of the east like us have fancied about Tibet and its “Shangri-la imagination”, Luosong was also full of curiosity and fantasies toward the world outside of the grassland, the world below the highland. While Luosong’s faith in his dream is far beyond of ours, as to me, his adherence might be related to his religious experience and living philosophy: in the faiths held by Tibetan, there is always a unity (or a sameness) between reality and dream through action. As far as Luosong is concerned, it is very likely that in the course of his trying hard to learn Chinese and using Chinese, he has already walked into the world represented by Chinese. It is like those Tibetans who exhaust nearly one third of their lives to travel along, shaking Mani Scripture Wheel and worshipping gods of Buddha, they never count how much they cost during their life time and how much happiness they could get in the other world, because in such asceticism, they have already reached the after life and the dreamed land.

In this video, I chose three shooting locations in different altitudes. The interesting thing is that, the different images presented in the three locations coincidentally and properly conveyed three different living states and cognitions towards life: in the plateau of 5,000 meters above the sea level, a young man realized the possession of “modern civilization” of the other place through Tibetan religious enthusiastic imagination. He also completed such a procedure – the assimilation of another civilization into his own through his imaginations; in the city of 3,600 meters above the sea level where two civilizations and two worlds coexist, traces of conflict between the two can be seen everywhere; the lowest eastern part (with an altitude of 20-60 meters) is a typical modern city, where (as well as many other places in eastern China) the land of 5,000 meters above the sea level is fancied, while the fancying way is different. They have commercialized the Tibetan civilization and meanwhile have turned the imagination about another civilization to commodities. Such imagination has also assimilated a new civilization into its own cultural world so as to make the former become part of its own. Thus, we would like to ask: how can imagination breach its own imprisonment? Is it truly possible for the understanding between different cultures? Did the “disappearing site” really exist before?

In one word, this shooting experience motivates me to think about myself and the culture I am in from a new angle. For me, this is no doubt a trip of discovery, in which I have discovered a new world, but also found a new self.

(1) “Shangri-La imagination”, here refers to a habitual thinking held by those who view an exotic world, a primitive world or a poor area as a sightseer, hoping that those places could retain the so-called “original state” without considering that such “original state” is obtained through local people’s hard life and sacrifice of development.

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