Does Liu Chuang’s New Film Challenge the Colonial Gaze or Merely Reproduce It?

At Shanghai’s Qiao Space, the artist’s ambitious new project raises more questions than it answers

Comprising just two video installations and three photographic works, Liu Chuang’s latest solo show, ‘Earthbound Cosmology’, nonetheless ranges across a vast array of topics – from the history of the telegraph to touch-pad technology, from modernity in pre-1949 China to sci-fi movies, from B-grade new wave remixes to the influence of Mongolian culture on film costume design. And that’s not even including the titular themes of three-channel video Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (2018), which serves as the show’s conceptual core. In previous series, such as ‘Buying Everything on You’ (2006–07), which saw the artist purchase all the possessions of economic migrants seeking work at a job market, Liu focused on the minutiae of everyday life. Here, however, he attempts something on a far bigger and more complex scale. While this may come off, at moments, as hubristic, overall the project is an undeniably accomplished achievement.

In Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities, Liu investigates how cryptocurrency mining in China is partially powered by cheap hydroelectricity in remote mountainous areas that are home to ethnic minorities who have historically maintained antagonistic relationships with Han Chinese states. The video suggests that the affinity between cryptocurrencies’ decentralized networks and the lived experience of minorities that were, until recently, generally disregarded by nation states could, perhaps, offer a way out of such political impasses. Political scientist James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2010) provides intellectual ammunition for this argument, while the titular field recordings are derived from ethnomusicologists’ interest in these minorities. Breathtaking images – including drone photography of river valleys and dams, as well as footage taken from the social media accounts of power-line repairmen – flit across the three projection screens, while narration in Muya, a language related to Tibetan, explains details at a lulling, unhurried pace.

Liu Chuang, 'Earthbond Cosmology', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Qiao Space, Shanghai

In the next room, the installation Gluttonous Me (2018) is inspired by entertainment appliances sold to the same minority groups, which combine multiple functions in one: television, video player, speakers and sound-synchronized lights. Liu’s replica device sits in a darkened space with mirrored walls. Simultaneous voice-overs in Muya, Mandarin and English provide context while footage plays on the screen. However, a slow fade between a character from the film Avatar (2009) and an African tribesperson highlights a troubling aspect that permeates the entire exhibition: minority groups are often presented as a mysterious Other, causing anti-imperial intentions to coalesce into something that feels slightly colonial. In this vein, The Anthropology of Science Fiction (2019) – a collection of prints featuring characters from sci-fi movies interspersed with images of Māori, Maasai, Himba and other indigenous peoples – is facile at best.

Liu Chuang, Gluttonous Me, 2018, EVD, home entertainment system (walnut cabinet, Atman television, amplifier, PC computer, 7 JBL loudspeakers, 1 JBL bass speaker, 7.1 surround sound system, plastic lampshades, LED light control system, mirror with aluminium alloy frame), dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Qiao Space, Shanghai

Useful comparisons might be drawn to Hito Steyerl’s Extra Space Craft (2016) – a film about drone operators in Iraqi Kurdistan that explores the intersections between technology, identity and the limits of statehood, yet is foregrounded in individual voices – or to the deep-dive documentaries of Naeem Mohaiemen, whose book Between Ashes and Hope (2010) focused on a peripheral region of Bangladesh also covered in Scott’s research. While Liu’s status as a Chinese national might understandably preclude him from adopting Steyerl’s and Mohaiemen’s overtly politicized approaches, parts of the show feel unfortunately close to corporate propaganda about technology improving life in remote villages. His positioning of ethnic minorities as the Homo sacer of the Chinese state is a powerful idea and the hypnotic video elements of ‘Earthbound Cosmology’ are feats of masterful editing. However, it’s hard to avoid wishing that work with such an expansive scope might feel less like an auteur’s detached observations and more like a collaborative, egalitarian undertaking.

Liu Chuang, ‘Earthbond Cosmology’ was on view at Qiao Space, Shanghai, from 16 March until 5 May 2019.

Main image: Liu Chuang, Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities, 2018, video installation. Courtesy: the artist and Qiao Space, Shanghai

Simon Frank is a writer based in Beijing, China.

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