Six Hours Westward

In April 2021, Xinhao Cheng arrived in Switzerland having traversed from the UTC plus-eight time zone to the plus-one time zone. He then commenced his studio residency at Gleis 70 in Zurich. Half a year later, Cheng returned to the plus-eight time zone, bringing with him three pieces of work he produced during and before this residency, consisting of a series of video recordings titled Body in Situations. This collection of work was brought to the Tabula Rasa Gallery in Beijing and presented in Cheng’s solo exhibition. Similar to his earlier work To the Ocean (2019), in which he walks the formidable length of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, Cheng’s most recent work Der Rhein (2021), produced during his Swiss residency, follows the artist walking the length of the Rhine’s shoreline within the Swiss border. These two works are the largest video installations in this exhibition. Placed across from one another, they allow the gaze of the audience to trail between the two projections on opposite screens while the audio tracks interfere and eventually descend into dissonance. The Swiss topography is dominated by mountains and lakes, with almost the entire nation wrapped around the Alps, whereas Yunnan has undulating highlands, alternating between steep valleys and ridges, as well as rivers and lakes. Along the two routes, the artist traces a historically significant and unique topography in each place. Despite being connected by the artist’s pace, and thus the same passage of time in the evolving vistas, the two experiences are phenomenally different.

To the Ocean (2019) was a project inspired by the artist’s childhood memories. Cheng wanted to trace a great infrastructure project by bodily effort, walking all the way to the very south end of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway to where the ocean lies. After multiple attempts between 2018 and 2019, he finally succeeded in traveling on foot all the way to the China-Vietnam border from Kunming. Picking up a pebble with every kilometer treaded, Cheng completed a 465-km journey in 19 days along the domestic section of Yunnan-Vietnam Railway. Across this journey, Cheng, who grew up in Yunnan, carried with him what might possibly have been sedimentary rocks from more than two hundred million years ago. His body become situated in both past and present, allowing him to look back on the changes that took place as he walks along the tracks. In these moments, the unique landscape of Yunnan was emptied of any predetermined narratives; it is only an individual carrying fragmented memories who attempts to make contact with the actual course of history, current or bygone. Cheng films in static camera frames, pacing either from far to near, or from behind the camera into the distance. In every scene, whether the camera captures villagers herding sheep, an abandoned house, a walled-up train station, a monumental bridge, or steaming factories, Cheng’s entrance is abrupt. He watches, then he leaves. The video is also punctuated by intervals of pause. In these moments of eerie tension, Cheng waits for a train to pass; encounters travelers on a platform who are dressed in Republican-era clothes and attire representing the wartime resistance effort; and gazes downwards from the renowned “Inverted V Bridge” (another moniker for the Faux Namti Bridge).

The passage of time seems to unfold in a disorderly sequence in these intervals. Through an experience loaded with absurd encounters and events, the body confronts the vestigial traces of “development”—pillage, labor, and war. The convergence of the individual with the course of history has given rise to multiple realities; Cheng’s walk among relics in the mountain wilderness reveals how the individual is re-embedded in alternating scenes of the past and present.

Roughly a year later, Cheng visited Switzerland for his studio residency, a country in a time zone six hours apart from that of his, guided by the photography works of the French railway engineer Georges-Auguste Marbotte and his remarks on Yunnan (“A mountainous terrain alike Switzerland”). By going to Zurich from Yunnan, Cheng sought to gaze back at the early 20th century lens of Marbotte. In Der Rhein (2021), Cheng, who began his journey from the source of the Rhine River, picks up a pebble under the static gaze of the camera, and substitutes his old acquisitions with new ones until reaching his destination. The views along the waterfront of the Rhine were undoubtedly very scenic, the snowy Alps gradually replaced by vivid blue skies and woods. However, none of these images seemed to suggest the “similitude to Yunnan” which Cheng had previously read abou. As Cheng attempts to reenact the flow of the river with the progression of his physical journey, he is greeted with sublimely beautiful views and joyful travelers all along the way. There is just the right amount of poetic bliss to this picture, but his body lacks something to “fight against.” There are nonetheless a few déjà-vu moments: spotting a herd of alpacas, waiting for scenic trains to pass, watching a creek from atop a footbridge. Comparing the sceneries of Yunnan to those of Switzerland, one would likely find the latter more idyllic and pastoral. For Cheng, his experience of the perceptible differences between Yunnanese and Swiss landscapes could be attributed to the failure of their metaphorical conveyance through text. Due to inadequate preparation prior to embarking on this journey, Cheng did not start from Tomasee, the source of the Rhine River, but instead began walking from a mountain pass in the Alps. He eventually concluded his journey at Lake Constance on the tenth day, rather than the twenty-day itinerary he had planned. In Cheng’s written account, Fiasco on the Rhine (2021), he describes the experience as follows: “Where the mountain ends and the water resurfaces, my mind became muddled, my vocabulary faltered. Besides being occasionally occupied by my memories of Yunnan, I was no longer capable of describing the reality before me.” It is unclear to the reader whether the “fiasco” had reminded Cheng of his aborted expeditions along the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway. It is also unknown whether he was reminded of the rock cairn which had succumbed to strong wind at the summit of the Jade Dragon Mountain—as documented in As the Wind Whirls (2018)—while he pondered his final pebble acquired at Lake Constance.

The act of walking, as performed by the artist, becomes a kind of ritual, a creative impulse to leave reality for a distant world. As one walks, the “legendary landscapes” effect their political function through commodified sceneries and the individual’s romanticization of the landscapes. What the artist intends to reveal through walking is the grand metaphoric narrative embedded within both natural and cultural landscapes. This “fetishism” with the way landscape is perceived has triggered the condition of being at “a loss for words” for Cheng. If such a condition were only a sign of rejection by the body at first, and perhaps prelude to a latent and consistent mental stimulation, would one still be capable of building a concoction of local experiences and personal memories, and eventually manage to generate a response to the exotic context? In other words, by situating the body in its immediate surroundings, would one be capable of instinctively transposing a new experience onto the old? The process of delivering such a response would most likely be strenuous, even agonizing, as it requires recognition of the limitations to one’s presumptions, in addition to confronting an exotic milieu that is yet to be substantiated or identified.

This experience of being at a loss of words, I reckon, was not a novel one for Cheng. In A Time to Embrace (2019), an earlier work he created during his residency in the United States, Cheng had made another attempt to replicate his experience in Yunnan with the intent of establishing connections in an exotic context. On Vermont’s Turkey Mountain, he built rock cairns in a creek to resemble the shape of rivers on the Meili Snow Mountains. He picked up pebbles along the creek and continued to do so until the pebbles fell from his hands due to their sheer amount. The video documents a dark evening from a fixed point of view, showing the irregular silhouettes of the rock cairns. Cheng walks towards the camera from the far right of the frame, moving across the field of rock cairns while acquiring more pebbles along the way. Bending at the waist to pick up pebbles, Cheng loses several from his grasp each time. He then proceeds towards the far left of the frame until he can no longer be observed by the camera. The artist made a conscious decision to film at night and to present his work in greyscale. By doing so, the peculiarity of the locale is obscured and undermined, creating a “third space” apt for an alternative narrative—a narrative which arises from an imaginary Yunnan and the Vermont of the present. Paradoxically, as Cheng superimposes the topographic forms and the experience of his previous expeditions in Yunnan to Vermont, it is also precisely the authenticity of these elements that pose limitations to the much needed openness and fluidity of the third space.

In addition to his current work on view at the Tabula Rasa Gallery, Cheng was invited by the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom to participate in the group exhibition Re: Over everything which exists under the sky (2019), for which he also stayed for a short residency. In this project, instead of intervening in exotic contexts by juxtaposing of the body with changing landscapes, Cheng studied and compared a diversity of flora he selected from different regions. He applied cyanotyping to document the changes of a single tree branch through designated periods of time, and created a taxonomy with the images in order to analyze the underlying classification systems at work. He also collected vintage books as part of his research, including three cyanotype taxonomy books: one on the native plants of Yunnan, one on plants found in Yunnan with European origins (possibly spread by natural means or through trade), and one on the tree specimens he collected in the UK. Through the cyanotype series, the artist reveals the legacies and discrepancies within plant migration, and the subsequent process of classifying them into different regional systems. Cheng’s work channels the cultural complexity hidden in the construction of these classification frameworks, allowing the tension intrinsic to the practice of writing and archiving to manifest in palpable forms.

The “field,” as used in the context of contemporary art practices, is a result of the artist’s interactions and experience. The knowledge acquired and produced within this field has been built upon extensive reading, oral history, and personal anecdotes. The artist’s body is not merely his own, but an object of scale, a tool for investigation, and a medium through which he can experience myriad spatial narratives. When the body is situated in an unfamiliar field, such as Switzerland, the six-hour difference that arises from displacing the body thousands of miles from its origin occurs not only along the dimension of time. Rather, that six-hour difference can be perceived and experienced in its multidimensional impact along the stretch of both history and geography, on top of being a mere passage of time. In this “time difference,” Cheng deconstructs grand narratives by segregating them into tactile fragments with his bodily efforts. Building upon his previous work on the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, Cheng has also produced 24 Letters from the Railway (2020) and expanded his personal collection of primary historical references. In The Naming of a River (2015), he began to take and archive photo portraits of passersby. These archives have provided a point of departure for a “symbiosis” in the practice of field studies, establishing a hybrid language for contemporary art expression. This new language goes beyond the simple reapplication of one’s own experiences and imagination, or the replication of topographic forms; it is an internal transformation of superficial idiosyncrasies. As we share a common understanding of global time zones and the fact that our planet is a sphere, perhaps we might also agree that going westward can sometimes be an eastward journey in itself.

*The time zone difference is counted under Daylight Saving Time, thus is “6 hours”.

Translated from Chinese by Joanna Wong.

Tang Yifei is a writer and curator. Born in 1997, she graduated from Curating Contemporary Art, Royal College of Art in 2021. Co-curated Love This Pain, Institute for Provocation, Beijing; People's Park Plinth, Furtherfield, London.

Joanna Wong is a New York-based writer and researcher of architectural history. Her writings have appeared in a number of print and digital publications including Arquitectura Viva and ArchDaily. She received her MA degree from the Architectural Association in London, where she was also a guest critic for undergraduate history and theory studies.

Cheng Xinhao, To the Ocean(screenshot), 2019, 4K, video, color, sound, 49''56'

Cheng Xinhao, Der Rhein(screenshot), 2021, 4K, video, color, sound, 35''31'

Cheng Xinhao, A Time to Embrace(Screenshot), 2019, video, black and white, sound, 5''41'

Installation View of Cheng Xinhao's work at exhibition Re: Over everything which exists under the sky

Published: 2021.12.02