Most Beloved of Them All: On the Eighth Huayu Youth Award Exhibition

For its eighth edition, the Huayu Youth Award made its first attempt to decamp from China’s southernmost tourist spot Hainan and was hosted instead by the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. The show itself, with a loose curatorial structure and the somewhat perfunctory title A Long Hello, provides a surprisingly relaxed survey of recent projects by the award’s fifteen finalists. With a diverse selection of works and aesthetics on display, the atrium and the gallery rooms of UCCA feel like a labyrinth of fifteen solo exhibitions.

How lucky we are to describe an exhibition from 2020 as “relaxed”? For much of this past year, we have had to attune our minds and body to confront sudden shifts in the present: a world connected unevenly and unfairly through a global pandemic, the closure of national borders in the name of national interests. Its effects manifested not only on international travelers for business, biennales, and higher education but also on the migrant workers whose livelihood depends on the rhythm of mobility—those who work on luxury cruises or hop between tropical islands to make a living. On this topic, Hu Wei’s hour-long eco-fiction Land Below the Wind (2020) captures the precarious lives of the second-generation immigrants residing on Malaysia’s Dinawan Island. The footage of this film was gathered during the artist’s island residency in summer 2019, but its’ postproduction was hampered by the prolonged isolation of the pandemic lockdown. This temporal gap demands our reflection on the relationships between collectivity and the self, between artistic production and world-making, and between thought and praxis.

What can art do? What do we so desperately want art to do, and what does it demand from us?


At this threshold, A Long Hello presents us with a set of examples of how today’s young artists, situated within networks of global knowledge and technology, manage to address the hyper-proximity of this world. In the process of translating perspectives, linking mixed media, and tracing connections between various technological, cultural, and spectral histories, the show modeled an aesthetic experience, a form of dialogue with the world that otherwise might never take place.

Greeting us at the entrance of the exhibition are three installations from the Hangzhou-based artist Liu Guoqiang’s Reference and Graphic Dimensions series. In each of these works, the abstract concept of the “edge” takes on and then evades, concrete form: the edge of time, the frame of an image, or the border that separates material technology from the finished product. Reference #1(2020) is a ten-screen video installation that captures large clouds drifting slowly through the sky on a sunny day. The subtle changes in the cloud’s shapes are referenced through the layered screens, each playing a different moment of the video. If the slowness of the video invites an experience of time as continuous and expansive, the serial structure of the tripods, screens, and their exposed mechanical “base” dissect this apparent continuity into discretely framed referential units. Technologically informed frames of reference act both as metrics for understanding how we pace the rhythms of time and a formal foil to the idle activity of watching time passing.

The interest in duration—and a protracted sense of temporality—is shared with Su Yu Hsin’s complex audio-visual project Hibernatemode (2019). The scope of Su’s work is prodigious. Fragments of scientific text, philosophical exposition, and research-laden video segments interweave the viewer into a network of relationships linking the microscopic world of the mosses to a planetary scale of biology, geography, human beings, and technology. Its expansiveness is referenced through the speculative depth of Aion time, a concept that points both to the Hellenistic deity of eternity, the seasons, breath, sleep, and dreams, and to the expanded experiences of time in the medium of film. Though formally aligning with the research-based video practices that have proliferated in the past years, Su’s work comes to us less as an argument than a speculative action field. With perceptual cues coming from two screens and six sonic channels, this asynchronous audiovisual constellation pushes the link between our cognitive and sensorial modes of comprehension. Frames of references are constantly shifting, and we are as much haunted by the expansive control of Google Earth as the animist whispers of nature: “progress is drawing other kinds of time into its rhythms”; “air carries data”; “water carries memory”; “Z-axis”; “superpositions of the now.”

Equally research-laden, but more in the form of a participatory documentary is Zheng Yuan’s three-channel video installation The Last Step of Touch Down(2020). For this hour-long piece, documentary footage of national leaders, ambassadors, and visiting delegations stepping out of airplanes propelled the artist’s investigation into the history of imported aerial and media technologies during Cold War-era China. The three laterally flared-out HD screens form a half-circumscribed viewing experience. On these screens, sequences of personal narratives, direct interviews, and personal photographs braid with recently declassified government files, maps, and television news footage. Representational strategies that are typically used to build a sense of the documentary’s subject—such as the delineation of perspective and character—open up to new frames of reference. We are unsure who is the “I” speaking at the beginning of this extensive project, the “I” that asks, via his research, about how the technologies of commercial aviation and broadcasting television came to the People’s Republic of China; how they impacted the people who learned to use them; and how these individual stories linked to a collective one, a generational one.

It was Zheng Yuan’s work that ultimately won the Huayu Youth Prize. This work is edited to convey information about a nation’s technological history while seeking to connect the historically itinerant routes of technology to the everyday lives of actual people. If the artist desires to know the past, it is because a retelling of this past will also inevitably tell a story about himself, both the narratives that invented him and the narratives that he lacks. From this perspective, The Last Step Before Landing is indeed a brilliant treatise on being contemporary. It investigates not just how contemporary history is made and told, but our own fantasies about them and how these fantasies haunt our political, social, and representational institutions today.

As a viewer, my reception of The Last Step of Touch Down is undeniably connected to the other works in the vicinity of the Huayu exhibition—for the projects that, for whatever reason, seem to hold fantasies and tell histories that are more distant from our present moment.

Let us soak, for a while, in the “queer warmth” of Yong Xiang Li’s reinvented vampire love story I’m Not in Love (How to Feed on Humans) (2020). Knowing and camp, this absurdly sensual film blends the effect of a lo-fi technosphere with a new kind of animism: the Asian vampire Vampy and his half-human lovers may carry ancient feelings, but they arrive at us as freshly molded love characters. Vampy is still fond of chewing human necks, but he is no longer interested in possessing human lovers. Instead, Vampy’s reparative bite feeds joy into those for whom he cares, allowing them the physical nourishment that makes life-affirming.

I want to consider Yong Xiang Li’s “queer warmth” as more than anesthetics—as a world-making effort towards becoming-queer and becoming-warm. Its reparative affect-sphere invites us to imagine a world where care is primary, and we live in symbiosis with each other. This is, in part, a result of Li’s modest presentation: only showing a single-channel video before a wooden bench, the installation of this work avoids an author’s territorial inscription. Instead, we are invited to imagine the self as contingent and desiring, a self sensitive to its proximity to others, but that does not take itself too seriously.

The world occupied by Vampy must be a romantic one. Being-with this world—for however short a period of time that the artwork affords—makes it less depressing to come back to the one I inhabit in the day-to-day. I can sense the freedom that this other world promises, away from the imaginative poverty of our current one.

If the turn to art channels our desire for the political, for energy that sustains our commitment to reflect upon old attachments so that we can imagine new ones, and form new socialites, then the diverse aesthetics presented by today’s young artists remind us that this turn is also circuitous, that it is filled with passion, confusion, and with a certain willingness to embrace the messiness of contemporary art’s “global” history. Saying yes to such diverse aesthetics is, I think, the biggest strength of this otherwise eclectic award show.

Amanda Ju is a Ph.D. candidate in the visual and cultural studies program at the University of Rochester. She writes at the intersection of gender, subjectivity, and post-socialist art in China.

Hu Wei, Long Time Between Sunsets and Underground Waves, 2020, Single-channel video, color, sound 53’16”, Courtesy the Artist

Liu Guoqiang, Reference 1#, 2020, 10-channel video installation 200 × 200 × 250 cm, Courtesy the Artist

Su Yu Hsin, hibernatemode, installation view, 2019, 2-channel HD video installation with 6-channel sound installation, color, sound 16’00”, dimensions variable, Essay film: Su Yu Hsin, Sound installation: Aloïs Yang Commissioned by Fenko Catalysis, Chamber, Courtesy of Huayu Youth Award and UCCA

Zheng Yuan, The Last Step of Touch Down, 2020, 3-channel video installation, black and white, color, stereo sound 64’00”, Courtesy the Artist

Yong Xiang Li, I’m Not in Love (How to Feed on Humans), installation view, 2020 Single-channel video, 27’01”,  Courtesy of Huayu Youth Award and UCCA

Published: 2021.03.04