The press release for Hot Blood, Warm Blood, Cold Blood proposes that this new work is “not primarily a conceptual work.” This text goes on to lay the groundwork for this new three-channel installation – and as I see it, for Cheng Ran’s work as a whole: “The artist hopes to reduce the technical influence to a minimum level through the deliberate use of inappropriate editing to demonstrate the formality embraced in symbolism and imagery, thus representing an unknown image-space.”
Although I could quibble over the subjectivity of a phrase such as “inappropriate editing,” and the vagueness of “an unknown image-space,” this distancing of his work from a conceptual reading is a consistent concern for Cheng Ran. In a conversation I had with the artist in 2010, he was very clear about this: “I never thought that the artwork should have a core meaning. Inspiration and instinct is very important to me in the creation of the work, not a concept. I really don’t consider myself as a conceptual artist at all.”
As problematic as I felt his attitude towards core meaning was at the time–I felt that it amounted to an abrogation of responsibility to the work—I’ve come to regard it as allowing for the possibilities for interpretation to be released from taking a stable form. This has the positive aspect of leaving space for the audience to become involved in the works’ production of meaning.
This issue of the adoption of meaning becomes even more complex when the artist produces a work such as Hot Blood…, which is focused on something as symbolically laden as a horse.
If we follow the artist’s lead and view the work as lacking a core meaning, does the work become akin to evocative imagery, such as that used in advertising? Neither too specific, nor too vague, it serves to support a feeling about a “product” while leaving the interpretation open. The product becomes non-specific in this way, leaving room for desire to fill in the gaps.
The horse becomes a signifier of a feeling. The artist has already begun this process by naming the pieces Hot Blood/Warm Blood/Cold Blood. These titles encourage a metaphorical reading, where blood takes on its archaic associations as one of the body’s elemental humours in medieval physiology. As medical science has changed the way we look at the body, these named essences have become subjectivities. So Cheng Ran’s horses are presented as taking on these characteristics, of hot-, warm- and cold-bloodedness. It then becomes all but impossible to view the individual videos without taking on the task of spotting these attributes in the images presented to us.
Cheng’s ambivalence towards the image comes through in the films. Progressing around the installation from left to right: Hot Blood focuses on a close up of a horse’s head and eye, interspersed with shots of a man with a bone—perhaps a horse’s skull—roughly bound to his head. He plays a double bass against a doorway with holes perforating its surface. Warm Blood is set in dark stable area under spotlights, beginning with a shot of an eagle standing on a support and pulling back to run along the hay-strewn floor. The sequence ends with a wide shot of the stable, with partitions on either side from which horses’ heads appear. A human figure in silhouette walks into shot and leads a horse out from one of the boxes. Finally, Cold Blood shows a group of horses and riders galloping across a river or beach, sending up sprays of water in their wake.
The films are all drastically slowed down at times, so that the movements become somewhat mesmerising in the concentration on their progression. They all end with a common sequence, of multiple, overlapping shots of the horses on the water in muted colours. In this final scene a horse falls and throws its rider.
The deceleration of the film, the certain strangeness in the cropping technique used, and (I must agree with the press release here) some abrupt editing, all add a level of hyper-reality to the subjects, turning them into heroicised versions of the real. But the horse’s final collapse ultimately adds pathos to this reading.
What can we say about the image of the horse, then? One thing that seems certain is that the horses in these videos are the products of domestication. In most cases the horse is shown with a rider or in the stable, all signs of its societal meaning as an animal with a use to humans.
As with all Cheng Ran’s works, sound or its absence is also an important element. Here, the major sound is the blurred drone from the double bass in the Hot Blood segment, adding to the gravitas of the installation’s overall effect.
By holding the meaning perpetually out of reach, I am left to feel this loss all the more and am firmly gripped by the struggle to strive for meaning. For me, this process makes the works somewhat magical in their disconnection with any fixed meaning. However, in our conversation, Cheng also stressed that: “… even though these are images, I don’t want them to become surreal or ‘image-like’…” This places the viewer in the uncomfortable position of trying to negotiate the mixed messages coming across in the work.
The artist’s ambivalence and its results on film upset our habitual approach to the works, to “read” them in one way or another. The arrangement of the three screens in Hot Blood… can be seen as a minimal approach to placing images into the world and into the world of symbols. The effect is then a powerfully evocative environment that creates muted spectacle without forcing a meaning on the viewer.
~ Edward Sanderson, a writer living in China.
(Images: Cheng Ran, "Hot Blood, Warm Blood, Cold Blood" 2011, edition of 6, 3-channel HD video, color / sound, 8'08'', loop; Courtesy of the artist and GALERIE URS MEILE BEIJING)