Interviews with Artists

Shen Xin

Interview by Abi Mitchell

Published September 2017


The relationship of an event programmer and their incoming artist can become almost as bound together as that of close friends or partners, even if only for a very limited time, a constant transaction of conversation, support and questioning. After the event takes place and subsequent invoices have been processed and equipment returned, the conversation then runs cold, closed down. The short, intense process reaches its climax and the relationship formed is cut loose, soon to reattach to someone new; the next artist as planning begins anew.

The complexities of relationships and their subtle layers of meaning, emotion and charged politics are a thread tying together artist Shen Xin’s works. Working mainly in video Shen interrogates the power structures involved in many relationship scenarios whether that of families, whole communities or personal.

My own relationship with Shen began via email, a fervent few months spent screen based organising the event Forerunners, we would Skype, email, Whatsapp and eventually on the event day itself finally meeting in the physical realm. Since the event took place we have been in touch ad hoc, a screen intermediary prolonging a simple programmer/artist relationship, however the relationships present in Shen’s sharp and detailed film works often carry a sense of deeper and more intricate layers of power plays, uncertain feelings and charged language.

With Shen currently a part of the inaugural Baltic Artists Award at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead I took the opportunity to reconnect and begin a new conversation.


Forerunners, Chelsea Southern, courtesy CFCCA, 2016

We worked together recently on your performance event for Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art Forerunners, which was hosted at University of Salford in November 2016, the event explored inclusiveness and exclusiveness in the understandings of origin through a collaboration of art, science and performance. Forerunners was unusual in that it was presented almost as a test run; the audio recording and animations used again in another video following the exhibition.

The script for the performance centered on two characters who were caught in a tentative, tenuous relationship edging along between that of romantic simultaneously with that of mentor/student. The actors reading the script were activating facial mapping software which created an abstract moving image on an adjacent TV screen. This use of gesture, whether subtle or exaggerated, is seen in many of your video and event based works (Shoulders of Giants, Strongholds). Is gesture something integral to your work and practice?

I would think so. I practiced painting for a long time, and gesture is something I always think about in terms of its associations with images, particularly a kind of association that is not completely free, which constantly refers back to different points, creating a spatial consciousness. In the event we worked on together which produced "Forerunners", the three channel video installation, the animations animated by the actors' performance were based on mathematic diagrams of inclusiveness and exclusiveness. They were abstract circles that were assigned the roles of eye, nose, mouth, eyebrow, etc. while maintaining a certain integrity to the image that is gesturing back to the context, an invitation to read the context differently.

Forerunners also picked up on other coexisting themes within your works, including the play between personal and political, relationships and power, Strongholds focuses on a romantic couple, The Gay Critic examines the close friendships of working class men in China and the earlier Counting Blessings looks at you and your fathers relationship; both personal and professional as you are both practicing artists. Subjecting the construct of relationships to so much scrutiny are you interested in how these plays of power and interpersonal relations work or perhaps, are you exploring where and how to position yourself within these contexts? Or both, or none!

I am interested in a kind of commitment towards complexity that is uncompromising. This perhaps suggests that firstly the relationships within and between interpersonal complexity and political narratives require illustrations that do not create alternative power structures that abuse and oppress others. So it also suggests any outcome towards complicity, innocence or guilt is invalid, as the commitment is also towards a constant reflection that is not based on algorithms of flow. I think of this space where reflectiveness is constant as functional and participatory, it could create collective consciousness towards the urgencies we feel, which derives from emotions of fear, and having experienced been subjected to abuse, oppression, ridicule and other forms of power and violence. But these are ideals I currently subscribe to, the works do not only deal with these subjects, they are also exploring the cinematic space, the durational space and the language invested in them. It is a practice in itself, the whole process of making films, and that is where I'd like to focus more on these days, I'm inclined to look at the system of making works as well.

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary, Gateshead 2017. Photo: John McKenzie. Copyright BALTIC

One power structure that is omnipresent in the world is religion, a number of your video works take Buddhism as their narrative subject, including Forerunners and the preceding Strongholds, what draws you to interrogate Buddhism in particular?

I’m interested in Buddhism as a dot in the circulation, what lines are drawn from this dot and how are they distributed. I'm not a Buddhist, I'm much more interested in studying Taoism. But in general, I do not believe that any structural system is exempt from social constructs, so I'm particularly suspicious of this exemption, especially when it becomes apparent when religious practice that is fetishized migrates to the locations where it produces more fetish which harbors potential abuse - Buddhism in Europe.

Interesting how you mentioned that the potential abuse cause by fetishising certain powers, as we can also consider this the same for the developing technology, and the increasing human > new media interactive possibilities. This interaction is an element that has recently featured in your own work, including symposium Shoulders of Giants which used digital screen based avatars to speak on the behalf of panellists and the new Provocation of the Nightingale at Baltic; both works highlight the relationship between us and technology as it changes and develops, and also gestural language, the digitisation of human gesture. Is the use of technology something that intrigues, concerns, provokes reaction with you?

The kind of technology that I have been engaging with has certain similarities, which is their roles in consumer's market, their distribution and easy access. These are some clues that I'm still trying to figure out, and in the meantime being very wary towards the fetish that could be manifested by migrating the ontology of technology.


* Interview intermission – a flying visit to Newcastle/Gateshead to take in the Baltic Artists Award at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art the exhibition includes four artists and features a multi-screen and structural installation by Shen using four double-sided, free standing projection screens and sections of custom built theatre-style box seating facing the screens.

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary, Gateshead 2017. Photo: John McKenzie. Copyright BALTIC

“After seeing your work at the Baltic, I see how Forerunners has developed in to this work. I also have a better understanding of how the whole process of ‘making films’ is a practice in itself, the work includes so many filmic aspects, found footage reels, multiple projection screens, script narration, performative action, new technologies present through motion capture - it is very intensive!”

“Hi Abi, thanks for your kind words, here are some thoughts in regards to your questions. If I have more to say in time I will send you another follow up! Thanks.” *


Something immediately perceptible within the films was the simultaneous sense of action and absence; the sound of action yet the connecting image was not present, then when the action was present the sound was not, physically fighting characters leant against each other resting, the disembodied voice of the Youtuber describing their experiences but articulated through the diagrammatic moving rings of the motion capture, the empty theatre in which the performers act within. Is this some way to dismantle power structures within the narrative, within the performance?

I suppose the absence of the performance and of the youtube protagonists are different things. The absence of performance is an absence in a loop, a cut in a complete circle, where it perhaps creates space and raises questions at the same time of what happened, and what leads to the states of the performers' bodies on screen. The absence of the youtube protagonists are replaced with the impossibilities of representational agencies, that is fully aware of its own limitations. The limitation itself, being forms that haven't lived a life and are assigned characters of human facial expressions, as oppose to the other screens where living and lived forms are staged, this absence presents itself more likely to be a challenge of thinking in relation to DNA testing, its disparity and the scientific belief system that surrounds these protagonists from various backgrounds.

Speaking of limitations and being aware of our limitations, what is interesting as another element of the work was the impression of intimacy versus self-awareness; the levels of intimacy within the films was heightened, through the performers language and gestures, through the intricate script and the intended closely seated audience. It made me think of how we create our own masks of self which we wear for society, seeing the performers performing to no-one which then becomes this self-imposed act, as though we are all constructing our own audience. We touched on relationships before. Is intimacy, and spectatorship, another layer within the concepts you work within?

When you mention self-awareness and its relationship with intimacy, I would associate this with performativity and emotions. I suppose intimacy in the work is not isolated from performativity and emotions that sticks to other socio-political structures, or the practices of individuals outside of their encounters. I'm interested in this inclusive ways of sensing the event, its multiple layers' interactions illustrated in ways that open up more space that is generous and giving.

The work was very demanding; four screens, sectioned theatre seating for the audience who have to move between scenes, between screens, I wondered if this had a particular intention?

It made me think of life, how life was busy, chopping and changing, there may be an on-going narrative but it is cut up, interjected through many different channels and actions. Though this metaphor may just be my own invention!

The intention for constructing the screens and timing them is to have control over what's been seen at one time. I value the durational concentration and time exchange that happens between the screen and the viewer, therefore to prolong this experience and not interrupt it with having two many choices the screens are timed.

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary, Gateshead 2017. Photo: John McKenzie. Copyright BALTIC

On reading the last answer something struck me about the notion of control. Your work looks at power structures in some ways, challenging them, breaking them down, revealing them, deconstructing them, yet your work is also a power structure itself the logistical reasons for tight control are apparent in film making, the meticulous crafting of a script if the control of language and the resulting characters and then controlled, therein lies a natural rough edge, creating a tension in the works of conflicting agendas - I wondered if you had any thoughts on this?

I suppose you cannot get rid of power, as some aspects of having rights, claiming subjects, culture, experience can be empowering. Naturally it is a huge part of my practice in life and in work, how do I practice my power during personal encounters or within the gestures of making film. And I think you've picked up on something significant, about the edge and conflict, those two things are both motivations and the actual movements of figuring out how to not turn power into something abusive or could potentially be, and to be sensing out the existence of edges, boundaries, and personal preferences.

With the success of the Baltic Artists Prize underway what are your plans for afterwards?

I have made some conscious decisions to put aside or delay some exhibition related projects, instead I'd like to focus on researching, studying and preparing for a long term project that I'd like to work on for at least three years, hopefully. It has to do with the emotions, criticality, various geographical imaginations, and filmmaking, and the works will manifest a series of short films, sort of mimicking the structure of TV series, but exploring a different kind of logic that could be continuous.


Shen Xin was born in Chengdu, China and currently lives and works in London having graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2014. Recent events and exhibitions include a solo exhibition at Lychee One Gallery, London, 2017, an online commission and partner screening event for Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2016, and Bloomberg New Contemporaries, ICA, London, 2014.


If you like this why not read our interview with David Lisser


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