“Heavy Sleepers” – the China you don’t see

“Heavy Sleepers” by Zhao Liang, now on display at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. (Images courtesy WAC)

There’s a danger that you suck the life out of a video installation by describing it. With that caveat let me suggest that a few minutes spent with Zhao Liang’s “Heavy Sleepers” which opens this evening at the Walker Art Center is time well spent.

Zhao is a Beijing-based artist who captures on video the parts of China people in the West rarely if ever get to see, even by travelling to China.

“Heavy Sleepers” is a two-channel video installation, displayed along opposite walls in one of the Walker galleries. They are long tracking shots taken inside a workers dormitory.

One channel (immediately above) shows the dorm filled with sleeping workers. They lie side-by-side sleeping fully clothed among the detritus of their everyday existance. These are workers brought in to help with Beijing’s building boom. Hard hats, eating utensils, and water bottles lie strewn about the rough wooden pallets where the exhausted men slump against dirty cushions. Are they heavy with sleep or heavy with responsibility?

The other (top of the post) shows the same dorm, now empty of sleepers, although many of the same utensils and bottles sit in the same place. The workers are gone, but it’s not clear if it is just to work, or whether they have gone forever. Apparently these construction workers cannot get permits to live in the already crowded metropolis.

The piece is disorienting, not least because the images on walls keep tracking together so you feel you are moving, even if you are standing quite still. This cognitive dissonance is heightened by the apparent disappearance of the people. There is also the sense you are trespassing on these sleepers, who are unaware of the eyes upon them. Yet for all this it is hard to stop watching, at least for a while as the panorama moves on by.

Another of Zhao’s works “Narrative Landscape,” (left) is displayed on a flat-screen TV in an adjoining gallery.

It is footage shot of the Great Wall of China, in the spots where the tourists don’t get to go. These are parts where time and the elements have cracked and bowed the walls, sometimes spilling bricks across the grass much like the personal items in the workers dorm. As the video progresses the snow begins to fall, and the stark bulk of the wall blends into the scenery. Sometimes it seems almost organic, like a vine or a skeleton stretched across the ground. Sometimes, as in the picture at left, you have to really stare to pick out the wall at all.

It’s a meditation on the huge task of building the Great Wall, which took countless workers, the predecessors of the heavy sleepers, centuries to complete. Huge effort went into maintainance too, but clearly, even as the snow swirls around and coats the rubble, that work has been abandoned.

Walker Film and Video Curator Sheryl Mousley first met Zhao Liang a few years ago when she visited China. She says his documentary work then was much more “MTV-like,” cutting quickly between the images. Now his work has taken on the more contemplative aspect displayed in these two pieces.

Mousley has invited Zhao to visit the Walker in the news year, and he will present two of his films.

“Petition-The Court of the Complainants” premiered at Cannes this year, and follows some of the people who come from all over China to Beijing to lodge complaints about the local authorities where they live. The process can take months, and they complainants live in make-shift shelters as they wait, facing intimidation from the people about who they are complaining.

“Crime and Punishment” is Zhao’s film about the guards working the border between China and North Korea, a place swarming with people, some looking for help, and some a quick profit. The films will screen on the weekend of January 29th.

Zhao will do a gallery talk about “Heavy Sleepers” on January 30th.

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