Zhao Liang

Sounds of argument pervaded the exhibition “In an Instant: Moving Images and Photography by Zhao Liang,” enticing viewers to part the red velvet curtain surrounding the video installation Interrogation Under Duress, 2004. Behind the curtain, three video screens set in a circle at eye level showed looped footage of three separate Chinese police interrogations. The camera observes the downcast faces, defensive postures, shifting feet, and worn shoes of each suspect with slow pans or stationary frames. Officers interject with their hands, the edges of their shoulders, and their voices, striking, shoving, swearing, accusing. Inside this enclosure of violence and power, one could feel simultaneously sympathy for and authority over the accused.

This sense of complicit viewership was even more pronounced in the video wall projection Crowd, 1999–2007, this time showing three adjacently displayed crowds: at Tiananmen Square, at a Beijing bus stop, and again at Tiananmen Square. Public respect for an underlying sense of order is implicit in the calmly seated, aligned, and expectant onlookers, both in the politically active space of the square, presided over by army officers, and in the cold night air of the bus stop, governed by its timetables.

Zhao’s social observations continue in the dual-screen video installation Heavy Sleepers, 2006, where a slow ground shot runs along the floor of a dormitory for itinerant workers. Daylight illuminates an interior full of pallets occupied by bodies sleeping side by side. As the camera pans, the viewer is drawn to the possessions beside each pallet space—a steaming mug of hot water at the foot of one man, a small television set being embraced in sleep by another. Such laborers have made possible the fast-paced construction of China, particularly pre-Olympic Beijing, where this video was shot, and as the camera passes by empty pallets the viewer cannot help but be reminded that come August these laborers will be out of sight and out of mind.

“Water Series,” 2004–2008, and “Beijing Green Series,” 2004–2007, consist of ink-jet prints on rice paper mounted on hanging scrolls. Here, Zhao turns toward a more common juxtaposition of the contemporary and traditional, mounting still images of mechanized faux-landscapes and inky polluted waterways in the format of Chinese ink-and-paper painting. Were the compositions not so well controlled, these didactic allusions to the format and subjects of classical Chinese painting would appear commonplace. But the images’ quiet and minimal content highlights with precision the conflicting ideals of modernization and historical pride in today’s China.

It would be easy to place Zhao’s photography and video works into rote dichotomies of traditional versus modern, natural versus urban, state versus individual—and certainly these tensions are present. But more startling is the sense of complacency that he reveals in the contrast between politically charged subjects and the aestheticized quietude with which they are represented, showing us the manner in which issues from social passivity to environmental pollution can be politely observed and accepted without comment, seemingly indefinitely.

Michael Hatch