Zhou Xiaohu

BizArt Art Center

In October 2008, Sudanese rebels kidnapped nine Chinese oil workers in southern Sudan, in response to what they saw as China’s indiscriminate support of the country’s government. Ten days afterward, according to news reports, four of these workers were killed during an escape attempt; another three were rescued; and one fled successfully. Almost exactly one year later, while the People’s Republic of China celebrated its sixtieth anniversary with a spectacular, made-for-television display of its military bravado, the last kidnapped worker still remains unaccounted for. Zhou Xiaohu, employing a strategy that draws on China’s media-amplified nationalism, its continually convoluted sense of international diplomacy, and its online-gaming infatuation, imagines a heroic sequel to the Sudanese incident in his latest interactive installation, Military Exercises Camp—Rescue Plan 10, 18, 2009.

Zhou is acutely aware not only of China’s emergence as a force in international military affairs, but also, more important, of the international media’s role in contributing to a sense of global instability. Since his debut in 2000 with a series of sardonic Claymation videos, Zhou has often employed current affairs as ready-made artistic subjects. In his latest installation work, an animated case study of the Sudan incident was underscored by what Jean Baudrillard once called “a masquerade of information.” Playing to the idea of news reportage as an entertainment-industry-created spectacle, the artist expanded this unsolved incident into a three-dimensional video game.

In Military Exercises Camp, the traditional, multilevel structure of a computer game is translated into a nine-foot-high maze of hay bales. Viewers enter the labyrinth to discover themselves involved in a live-action rescue mission. The tight corridors are interspersed with barracks, discarded uniforms, images of Sudanese landscapes, video monitors, and a dozen cell phones. A breach in the maze reveals the work’s centerpiece: a large, circular video projection on the wall, which simulates a live feed of the last Chinese prisoner’s rescue attempt. Acting out the chaos of this mission are eight African and ten Chinese actors, who form a cast of rebels, liberation forces, and itinerant journalists. In the video, Chinese troops leap over walls, rebels disperse, and bullet-dodging photojournalists shoot freeze-frame documentation of the event’s critical moments. The cell phones scattered throughout the maze are coordinated with the video and allow viewers to receive calls from both rebels and journalists, making them complicit in the action at hand. Rebels make ransom demands directly to the audience, while journalists, entrenched in crossfire, relay the growing intensity of the affair as it happens (in either Chinese or English, depending on which button you press).

The possible outcomes of this real-life international incident aren’t the point of Zhou’s ambitious undertaking. Salvaging an otherwise nearly forgotten news moment, Zhou hyperbolically collapses the divide between the media’s machinations and the consumer’s sense of detachment.

Mathieu Borysevicz