Zhou Tao, North of the Mountains, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 89 minutes.

Zhou Tao, North of the Mountains, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 89 minutes.

Zhou Tao

In the beginning, there is the body. When we first become aware of it, as infants, it is our everything; then it becomes what allows us, through play, to discover our connection to everything else. So much of Zhou Tao’s early work is body oriented, as this survey exhibition reveals. In Mutual Exercise, 2009—essentially the video documentation of a performance that took place throughout the streets of Guangzhou—two young men carry each other around, taking turns playacting as either passive object or active subject. They lift each other’s bodies and arrange them in absurd positions and situations as people pass by, oblivious of the spectacle. Like the seemingly senseless games of children learning to relate, these playful positionings are acts of pure doing. Become like a child. Place yourself in a city, in a scene, see what happens when you do something in it, to it. Create a world without masters, a world that is impossible to master. The poet William Bronk knew something about this: “How one comes / to despise all worldliness! World, world! / We cling like animal young to the flanks of the world / to show our belonging; but to be at ease here / in mastery, were to make too light of the world / as if it were less than it is: the unmasterable.”

In Tide, 2008, Zhou plays a more serious game, embedding himself in a concrete military hut in the South China Sea just off the mainland—the same shore whence many in the middle of the past century attempted to swim to Hong Kong. Some drowned; others made it. Here, Zhou sits and waits for the tide to come in. It goes in, then out, his body immersed up to the neck, until the water recedes again. Ebb and flow, come and go. People start off as children, then lose their innocence, or don’t, retreating to a place where they might come to rediscover it. Some cycles are constant; others recur lightly.

Then there’s the landscape. Fán Dòng (The Worldly Cave), 2017, was filmed in many locations—the Americas, Europe, Asia—to generate a nonplace (which is also an everyplace): Cave, as in the place where our early selves first dwelled, an inside-outside that protects and governs, where birth is given, where fossils are formed. Light and landscape co-conspire here. Zhou deployed photosensitive sensors to intensify the varied topographies surveyed, many of them bearing traces of human civilization, such as abandoned machinery, so that when illuminated they often appear as some sort of alien skin. More recently, Zhou spent nearly two years in an eco-industrial park at the foot of the Kunlun Mountains. The result was two feature-length films, North of the Mountains and South of the Mountains, both 2019. In a way, they call to mind the landscape cinema of James Benning. In Zhou’s case, there is more of an assertion of bodily presence in these landscapes—humans and/or animals nearly perpetually on view—which, then, would return us to the earlier work.

The two, landscape and body, are not mutually exclusive. Not in every tradition, at least. In Chinese literati landscape painting, for instance, there is nearly always a figure somewhere in the plane. Usually minuscule, so as to show how dwarfed by nature we all ultimately are. There is no way to become unattached. We all eat off the land, in our species-ish ways. A cow licks itself in front of a disused washing machine. Lean into the landscape, let it wake you. Let it extend your arms, your presence. Let yourself learn. You cannot live without it.