It is no easy feat to portray ambiguity with clarity. And yet that is precisely what debut director Mika Mattila has done. In his documentary, Chimeras, Mattila uses two artists — one on the verge of success, the other riding the wave of his established career — as vessels through which to explore questions of contemporary Chinese identity. A native of Finland who has spent most of his career as a cameraman, Mattila uses that positioning to his advantage here. Pulling double duty as cinematographer and director, his artful eye frames elegant mise-en-scènes while he patiently lets his subjects find the right words to explain their internal conflicts.
And those conflicts are grand: questions of purpose, legacy, and Chinese essentialism hound these artists. Wang Guangyi lived through China’s twentieth-century transformation, working hard labor as a young child in the northeastern capital city of Harbin. As a young adult in the mid-1980s, he found a collection of likeminded artists. They burst forth, eager to forge a contemporary Chinese art scene after so many years under Mao’s shroud. The movement, tinged with elements of the avant-garde, conceptualism, and pop art, was a great leap of their own making.
Today, with China’s burgeoning globalism and embrace of capitalism, Guangyi has done well for himself. But to what end? While an activist artist like Ai Weiwei pokes at the giant, daring it to fight back, Guangyi lounges in his airy home, his mouth lazily kissing a cigar.
It is precisely this image of success that interests Liu Gang, a young man fresh out of art school, on the cusp of being deemed art-world-worthy. His photos of aspirational ads, carefully placed wrinkles here and there, expose his own discomfort with the vacant desires that accompany China’s new affluence. You sense Gang, a lanky, taciturn twenty-something, struggling to assert his individualism. But external pressures weigh heavy on his slight shoulders. His girlfriend wants to get married. (Or rather, she wants to take beautiful wedding pictures, like the other happy young couples who dress to the nines and pose at the English-inspired Thames Town.) Gang is adrift, at once enamored by these superficial fantasies and unsettled by them.
For the most part, China’s human rights issues linger on the periphery. While visiting his parents in Guizhou Province, where they work at a school cafeteria, Gang floats the idea of exploring more controversial subjects, perhaps China’s one-child policy. But his parents don’t approve. They mention, briefly, that the government would censor that type of work. When Gang’s one-child project comes up during dinner with family and friends (all older), one says, “This is China’s internal matter, not something to show foreigners.” Yet they start talking about the policy, about inducing childbirth and throwing newborns away. One mentions rounding up women under the cover of darkness, bringing them to the “bureau” for “operation.” And then, just as quickly as it bubbled up, the conversation ends.
For a film wrestling with contemporary Chinese identity, perhaps it is strange that these human rights issues aren’t confronted more directly. Or perhaps this is how many Chinese experience them — perpetually but quietly.
Guangyi grew up during the party’s more imperious decades. But today, his political perspective is overshadowed by his desire to find a cultural strain that feels authentically Chinese. He is beset by his legacy, troubled by the role he played in the seeping in of Western culture. Sitting with a large group, drinking, smoking, discussing art and architecture, he admonishes a Beijing University professor for using Western references. People laugh nervously, but Guangyi fumes. Why must they always look to the West as a cultural touchstone, he wonders? What has happened to China’s long and rich history? Yet earlier in the film, his close friend Shu Qun has a retrospective in the Portofino Complex, an uncanny replica of its namesake Italian city. Guangyi and Qun discuss whether Qun will be invited to the Venice Biennale. The two mid-career artists joke a bit about their success hinging on the Biennale’s prestige. But they also concede that it is a “criterion.” Have they become apparatchiks of a different sort?
Over and over again, Mattila finds evocative juxtapositions to portray these paradoxes. His efforts are matched by Mikko Sippola’s skillful editing, which places the two artists in dialogue without feeling contrived. In one sequence, for example, Gang photographs a Cartier advertisement. Then, Guangyi’s painting, “Cartier NO,” appears on screen — the first of three pieces shown from his Great Criticism series. The montage ends with “Materialist’s Art,” the capitalized text emblazoned on a canvas of uniformed party members wielding guns and red books. Finally, that image cuts to an auction at Christie’s. “Material’s Art” is on the block. Starting bid: 1.5 million Hong Kong dollars.
Through these intimate portraits, Mattila tells the story of a country at odds with itself. Guangyi and Gang, two artists of different generations, circle each other, searching for something about themselves, about the way they live and the work they make, that they can touch and hold and say, “This is what it means to be Chinese.”
Chimeras is playing this weekend in NYC as part of the Margaret Mead Film Festival.