Saturday, May 09, 2015

Suspended animation

At the East-West Art conference in Beijing last month, a young professor from Beijing University called for the use of new media to help Chinese culture throw its weight around culturally. (He he moved beyond the usual complaint that China's cultural influence doesn't measure up to its economic to give specific examples of the disproportionate reach of other East Asian cultures: Chinese men are "entrapped" by the bimbos of Japanese animation, while Chinese women are entrapped by the unnaturally romantic and loyal heroes of Korean television series!) As examples of ways to make Chinese culture compelling to young Chinese people, and presumably non-Chinese, too, he mentioned something in Shanghai I'd meant to go see - and today went to see (in the China Art Museum 中华艺术宫). It's the giant computer-animated presentation of what is sometimes described as China's most famous painting, a Song-dynasty scroll called "Along the River during the Qingming Festival."The original depicts about eight hundred people of all walks of life and in this giant animation, created for the Shanghai EXPO, almost as many walk the streets, work, play, talk... The Beida presenter's slide, which made it look like a giant aquarium, in fact shows (in distorted colors) a further animation: over a four-minute loop the entire scene switches from day to night. A little corny? I wasn't sure what to expect
but found I really liked what I saw, and more the more time I spent there. The nocturnal scene feels a bit like a video game and the whole thing has replaced a kind of poised energeticness for something more like the gentle flowing of a brook (there's a computer-animated stream between viewers and the screens) and four minutes is just long enough to suggest stories without actually letting them unfold: these streets aren't crowded, pulsing with life but sleepy, like a town in the off hours.But, especially after going back to look at the facsimile of the original scroll in the entry hall and then returning to the animated one to check up on details, it was just more and more fun. From the original it's clear that the boat struggling to get under the bridge in the scroll's center is not going to make it, and in the animated version the frantic efforts of sailors are similarly fruitless. On the other hand successes accumulate: camel trains arrive with pleasing regularity, making their way through the city gate before fading tantalizingly into the city as night falls.After watching it through many cycles my friend and I decided we like the opening rural scene best, a simple country house in front of which the animator had imagined three young children playing. (At night they were gone, presumably fast asleep.) So beguiling was this image that I imagined someone becoming so enchanted by this spectacle with its sweet rhythms that he fled the clamor of the contemporary world to live there. Is this, I wonder, what the Beida person wanted? Entrapped! It may not be so far from the effect of much classical Chinese art...

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