Clipper Ships and their Stowaways

—Chen Hangfeng Explores Five Centuries of Cultural Exchange, Imperialism, Globalization and Hegemonic Notions of Time


By Rebecca Catching


Throughout the course of his inquisitive and provocative practice, Chen Hangfeng has seldom been distracted from his focus on capital, globalization, imperialism and the oft unintended consequences of our cultural interactions. This fascination plays itself out in earlier works such as “You Can Get Them,”—an exploration of China’s manufacturing prowess using the symbol of the Chinese deity Guanyin and “The Real Journey”, which offers a farcical look at the deification and global influence of Santa Claus. In his video “Scattered Scenes Along Mei Creek”, Chen takes us deep into “Santa’s workshops” (the cottage industry of Christmas products in Zhejiang) placing the production of Christmas ornaments in contrast to the region’s rich literati tradition. This contrast between traditional culture and globalization is echoed in his two series—“Winds from the West” and “Constructed Shadows”—which feature traditional Chinese paintings made of strips of plastic, an eerie metaphor for the garbage-strewn landscape of the Chinese countryside.


“Excited With No Reason” the title of his latest video work and exhibition, speaks very much to the themes of his practice, but at the same time, it goes further in its exploration of the modernist concept of time—bolstered by its henchmen of capital and scientific rationalism—which promise a harmonious trajectory from chaos to utopia.


The video opens with the words “Excited With No Reason”, which jitter across the screen as if suffering from some kind of neurodegenerative disorder. This hand-held technique becomes an important part of Chen’s visual language—a metaphor for both the hyper-agitated state of our information-saturated era, the current entrepreneurial climate of Shanghai and the general overall instability of the scientific rationalist project. Says Chen:


“In Shanghai now, I feel there is this vibe, that everyone is excited. There is this hype. Nobody knows where it comes from. . . but then there are weird things happening all the time.”


The film begins with the flickering of light and the scratched patina of an 16mm film. Against this backdrop, a series of brand logos—Nike and Motorola—morph into non-corporate icons of power such as crowns and crosses, flowing in a constant liquid stream. Chen concludes this montage with a quote from American philosopher Alan Watts:

 “We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.”

Chen, who has worked as a graphic designer for a number of advertising firms, understands the seductive power of the logo and its ability to confer certain attributes or qualities onto inanimate objects. Following this scene, we see Cultural Revolution footage of young comrades cheering; and pointing to the interesting parallel between the Communist’s disapproval of material pursuits, (promoting instead a culture of self-sacrifice) and Buddhist ascetic traditions and rejections of materialism and desire.


Though Chen has taken an interest in Buddhism for many years, he was interested by Watt’s interpretations of Buddhist doctrine. And interestingly, Watts himself, very much symbolizes this process of cultural wandering, digestion, and re-interpretation. His book Way of Zen was one of the first books on Buddhism to become popular in America and its influence was felt in the writings of the Beat Generation and also the contemporary self-help movement.


As a part-time resident of Amsterdam and an artist from Shanghai, who has always straddled the boundary between China and the rest of the world, Chen has a profound and personal understanding of cultural exchange. He is, for instance, aware of the exchange of technique and aesthetics which produced Chinoiserie porcelain and Delftware. In one scene we see Chinese porcelain tea pots fidgeting in an almost antsy fashion, against the background of a 19th Century Swiss etching, while other scenes feature images of barques, brigantines or clippers—the giant sailing vessels which facilitated “archaic” and “early modern” phases of globalization in the Age of Discovery. His series of paper-cuts, “Nightmare of the VOC” feature images of multi-mast sailing ships and Amsterdam canal houses with Chinese mitten crabs dancing over the bows and roofs.[1] These “invasive species” were brought on ships as stowaways, or sometimes intentionally through the work of botanists and orchid hunters—plants and animals were also part of the project of cultural exchange and imperialism which characterized the activities of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) and its British counterpart.


Sometimes however the “invasives” were not species but practices and ideas, says Chen:


“They bought spices, porcelain, silk and tea, but the interesting thing is that when the silk and tea went back to Europe, people had to adapt to these products. When you wear silk, you have to move in a different way, to be careful, also porcelain is so delicate, so you have to be careful how you hold it.”


Regular shipments of tea did not occur in England until 1610, when high-end coffee houses began to introduce the drink to their wealthy customers. At the time, many were concerned that tea might produce a huge array of social ills; theologian John Wesley proclaimed that it caused paralytic disorders, proclaiming that “it gives rise to numberless disorders, particularly those of the nervous kind and that if frequently used by those with weak nerves, it is no other than a slow Poison.”[2]


These were rich words given that in order to have something to trade with the Chinese, the British foisted their own slow poison—opium—upon a nation which though sophisticated, did not have the military might to fend off the naval fleet of the East India Company. Chen wanted to draw out this point through a scene featuring a bird painted by Zhao Ji, (emperor Huizong), hopping amongst a European painting of battle ships. “I want to look at how this Era of Maritime exploration started,” says Chen, “It’s an act of taking over other people’s culture. The Song Dynasty achieved a high degree of civilization and this bird is delicate and peaceful, hopping around over these machines of war.”


Zhao Ji, though he produced and collected a great number of paintings and invented a style of calligraphy, was quite inept at military and political affairs and ended up dying in prison at the hands of the Jurchen rulers. And though China is still known today for military strategists such as the world-famous Sunzi, and Zhuge Liang and Guan Yu, it wasn't enough to keep these particular barbarians from the gates. The reflects this cold war between Chinese traditions, aesthetics and modern consumer culture with cut-out images of cars, laptops and other luxury goods, which shimmy across backgrounds of qinglu shanshuihua (blue-green landscape paintings) or photographs of Chinese temples from the late Qing Dynasty by photographer John Thomson. We see images of a tree in traditional Chinese style (taken from Chen’s “Growing” series) painted on the window of a moving high speed train and other modern/ancient mashups such as those featuring an image of Zhuge Liang looking at a busy intersection with an expression of disapproval. In other scenes, an image of Guan Yu looks furiously at crowds streaming past lightbox advertising in the subway, while the female warrior, Ge Nenniang, ridesideides her horse in the opposite direction of the train.

Trailer of Chen Hangfeng's newest film, premiered at SinArts Gallery - Excited with No Reason


Throughout the video there is a certain rhythm of forward movement—a pearl polishing machine, turning around like a wheel, footage of the highway zipping along, or scenes from various train windows, which convey notions of moving forward . . . of progress. But these different modes of transportation—horse, boat, rail and car, each with their own strategic military and logistical advantages—speak not only to the theme of globalization but of the western-biased notions regarding the linearity of time.


In their book Tracks to Modernity, Matthew Beaumont and Michael J. Freeman write that Eric Hobsbawm once referred to the builders of the railroad as the “shock troops of modernity”. Quoting H.G. Wells, author of the The Time Machine, Beaumont and Freeman examine the totalizing and absolutist approach to modernity exemplified by motorized travel:


‘before every engine [. . .] trots the ghost of a superseded horse [which] refuses most resolutely to trot faster than five miles and hour, and shies and threatens catastrophe at every point and curve’—a ghost haunts the machine.


Horse travel was certainly unpredictable as the animals had a tendency to bolt, but the authors assert that “despite the mechanical precision of the train, it remains susceptible to the irrational rhythms of pre-modernity.”[3]


The linear concept of time is linked to Judeo-Christian tradition, writes Anna Greenspan in her book Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade. She explains that Zoroaster (Zarathustra), the Persian philosopher and spiritual leader, “introduced the conception of ‘time advancing towards a single, final consummation through incessant conflict, towards a conflict-less state.”[4] Prior to Zoroaster the concept of time was seen as a never-ending struggle between chaos and order, but after this, time became like a smooth train voyage from one place to another, a straight line without incident, as Greenspan writes, “The Future became synonymous with a point waiting for us on the road up ahead.”


The modernity put forth in Chen’s video contains no such neatness, no clearly visible destinations. It jumps between various periods of visual languages and re-introduces historical figures as commentators. Says Chen, “The way I use these two characters [Zhuge Liang and Guan Yu] is that I try to enter the mindset of the Chinese sages and how they might look upon the world today.”


Chinese notions of time are distinctly different from those put forth by Zoroaster, argues scholar Mengyu Li. For instance, Confucianism embraces the concept of past-time, which is referring to and paying homage to the practices of the ancients. It’s premise is that that new ideas are not created out of personal genius, but merely transmitted. We see these notions of past-time, with Chen’s introductions of the sages, a willingness to look back and wonder, without the egotism inherent in modernist notions of time. This mixing of temporal symbols also serves to highlight the subjectivity of time.5


In fact, China’s experience of modernity and time was not at all linear. Greenspan describes Shanghai as being a crucial site of global modernity in the 1930s with gas lights, trams and running water all before 1901. Shanghai also possessed a cosmopolitan population (Russians, Jews, Japanese, Americans and other Europeans), Art Deco architecture and a vibrant jazz scene.[5] China then experienced decades of chaos with the Sino-Japanese War, then was plunged into an era which promised utopia but which brought meager improvements in living standards, meanwhile the Asian tigers leapt into prosperity. In the 90s, when Chen was a young man, China was still emerging from a mode of scarcity and ration tickets; author Lynn Pan writes that the Shanghai, in the 80s and 90s had changed only “at the hands of dereliction and decay,”[6]. Now, three decades later, China is not only nipping at the heels of the West, but in many cases surpassing the west in its creation of and adoption of technology. It is, as Alan Watt’s says “entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future.”


Chen Hangfeng’s “Excited for No Reason” encapsulates these contradictions. Time, in Chen’s work is no more stable than a tea-cup perched atop fault line. “When I read the history of Amsterdam and the VOC Dutch east India Company . . . there is a lot of historical randomness,” says Chen, “History is random, in a way that maybe a little mistake or perhaps a stroke of good luck, turns history in a completely different direction.”


Rebecca Catching is an independent curator and consultant based in Toronto with 16 years of experience living and working in Shanghai as a curator, editor, translator and gallery director. Her research interests include posthumanism East Asian new media art practice and the confluence of Chinese philosophical traditions and contemporary Chinese art. 



[1] This is a nod to his earlier series “Invasive Species” which examined the invasion of rural practices of guerilla gardening in the urban environment.

[2] John Wesley, “A Letter to a Friend Concerning Tea”, A Macintosh: London, 1748.

[3] Mathew Beaumont, Michael J. Freeman, The Railway and Modernity: Time, Space, and the Machine Ensemble, (Peter Lang: Bern 2007) pp. 14-15

[4] Anna Greenspan, Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade, Oxford University Press: New York, 2014, p xvi

5 Mengyu Li, "The Unique Values of Chinese Traditional Cultural Time Orientation: In Comparison with Western Cultural Time Orientation," Intercultural Communication Studies XVII: 1 2008, p.65

[5] Anna Greenspan, Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade, Oxford University Press: New York, 2014, p xxii

[6] Anna Greenspan, Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade, Oxford University Press: New York, 2014, p xxiii