"Patty Chang: Shangri-La"
July 8 - September 10 2005
Patty Chang: Shangri-La is part of the Three M Project, a series by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the New Museum, New York to commission, organize, and co-present new works of art. Generous support for the series has been provided by the Peter Norton Family Foundation and the American Center Foundation.
Patty Chang: Shangri-La
James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon tells the story of an intrepid but alienated British diplomat, Hugh Conway, who, after a plane crash, finds himself stranded in the Tibetan lamasery of Shangri-La. Soon enough, though, Conway discovers the mysteries of this "heaven on earth," whose inhabitants are graced with extreme longevity. The monks, anticipating cataclysmic disaster in the outside world, plan to preserve knowledge and civilization for future generations within the confines of their peaceful land. Lost Horizon was a best seller and put Hilton's myth of a Shangri-La into wide circulation, followed in 1937 by the equally popular film adaptation by Frank Capra.
Sixty years later, in 1997, a rural Chinese town named Zhongdian, in Yunnan province near the Tibetan border, declared itself to be the place upon which Hilton's Shangri-La was modeled. This pronouncement was motivated by the hope of attracting tourists from the newly wealthy Chinese middle class; a dozen other towns in the region immediately followed suit in claiming the distinction, thereby precipitating a marketing battle that came to be known as the "Shangri-La war." The ensuing chaos eventually compelled the Chinese government to intervene and it ended the conflict by acknowledging Zhongdian as Shangri-La, thereby granting official recognition of the town as the "real" location of a completely fictional place.
This type of conflation of the real and the fictional has long fascinated Patty Chang, whose work often explores such juxtapositions. Chang decided to visit Shangri-La, to take a real journey to a mythical place, an experience that became the basis for her approximately 40 minute video installation Shangri-La (2005), shot on location. As in the original story, Chang's video begins with a flight that descends through clouds shrouding a spectacular mountain landscape. The scene continues with her meeting a group of monks in the mountains that turn out to be part of the atrium decoration of a tourist hotel. Within the first few moments of the video, the viewer is caught up in a rapid oscillation as fictional elements are supplanted by real-world footage of Zhongdian.
The video also includes a number of objects Chang created to help tell the story of this place - from models of an oxygen chamber used to treat altitude sickness, to a cake made at a local bakery decorated with images of a mountain and the chamber. The key component is a scale model of a mountain which acts as both a mirrored version of the mountains that surround Shangri-La and an homage to the holy peak of Hilton's mythic novel.
Chang's exploration of such a highly constructed, and indeed fictionalized, version of Chinese culture is evident in a number of earlier works. In Death of Game (2000), she took on the role of Bruce Lee, reenacting the iconic scene in the martial arts film Game of Death (1978) in which Lee fights with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Chang's version is a parody of an already super-fictionalized presentation of Chinese culture. In Contortion (2000-2001), she appears as a Chinese contortionist holding a visually convincing but physically impossible pose. The semi-fictional world of Shangri-La, similarly offers a perfect real-world counterpart to the variously constructed versions of Chinese culture and identity that Chang had already been making use of in her work.
Chang is perhaps best known for her performance work and for videos and photographs that derive from performances. In Shangri-La, the mirrors, which show mostly empty landscapes, are the successors to any number of mirrors or mirror-substitutes that in Chang's earlier work typically reflected the artist herself. She has described how over the last couple of years she has tried to shift the focus of her performances off her own physical self, turning it instead into what she refers to as "a catalyst for specific situations." This withdrawal is all the more striking considering that her position as protagonist in earlier works was often highly dramatic, consistently testing the limits of both herself and her audience. In Untitled (Eels) (2001), for example, Chang confronts the camera in obvious discomfort. Her shirt has damp spots and seems to be moving - the audience gradually realizes that the moisture and motion are produced by live eels placed down the front of her shirt.
In Shangri-La, Chang is perhaps the least visible she has ever been in her work, directing others in the construction of the work from behind the scenes. Apart from a brief scene of her "wedding," she appears only occasionally in the video. And in this wedding fantasy, she allows herself to be a kind of passive prop for the photographer, an experience she compares to the process of making photographs of her own earlier performances, since she is unable to see the results of the shoot until the performance is over. This visible surrender to the manipulations of another elucidates the broader theme of identity construction that runs throughout the entire video.
There is one sense, however, in which the artist is present in an almost hidden form. Early in Lost Horizon, when Conway and his companions who have survived the crash landing of their plane are lost in the mountains, the monk who will soon offer them sanctuary in Shangri-La approaches the party:
Conway bowed again, and after a suitable pause began to explain briefly the circumstances that had brought him and his three companions to such an unfrequented part of the world. At the end of the recital the Chinese made a gesture of understanding. "It is indeed remarkable," he said, and gazed reflectively at the damaged aeroplane. Then he added: "My name is Chang."
The monk Chang is self-effacing yet ever-present. He guides the visitors to the lamasery with an all but invisible hand. In Shangri-La, Patty Chang's role is seemingly behind the scenes but she is actually directing the action - something that has much in common with the unobtrusive yet crucially important Chang of the novel.
-Text by Russell Ferguson, Chief Curator at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Courtesy the Artist and New Museum