2017. 7. 17
The identical twin sisters who make up the artist-duo Mountain River Jump! debuted in New York City. Their solo show “Reality Check 鬥法” transformed a Chinatown basement into a ritual space, where they played the roles of astrologer and shaman. Amid the installations of personalized tarot cards, a ceremonial fire GIF, and a video of star charts at Monroe Street’s art lab Sleepcenter, I met up with Guangzhou-based Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) and Huang He (Yellow River), whose names uncannily allude to the grandeur of the Chinese nation. The artists offered a birth chart reading, and I had the chance to ask them about the trajectory of their practices.
In this interview with ArtAsiaPacific, Mountain River Jump! discuss how their common interests and unique knowledge system prompted them to form an artist duo, how they connect the culture of divination with collective psychology, politics and visual culture, how ancient methods of image making and ritual practice have influenced their understanding of art, and finally, what they struggle with in their material and spiritual lives as young professionals in China.
Your works in this show tell me that each of you has a distinctive path shaped by different conceptual questions and practical approaches. Before 2016, you mostly worked separately and only collaborated a few times. What prompted the decision to officially form an artist duo?
River: Mountain River Jump! started in January 2016 at Guangzhou’s 5art Space. Our shared interests—spirituality, divination and the supernatural—are outside of the dominant culture, and uncommon in contemporary art practices. The duo creates a zone for us to explore questions that I previously considered inappropriate to discuss in my work because they are personal and sometimes bizarre. Our current direction with this platform is cultural psychology and collective unconscious.
Which of your earlier ideas have continued to draw your attention?
River: My works focus on the gradual evolution from my personal psychology to collective psychology. I made drawings about collective memory—Point at. . . (2016), for example, depicts the situation in which several people point at one individual, calling him a dog, and he somehow becomes a dog. I’m influenced by Carl Jung’s idea of collective unconscious, and believe that this is what the so-called “subcultural” phenomenon of divination is fundamentally about. Although we observe the common need for divination—astrology as the most popular form—it is still a hidden stream of thoughts running underneath the intellectual discourse.
I think Roland Barthes is quite right to criticize the way astrology has become “the literature of the petit bourgeois world,” but I still want to explore the connection between Wu Xing (Five Elements) and contemporary politics. Focusing on “the Star Chart” – Cultural Psychoanalysis (2017), the video installation in the show, demonstrates my theory that the star arrangement on the Chinese national flag relates to the feudal idea of the divine right of kings.
Mountain: I work with ancient imageries. Modeled after pre-modern divination cards, Chinese Immortal Cards of the 21st Century (2016–17) associates the professions of ancient immortals with contemporary occupations, indicating that a certain professional identity corresponds to a specific worldview or personality.
Unlike the images surrounding us nowadays that function primarily as decoration, ancient ones embody sacred beliefs and manifest the people’s attachment to the spiritual realm—as seen in archeological sites from Mawangdui to the Shang tomb of Fu Hao. Previously, I’ve made GIF amulets, downloadable from computers and cellphones, to respond to contemporary fears and needs, such as the fear of random computer crashes, and demands on the progress of the feminist movement. Behind the GIF amulet is shamanic thinking, a suggested positive approach to conceptualize one’s desires and requests. Ancient paintings with spiritual functions were sometimes painted by shamans. Thus, our methodology may bring us closer to the original purpose of art-making.
Divining the future using Chinese Immortal Cards of 21st Century and other sets of animal cards is not your first time fusing artistic gesture with spiritual practice. In the light of your collaboration with Cao Fei in A Three Day Treatment: Feng Shui Cleansing (2011), how have you evolved since?
Mountain: I find the 30-minute cleansing ritual quite naïve now. We gathered objects with cleansing functions, such as spice, mineral salt and water, and placed them within the space according to the five elements. The audience watched attentively and followed us while we were moving around.
River: Similar to the performance, which is a personalized ritual based on the classic model, our current approach to divination cards have predecessors in the ancient times. The texts and images on these cards function as oracles, the subject of which is specific to a cultural episode—for instance, the Oracle of Kuan Yin (also called lottery poetry) often quotes plots from popular novels, such as the classics Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber. Ancient intellectuals, who share the same beliefs with the commoners, sometimes invent a set of lottery poetry for the enjoyment of literary elegance. We originally wanted to investigate the cultural history of language through Cards of Chinese Animal Idioms: Legends in Human World (2017), but ended up using it in divination in order to have some kind of interaction with our audience.
In conjunction with this exhibition, you led a small cultural anthropology field investigation group to visit and pray at a dozen temples in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The locality and itinerary of this exhibition and its programs contribute to the integration of the artistic practice into the larger social realm. Can you tell us more?
River: Rui Lin, the curator, designed the course of this investigation. I find that co-existing temples of different styles and distinctive characters testify to the complexity of communities in Chinatown. We know that the temple previously on the ground floor of Sleepcenter preserves the original images and statues from one of the three boats that came from a temple in Fuzhou; the other two boats sank. People constructed these sites out of the desire for security and cultural identity, and they manage to maintain prosperous fronts for these temples despite the heavy history of immigration. The story is quite touching.
What are the challenges of creating works that treat spirituality as the primary subject in China? Who are the artists that inspired you? Do you think the so-called “religious revival” in China will benefit your practice?
Mountain: There are many challenges. Despite our persistent efforts in presenting our work as a specimen of comparative cultural studies, our audience insists that it is only about fortune telling. And we began to understand the severity of cultural discontinuity in China—most people don’t know the ancient immortals’ names, let alone their professions. I find Lu Yang’s audacious use of images encouraging. She is also a follower of Tibetan Buddhism.
River: The religious revival in China is a managed and controlled revival, which provides little room for new discoveries. It is more about tourism and psychological comfort. I’m inspired by Yin-Ju Chen, an artist from Taiwan, and Chinese artist Zheng Guogu.
Are there any new exhibitions or projects coming up? Can you give us a preview of something that you’re working on now?
Mountain: Recently, I showed Inanimate Sattva (2017) at Canton Gallery. This work incorporates stickers of animated characters that I put a lot of effort into making when I was a video game designer. Inspired by the idea of animism, I wanted to develop a dialogue between animate and inanimate matter through these cartoon characters endowed with my life. The autobiographical video installation also reflects the harsh living conditions of young professionals in China.
River: Contrary to the usual portrayal of the youth as consumers, Mountain presents them as producers. I’m researching the connection between the myth of the dragon and a sea creature.