7 February – 8 April 2018
White Cube Bermondsey
White Cube presented an exhibition by He Xiangyu at Bermondsey. This exhibition, his second with the gallery, included the feature length film titled The Swim, produced in 2017, as well as new installation, sculpture and video. He’s new works develop out of the themes and experience of making The Swim and foreground the poetics and sensorial energy of material and the role of the hand in our physical relationship to landscape, history and the objects that surround us.
He shot The Swim in his hometown of Kuandian, which is located next to the Yalu River that demarcates the border between China and North Korea. Making several visits over the course of a year, the artist attempted to capture what had now become for him the ‘strange reality’ of his childhood home. Opening with lyrical sequences of the area’s beautiful landscape, the film presents interviews with several Kuandian residents including Chinese veterans who fought in the Korean War and North Korean defectors who live there illegally. Each with a unique story to tell, they reveal their daily struggle for survival and identity, tragic past experiences and their expectations for the future. Collectively they touch on the historical events that occurred in China and North Korea during the 20th century, including the Land Reform, the Civil War, the Korean War and the North Korean famine. The film ends with a highly symbolic journey in which the artist attempts to swim across the Yalu River to North Korea, in order to better understand his protagonists’ lives as well as the ‘cruelty’ embedded within this bucolic landscape.
On entering the exhibition, viewers were presented with a video work which came out of the feature film and focuses on the swim itself. Projected in cinema scale directly on the wall it traces He’s struggle to reach North Korea, having initially been sent back by armed soldiers, successfully landing at Kurido Island on his second attempt.
The themes of resistance and survival continue in a new series of delicate sculptures made from over 248 pieces of scrap copper wire, fragments of patinated tubing and pieces of ironmongery, all obtained on a black market He discovered during filming. Used for barter, these hand-formed objects are originally scavenged from machinery and buildings in North Korea, then sold on to Chinese traders for small amounts of cash or goods. Tightly woven into balls or flattened into loops so that they could be smuggled across the border, they are displayed like a collection of relics or archaeological finds, hung at eye level on nails around the gallery with their weight, and hence material value, written in pencil directly underneath them on the wall. Born of economic necessity, these unique objects trace both a particular history and bear the imprint of the human hand. Placed on the gallery floor beneath them are several ‘copies’ which are He’s own attempt to recreate their complex and compressed sculptural forms.
He documents the process of making these copies in a video, where we see his hands, shot from above, working hard to bend, form and configure each metal fragment. Similar to The Swim, where the artist engages in a specific action to highlight wider political issues, here the self-imposed task of making copies seems both symbolic and futile. Moreover, similar to He’s earlier, expansive works such as the Palate Project (2013) or the Cola Project (2009-2012), both sculpture and film attempt to show how the transformation of material and the role of the hand in material fabrication and exchange can evoke a physiological response in the viewer. Exposing our relationship to materials in terms of assigning both monetary and physical value, He has said, ‘I’m seeking to adjust and influence people’s perception through material changes in the object.’
The Swim (2017) was screened twice daily in the Auditorium, Tuesdays - Saturdays at 11am and 3pm and once on Sundays at 3pm.