words Johanna Agerman
There are hardly any bicycles left in Beijing. Instead, the four-lane roads that cut through the fabric of the city are filled with shiny new automobiles. There are now over four million cars in the city and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for pedal pushers. As a result, Beijing has a complicated relationship to air. During the Olympics, many athletes tried not to stay in the city for too long for the fear of breathing in pollution. During the warmer months, the damp climate combined with the fumes from cars and coal-fired power plants creates a dense white fog cloaking the city in a lethal mystery.
It is interesting, then, that the Feelings Are Facts installation at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is dominated by smoke and not much else. It’s a gut-wrenching, thick smoke like the type you used to get in old-school discos, only this one is on a continuous spray so you can only take dainty little breaths unless you want to collapse in an eye-popping coughing attack.
The product of a collaboration between the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and Beijing-based architect Ma Yansong of MAD studio, Feelings Are Facts is a smoke chamber constructed within one of the UCCA galleries. It measures about 60m by 20m and has a gently sloping floor that gradually becomes steeper at one end. It is impossible to see this because all you can make out is smoke lit up by multi-coloured fluorescent lights (heightening the morbid disco experience) and occasionally the shadowy figures of fellow gallery-goers. The picture is an uneasy one, as smoke almost always means bad news – the gas chambers of the Holocaust, the streets of Halabja, a house on fire, ash clouds from Icelandic volcanoes. So here the Beijing art scene has its very own smoke chamber, but what are Ma and Eliasson trying to kill off exactly?
The smoke-filled room brings to mind a similarly immersive artwork, Antony Gormley’s Blind Light: a glass chamber filled with steam that he showed in 2007 at the Hayward in London. But while Gormley’s piece was partly voyeuristic – the glassed walls made it possible to look in, occasionally glimpsing hands pressed against the wall, desperately trying to find their way out – this installation has no such possibility for overview. And while the harsh, white light of Gormley’s installation and the roles of the visitors as observer and observed brought a much darker aspect to his work, Eliasson and Ma’s collaborative efforts seem somewhat happier, but only on the surface perhaps.
In a society where the government keeps a tight hold on information about everything from natural disasters to tearing down old neighbourhoods to pollution levels, it is easy to take on an air of apathy, blindly being led by the hand without questioning your position or course. In Feelings Are Facts the same goes. The gently sloping floor gets steeper and steeper towards one end of the room. Because I have blind faith that the artistic intention isn’t to hurt me, I carelessly continue walking until I find myself at such a steep angle that I can’t keep my balance any more. I fall with a screech. If I had trusted my feelings I wouldn’t have taken those last few steps.
Feelings Are Facts is asking a lot of the visitor both physically and mentally. Physically, faced with this challenge of navigating a smoke-filled room, insecurity takes hold and you move through the space as if wearing a blindfold, fumbling with your hands in the air in front of you. Rarely has an empty room of such generous proportions felt so claustrophobic. Mentally, the installation forces you to insert your own meaning into the space and authorship of the work.
Dematerialisation plays a large role in both Eliasson and Ma’s individual projects (Eliasson’s preoccupation with recreating natural phenomena; Ma by questioning the nuts and bolts of architecture by creating light and fluid buildings, such as the bulbous and shiny Hutong Bubble, icon 077). In Feelings Are Facts this has been taken to its extreme. There is literally nothing to see, or what there is to see (smoke and light) is so ephemeral that it’s impossible to quantify. Only feelings remain. The installation could be seen as yet another fun-loving art jamboree where children can play and parents listen from a safe distance, lattes in hand (and lattes are just as prevalent in Beijing as anywhere else), but the intensity of this space makes relaxation difficult. Eliasson and Ma are asking for the audience’s involvement on another level, not just as coolly observant but as emotionally engaged. Wake up. Feel something, do something!
Feeling Are Facts is at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, until 20 June