[ART] Patty Chang's Video/Sculptural Exhibition "Shangri-La" Looks at Zhongdian
- Work of a higher order
A sacred mountain in China inspires 'Shangri-La' installation.
By Liane Bonin, Special to The Times
Patty Chang has moved mountains, literally. But that's only one part
of "Shangri-La," the New York-based artist's new video installation
and sculptural work on exhibit at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood.
"Shangri-La," which centers in part around the artist's attempts to
have a mirrored sculpture of a mountain built in south central
China, started with an unusual story that Chang stumbled across on
the Internet. In 1997, the Chinese rural farming village of
Zhongdian proposed changing its name to Shangri-La (after the
mythical land described in James Hilton's 1933 novel, "Lost
Horizon") in the hope of attracting tourists.
The name change proved irresistible to roughly a dozen other towns
in the area. They all attempted to adopt the Shangri-La name, and
the resulting controversy had to be resolved by the Chinese
Zhongdian won the battle, but to appease the other towns, a larger
region at the foot of the Meili Snow Mountain was named the China
Shangri-La Ecological Tourism Zone.
Intrigued by the town's determination to make an imaginary place
real, Chang, whose work has been exhibited at the Guggenheim and the
Seattle Art Museum, decided to visit. In the meantime, she
discovered that her parents were scheduled to take a tour the
"I really wanted to go with them and this bunch of 65-year-old
Chinese immigrants to the place where, according to the myth, you
live forever," Chang says with a laugh.
Ultimately, the tour was canceled because of the epidemic of severe
acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, but Chang continued to research
When she was finally able to make the trip to Zhongdian in 2004,
Chang found a wealth of material for her 40-minute video. As
in "Lost Horizon," the renamed town of Shangri-La has a mountain as
Considered sacred by the townspeople, the mountain's image pops up
in murals, signage and conversation. "I just kept seeing it," says
Chang. "It's sort of a religious symbol, but also this kitsch
tourism symbol. So I started creating the mountain" as an artwork.
She chose to build the sculpture out of fragmented mirrors, giving
it not only a disco ball effect to reflect the consumerism of the
area but also a reference to the looking glass' symbolism as entree
to a more spiritual realm. Instead of doing the work herself, she
hired local citizens.
Focusing her camera on the townspeople as they crafted the mountain
as both 5-foot-tall sculpture (a larger version of which is on
exhibit) and as a separate, fantastical birthday cake at the local
bakery allowed Chang, who began her career as a performance artist,
to take a smaller role in the project.
"Originally I was thinking I didn't want this to be like an
ethnographic study, but when I got there I realized the interactions
with the townspeople were the only ways to combine the ideas of a
real place and a fantasy place," Chang explains.
From off camera, Chang negotiates with bakers struggling to frost an
increasingly lumpy cake and offers suggestions as an architect and a
monk brainstorm ideas for the mountain sculpture (a plastic foam
base is eventually discarded in favor of plywood). Chang also builds
a faux oxygen pressure chamber, then invites the monks to enter. "It
made sense to put the monks in the pod because they're almost like
conduits between heaven and Earth," Chang says.
Chang does play a small role in the video, posing as a blushing
bride for Taiwanese-style fantasy wedding photography. "It's a
really big thing there," says Chang. "You go, put on a wedding dress
and get photographed in these scenic environments. It fit the piece,
since it's about constructing this romantic idea, this fantasy,
about love and marriage. But in the last couple of years, I've
really tried to incorporate other people into my work so I can step
out of it and look at it."
To Hammer chief curator Russell Ferguson, this represents an
intriguing new direction for Chang. "I think she's going through a
process that a lot of people who are performers go through in moving
beyond using themselves as the center of their work," he
says. "She's finding ways to pursue some of the same issues in a
very interesting way."
Chang is probably best known for her performance art, which has
often dealt with issues of gender and physicality in bold, and
sometimes shocking, ways. In 2002's "Stage Fright," she challenged
audiences by binging and purging in a bathroom stall while watching
Hitchcock's 1950 movie of the same name. She later re-created the
performance using USC sorority members in "Sorority Stage Fright."
In 1998's "Candies," she made a wry comment on female passivity by
donning a business suit, clamping her mouth open with a dental
device and filling her mouth with peppermints, allowing drool to
puddle on the floor in front of her.
The Hammer Museum commissioned this latest work as part of the Three
M Project, a collaboration of the Hammer, the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in
Chicago. The museums worked together to co-present the work of
emerging artists, who are each awarded $50,000 to cover expenses.
Others chosen for the project include video artists Fiona Tan and
Chang will have little time to enjoy her installation. Because the
New York and L.A. exhibits overlap, a new mirrored mountain must be
built for the East Coast. If it's a little slapdash, that's the
point. "It's supposed to have that weird sense of being kitschy and
commercial but handmade. You're supposed to see the cracks in the
mirror and the mechanism underneath."