If the price of an artwork were set according to the hours of labor put into it, Sun Xun’s animations would cost an enormous amount. He makes animations by hand-drawing each individual frame. He recently stated that one animation cost him two years to make, working ten hours every day. All this labor is transformed into a video that today can easily be shared globally on magical services like YouTube. Our time is fundamentally unsettling to a mass of scholarly economic theory-writing spanning the centuries from Smith through Marx to the present. But at the Sackler Gallery, Sun Xun’s videos Chinese Words: War and Shock of Time are not offered for a price. Anyone can come and freely view them in the Moving Perspectives exhibition. But hurry, because these videos will vanish from the Sackler after November 8.
Chinese Words: War animates Chinese characters and fragments of characters in the development of military technology. Its concern with the development of characters and the relationship between character form and meaning is similar to that of Xu Bing’s The Living Word and Book from the Sky, both of which were installed at the Sackler in 2001. Sun Xun’s work has less sense of eternal aesthetics and balance, if only between illusion and disillusionment; instead, Sun Xun’s animation invokes an urgent, forward-driving menace to humanity. But humans and other animals do not need writing to fight with each other. In truth, human groups have been fatally attacking each other since long before the invention of writing. War is not simply a problem of words or other externally constructed technologies. Chinese Words: War is psychologically superficial in way that doesn’t, despite its primal soundtrack, promote ironic appreciation for its flatness.
Shock of Time is much more ambitious and thought-provoking. Industrialized print and a public wired-speaker system over-write worlds in this animation. “Mythos can expel truth” declares a closing character string. Yet in the U.S., the power of traditional media is being revealed as myth: print publications like newspapers are rapidly dying, despite their increasingly desperate efforts to write themselves into the future. And yet, with black-and-white, hand-drawn animations centered on industrial machinery and dead or dying communications technology, Shock of Time remarkably captures life lived in the midst of ubiquitous screens continuously refreshed with conventional symbols. Newspapers are the first draft of history. “History is a lie of time.” Shock of Time‘s new-media sense points to a world without time and a world without the public direction that time/history implies.
The viewing room in the Sackler is well-arranged for appreciating Shock of Time. Movie theaters and living rooms typically have viewers confined in seats. Viewers in front of a computer are similarly confined in seats. The new wave of screens are mobile devices that allow persons to move the screen and move themselves while they peer into screens. The viewing room in the Sackler has two benches placed against the back wall of the stark, square viewing room. This arrangement frees viewers to choose widely their positions relative to the screen and to move about the space while watching. Shock of Time retains its impressive force even when viewed from widely different physical angles. One important arrangement was beyond the power of this exhibition. Play Shock of Time backwards in your head, if you can. Shock of Time is beyond time.
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Sun Xun’s animated videos, Shock of Time (2006, 5:29 min) and Chinese Words: War (2005, 2:12 min) are on display at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery, in its Moving Perspectives exhibition, through November 8, 2009.
Additional notes: At a presentation he gave in conjunction with the exhibition, Sun Xun stated that he refuses to use computers to create animations because he wants to control every aspect of his creative tool. His animations, however, are far from technologically naive or primitive. A member of the audience at that talk told Sun Xun that she recognized a newspaper that he incorporated in Shock of Time, and she asked him why he chose that newspaper. He said he used it just because it was ready at hand. Mashing up readily available video and image sources is a characteristic feature of much new-media work.
At least in the Soviet Union, wired public-speaker systems were once roughly as ubiquitous as newspapers. In the late 1980s, a wired, monophonic public-speaker system reached 85% of the Soviet population.