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Tomb Peeping Day


Enclosed in a pigsty-like space with 1.2-meter-high brick walls, a video playing on a flat screen TV mounted on a wall is the focus of attention among visitors at Kan Xuan's solo exhibition "Millet Mounds" at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing.

The video depicts a grassy tomb set against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset, its lively pace making viewers feel as if they are walking towards the imperial tomb.

The exhibition's title references the name adopted by villagers in North China for tombs due to their resemblance of a grain stacks during harvest season. With 173 stop-action videos, the exhibition pays homage to China's imperial tombs in an intimate manner with an amateur touch of cinematography.

Born in 1972 in East China's Anhui Province, Kan graduated from the China Academy of Art in 1997. Renowned as a painter, performance artist and photographer, she is best known for her video installations. Tian Feiyu, an art critic and curator of the exhibition, described Kan as "one of the most successful contemporary visual artists of her generation."

Her latest solo exhibition is the result of over 100 days and 28,000 kilometers of continuous, on-the-road research and shooting with a crew of four in early 2012.

Kan recorded every imperial tomb she visited, driven by her fascination of their "philosophical connotations."

"I am interested in tombs. Even over several centuries, they still seem so sorrowful and related to death under the grass that grows over them. It's like life itself," she told Metro Beijing.

The length of videos ranges from 30 seconds to two minutes, with up to 500 still frames featured for one particular ancient tomb.

The pictures reproduce the lost solemnity and mysteriousness of tombs, creating a vague sense of nostalgia for viewers. Earthy brick walls split the exhibition hall into open spaces, accompanied on the side by short intriguing anecdotes about past emperors.

Kan described the eerie process of her tomb photography as "beyond words," saying she aimed to put viewers in her shoes while snapping pictures.

"On my way towards one tomb, I took one photo every four steps. I thought it would be a good way to capture how I felt as I walked towards the tomb, step by step," Kan explained.

"I could feel a connection between the tomb and me. I loved spending time with it for three or four hours, feeling the tomb, wind and sunshine."

Kan opted to shoot videos and photos using her iPhone, specifically so it wouldn't appear too professional. Through her lens, Kan aims to present "a meditation on China's imperial past and a broad survey of its present," she said.

Viewers at the exhibition have drawn their own conclusions from the haunting videos. Zeng Hong, a local artist, told Metro Beijing that Kan had managed to somehow extract a "care-free" sentiment from the morbid subject of death.

"It's neat, like a travel journal. It feels as if the artist is walking in front of you, talking about her thoughts," Zeng noted, adding viewers could also take away their "own understandings, too."

An Italian architect visiting the exhibition, who only gave her name as Joelle, said she was impressed at Kan's videos that she described as "meaningful, both artistically and historically."

"Kan shows us the importance of protecting heritage and history, and preserving our memories," she told Metro Beijing.

When: Until November 10

Where: UCCA, 798 Art Zone, 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang district

Admission: Free

Contact: 5780-0200 or visit