Hendrik-Jan Hunneman’s installation in the 798 arts district at Platform China’s Project Space was so many things simultaneously, it was simple in appearance but intricately more complex in its composition, the environment it created felt enchanted but was of the most mundane materials, the viewer entered the space and suddenly became the participant. These contradictory states made it a substantial addition to the community in which it was situated. It was heavy like a bowl of red smoke.
On perhaps a morbid note, it’s true that commonplace, inane activities compose the bulk of our existence. In today’s modern city lack of enthusiasm is normal, and in Beijing the banality of life is glaringly obvious, traffic jams alone can consume 1/4th of one’s waking day, moreover shamefully little visual candy affords us escape. There is an overpowering honesty in the surrounding reality. Perhaps this is why Beijingers so love a spectacle, something to distract them from the monotonous veracity of the surroundings.
Contemporary art can be one such distraction, an exciting new domain of fashion and culture where we can seek out stimulus. Escaping into the visual arts is common enough a pastime these days that genres have developed in the Beijing art scene devoted to either depicting melancholy boredom or––slightly more base––art that astonishes. People expect contemporary art to shock.
When an artist so neatly captures the flatness of life it is not only an introspective and enchanted experience for the viewer, but is an anomaly in Beijing art circles. That was perhaps the greatest success of Hunneman’s installation. He twisted high expectations towards the visual complexity of art into a visually clean and even common structure but turned the mundane into the magical.
Red, a celebratory color of auspiciousness and excitement was the first visual in his installation. A jubilant red stairway tantalizing visitors in through a narrow rusted doorway It filled the entire courtyard, meeting you right at the door and offering no alternative entry to the space.
One appeal of this slightly angled staircase was that it felt like a grand entrance to an unknown celebration, and everyone was invited. It loomed, leading right up to the tiled rooftop of the longhouse; from this grounded perspective the promise of greatness seemed inherent in its form. Seeking the spectacle that the red carpet promised viewers walked up the stairs and right into the trees.
But arriving at its apex it was clear: nothing remained but the descent. Like Sisyphus condemned to his eternal mountain struggle, were we doomed to mere up–and-down wanderings? Perhaps at the top of the stairs and in the courtyard, the pleasure of looking over the tiled roofs should have been enough. The covered space below seemed empty, alas, where was our spectacle?
Inside the empty room the stairway was an extension of its outdoor incarnation. It seemed to have fallen right through the roof onto, then into, the space. It crossed the interior and exterior courtyard in transversal angles. In the low-ceilinged room it had the effect of bleachers, the stairs reached to the ceiling and continued on, on into another dimension if only we could walk through walls. The entire space seemed shrunken and despite the lack of cocktails, music or confetti inside the room felt somehow festive, inhabited.
Hendrik-Jan Hunneman was spending his first time in China, working in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar tools and materials. What his audience was like, he could not know for sure. They stood there thinking big, their hopes high… modern China is in an era of dreams coming true. Perhaps here was the magical party that every viewer was waiting for, but where were the guests?
Slowly in an inconspicuous corner of the room she appeared, her words were ambiguous but sensual. White on white words were projected on to the wall, she was the most attractive guest at the party although invisible. She was whispering private words in your ear, yet they were completely public. The script brought life; it took away the loneliness.
The simplicity of the work could let it easily be mistaken for merely nothing, but it managed in such sparse visual language to transform its environment so completely. Hunneman is a humble and understated man, like his works. But their shyness, their lack of brash, forthright alterations to our visual and spatial environment ultimately speak more profoundly than spectators might at first realize. More than simply being enticed to ponder or reflect on a scene on canvas, our understanding grows as we move through the work, the experiential element is most important. The strange space unfolds around us in a language so simple that anyone understands.
The mood is distinctly David Lynch, perhaps we are trapped in a film? She continues talking, there’s clearly attraction though she would never be so vulgar as to spell it out. Our romance with the space is growing too and we become physically attached to it, enjoy it for its pleasant lack of spectacle. The room––though empty––slowly fills with a crowd of our own imagining, and the woman says, white on white on the wall: “‘Everything fades away when you’re looking for something,’ and she didn’t say more.”
Lee Ambrozy 2007