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Under Pressure: Chinese Artist Opens The Floodgates On Everyday Scenes

Artist Zhang Liaoyuan places ordinary life scenes under high pressure water guns.
October 26, 2011, 10:17pm

In this series of video works, visitors are confronted with three projections that respectively show three ordinary life scenes. At first glance, they’re as ordinary as can be: groups of friends chatting over dinner at a local restaurant, customers wandering the grocery store aisles and painstakingly agonizing over purchase decisions, readers indulging in an endless supply of books at the library.

All three scenes seem perfectly normal, reveling in the banality of everyday life, until suddenly streams of high pressure water shoot out in all directions, breaking the apparent tranquility and tedium. Like a piercing fire alarm or wailing siren, the shocking nature of this disruption tends to make us automatically feel as if “something bad is happening.” Our senses heightened, we anxiously observe the people, expecting them to scatter like a flock of frightened birds, but they stay still and wait, going about their business while the dishes on the table get washed away, while the grocery store starts to resemble the aftermath of a tsunami, while the books are destroyed… Despite the overwhelming sense of chaos, they remain unfazed—continuing with their chatting, shopping and reading.

The apparent apathy and unawareness of the actors creates the illusion that these events are somehow divided, happening in parallel dimensions or alternate realities, allowing for the people to remain unaffected by the mayhem of the rushing water streams.

The installation seems to highlight and criticize a kind of apathetic optimism that allows people to continue on with their daily lives even when confronted with an apparent crisis or unsettling scenario. Read another way, we could interpret it as an underhanded critique of the automatization of modern life, a metaphor for the mindless button-pushers we’ve all become. In the installation, the anxiety keeps building as the viewer keeps waiting for the first person who will pick up their head and react to the event. In the end, however, this person never shows up.

Young artist Zhang Liaoyuan uses the work to describe the times of the Apocalypse, when people, complacent thanks to a normalized familiarity with natural or man-made disasters, maintain an appeal for ignorance and irony.