Zhang Jin’s Journal in the Valley of Switzerland
Chinese artist Zhang Jin has spent 50 days as «Artist-in-Residence in the Verzasca Valley 2019» from July 28 to September 8, 2019. He has engaged in nature and streets, collaborated with artists and curators from different regions to finally create and present a new site-specific photography series «One Moment After Another».
This program is supported by Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Swiss Arts Council, upon whose invitation Luxelakes A4 Art Museum has nominated the residency candidates.
«One Moment After Another»
It is undeniable that our daily life is tending to be more mediocre, which is why people have to travel or entertainment to spend the leisure time and also it’s the daily life structure of consumer society. Visitors or tourists come to Verzasca Vally to swim, hike, camp and expect to find spiritual or physical pleasure. I can’t criticize these common phenomena, actually I am one of the tourists also. I prefer to start this project from the perspective of a tourist, and we are becoming each other’s landscape and becoming someone who occasionally appears on each other’s Instagram. Some moment in life is fascinating. Every day I tried to look for an interesting and pleasing moment in the Vally, and these photos are the collection of moments.
Journal in the Valley of Switzerland
Text / Zhang Jin
Before my departure to Switzerland, I wasn’t worried at all about my work nor my methods of work during my residency. Instead, what was disturbing is the foreseeable troubles brought by my vices, like where to buy cigarettes or where to drink with friends in the valley. Rico, head of the photography festival, hospitably picked me up at the bus station, before breaking the bad news to me that the food in the small restaurant in the valley is very expensive. Therefore, the best way to cope with it is to buy enough food to cook for myself for four days in the big supermarket down the mountain. Though it is known to all that everything in Switzerland is expensive, the realization of the fact laid out in such detail for the first time had made me, an inhabitant from the City of Gastronomy who hadn’t cooked for ten years, curse secretly for at least five minutes.
Of course, when you get to the valley, everything won’t be so bad, for we Chinese live by the prudent philosophy of life preservation, such as taking things as they come, there’s always a way out, and leaving nothing undone by doing nothing. To be fair, the scenery of the valley is indeed very beautiful. The narrow and long valley winds up for 35 kilometers, with streams trickling, rushing or gently flowing into a pool beside the highway. The emerald color of the pool brings about a sense of transcendental beauty. In the summer, the valley was crowded with tourists. Lying on the rocks of the riverbed were people in bikini of various colors, including middle-aged white men with figures out of shape, as well as well-built youngsters. In a word, this is a grand loop of sunbathing circling day after day, like a festival. Some tourists choose to hike in the woods, where apples, plums and walnuts hang on the trees and the whiff of cow and sheep feces drift on the way. Most tourists choose to go to Sonogno, the highest town in the valley, where the photography festival is held, for a stroll or a drink.
Smoking prohibition has accelerated in China and other Asian countries. Regulations clearly prohibit smoking indoor as well as smoking in places like hotels and restaurants, some campuses, and certain neighborhoods. Even in the United States, there is a prohibition of drinking on the streets. These regulations often make people generate a sense of guilt, as if they have committed some crime. But things are different here, the freedom of a small town lies in its friendliness of getting to know everyone in the town as well as being free to smoke outdoors. Unlike in big cities, lots of inhabitants in the valley, male or female, smoke; and everyone is drunk driving, except that they keep the consumption of alcohol within a reasonable range.
What I saw and heard at my early arrival relieved most of my anxiety. It took me 24 hours to travel from Chengdu to the valley, which was indeed a lot of trouble. I come here for the cause of artistic residency and cultural exchange, which pushes me to do something serious. Every time people travel to a new place, they tend to look for a similar reference in their past experience which they are familiar with. If they fail to see the connection between the past and the present, that will make the bleak night of the world. My understanding of this valley resembles that of Zhongnan mountain in Shaanxi. Crossing the entrance of the valley, living beside a river, people in the valley lead a self-sufficient life. They go downhill to buy food, climb up to cook, sit and chat at night, and leave the doors open when they sleep. In this harmonious neighborhood, people live near each other. Rico’s mom lives at the foot of the mountain while we live near the top. It was a good catch-up lesson for me, who hadn’t cooked for a long time, in redefining the meaning of daily life.
For people in Occidental countries, mountains may only mean the destination for hiking or camping. However, for Chinese, mountains have multiple layers of meanings with a variety of allusions, such as the verses from famous poems: “There is no calendar in the mountains, so the upcoming of the New Year went unnoticed”, “The world possessing great beauty doesn’t boast”, “No one is within sight in the pathless mountain, but the sound of echoing voice is heard” and so on. My residency here only lasts for 50 days, thus it would be bewildering to use the allusions of the mountain in my daily communication. According to my experience, the Zhongnan mountains are packed with ghosts and spirits, whereas middle-class tourists flock here in the valley, where streams are winding downhill with the tourists climbing upstream, trying to pursue the beauty of the day. Sometimes we are tempted to make the arbitrary conjecture that tourists are always blind and superficial whereas the landscape is pure and transcendental. Such a binary opposition is of little use for me to initiate this project. I’d like to pay more attention to how these tourists behave in the mountains. After all, I am just another tourist with the façade as an artist with my arts. The so-called globalization doesn’t merely mean that people from Asia, America, and Africa all travel to the same place. Rather, it means that our lifestyles and means of leisure have gradually converged, like the vending machines in this small town accepts payment by Alipay, and the locals are surprised when you speak fluent English and get used to their cheese. In my free time, I would bike 3 kilometers to a small town just for drinking a cup of six-franc beer by myself, and people would cast curious looks upon me, friendly yet perhaps wondering about the eternal philosophical question of who you are, where you came from and where you’re going.
What is difficult for me is neither art nor casual talk, but to tell people which city I come from. China is such a huge country that many foreigners have no idea about Chengdu, even if they have heard about or even been to Beijing or Shanghai. What is of Chengdu that can impress the Swiss? I used to say that I come from the big city in southwest China, where there are famous mountains and rivers, with a population of over 16 million, but they never got me. Later, I would say that I come from the center of western China where lots of foreigners come to travel, from a city called Chengdu, known as the City of Gastronomy, the hometown of hot pot. People are still confused. I was overwhelmingly frustrated about being unable to describe my own city. It was not until I said that I come from the hometown of pandas, recalling what Chengdu is famous for, did people miraculously understand me. Satisfied with people’s reactions, I draw this expression over and over again. Finally, a beautiful female photographer from Switzerland, Olga, who won the Foam Talent photography award in the Netherlands couldn’t bear it anymore. What she said to me at that moment indeed touched me. She said: “Zhang Jin, you are not someone from the hometown of the pandas. You are simply Zhang Jin who comes from Chengdu.” The valley is in Locarno, a small city with a small population of 300,000, where the world-renowned 73rd Locarno film festival was held during my residency, and the film “North of the Mountain” from a Chinese director, Zhou Tao, was nominated for the festival. Though there live more than 16 million people in Chengdu, ultimately what our prestige counts on is a panda. My self-esteem needs a few more beers to get over with this realization.
When I first arrived at the valley near the end of July, the sunshine would cast on my desk at 9:32. With the approaching of the exhibition, the sun would come out from the west side of the peak and spread its rays on my desk at 10:24. The 52-minute delay implicitly reminds me that it was time to go. I had sworn to learn to cook the local version of Italian food, yet unfortunately, it turns out to end as a broken promise. Although I refused to pack ingredients like Laoganma (a popular chili oil sauce) or hotpot seasoning, my cooking style, as well as the color, ingredients and taste of my cuisine remain Chinese over the past nearly two months.
Food is actually a narrative device that mirrors your childhood memories, the city you have lived in, and the hometown where you were born. People tend to be run by old habits. Whether in Switzerland or in Chengdu, I am always Zhang Jin who comes from the hometown of pandas. A few years ago, when I was visiting Zhongnan Mountain, a Taoist priest sullenly questioned the worshippers, “Why do you have to come all the way to the valley to listen to the sound of water?” The 50-day residency here allows me to answer this question now: the difference lies in the sound of the water in the valley: it echoes.
The photography festival is as good as a carnival. Like migratory birds, people flocked here, ate and drank and followed each other on Instagram. Bonded by their work, many became friends to drink and chat merrily with at night before saying goodnight to each other and call it a day. It was uneasy to say goodbye. In the pub of the hilltop town, Sonogno, where people sat beside would cast curious looks on me, I drank up my last six-franc beer before writing down on a napkin the verse of Emperor Yang Guang of Sui Dynasty, “The setting sun is about to fall. The sight of it would eclipse a lonely soul.”
(All images ©️Zhang Jin.)