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Stories from Artists in Residence

Shi Zhen: Memories of Things Past

Shi Zhen

Participated in the “Artist-in-Residence in the Verzasca Valley 2021”. She worked at the Valley from August 3-September 6, 2021. Then her works were exhibited from September 2-October 2, 2021.

Shi Zhen employs various mediums and a process that combined photography, book object and fiction-documentary story to construct a maze of narratology. Through her artificial manipulation of individuals’ lived experiences and intervention in intellectual legacies such as literature, archival material, theatre and film, Shi’s practice attempts to explore the complex relationship between reality and memory under the general proposition “Archive and Fiction” / “Private and Public”. Shi’s practice also seeks to develop a discourse on how time exists and disappears in a soundless way from its historical context that continues to adapt to changing existence.

More about the artist

It has been some time since 2015, when I began creating the first chapter of Memories of Things Past, a project inspired by an accidentally-found diary of a Belgium family. This year, the project has come to the final chapter. Following the initially planned narrative structure and plot, I began to work on its context early this year. I had been thinking about Bucharest in Romania, the mountainous regions near Locarno in Switzerland and Ghent in Belgium. So when Duan Yuting and Pro Helvetia Shanghai unexpectedly asked me at the end of May if I wanted to participate in the artist-in-residence program in the Verzasca Valley, I said yes without hesitation. It was a real godsend.

Strange to say, I have spent more than a decade in Europe, and, for some time, I traveled frequently between Paris and Switzerland for work, but I had never been to the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland before. It happened that I was moving to a new apartment a few days before I left for Verzasca. Instead of unpacking everything, I just grabbed some clothes, a few essentials and all documents about the project, then ran to the railway station. When Alfio, director of the program, met me at the station in Tenero, he kept asking, “Is that all you have?”

Misty mountains on the way to Verzasca. Photo by Shi Zhen.

I arrived on a rainy evening. The car climbed up the mountain along a winding road. Turquoise river water was rushing in the gorges on both sides of the road, the waves of which mixed with the mist in the mountain. I went to bed after the welcoming dinner with the team of Verzasca Foto Festival, and slept like a baby.

Hillside church of Frasco

It was still drizzling when I woke up the next morning. I borrowed a raincoat and went to the valley. As a typical city animal, I often say in a self-mocking way that I have limited love of nature. I was suddenly thrown into an environment that was drastically different from my daily life, with no food delivery services or Uber. It seemed that I could only reach places within walking distance. Somehow I need to set some new rules for my new life here: learning how to cut wood and make fire, planing trips and cooking three times every day. It was then that I understood what Alfio had told me on my way here. “Verzasca is a great place to hide.”

On another hand, the limits in moving around made me get into work mode very quickly. Except for a weekly visit to Tenero for grocery and other essentials, I spent most of my time in the old kitchen downstairs working on my “escaping plan”, and soon completed the scenario of the beginning part of this chapter:

Brook in the Verzasca Valley

On October 22, 2017, I was attacked in Brussels. My camera, ID and the original and backup files of project Memories of Things Past were stolen in that tragedy. A few years later, I received an email from an anonymous with a hidden IP who claimed that he had found these stolen things in a recycling site outside Brussels, and tried to threaten me by saying, “I’ve been tracking you for a long time”. As my home address was printed on ID and keys to my apartment were among the stolen items, so for safety, I decided to escape from Paris and hide in Frasco, the middle of nowhere deep in Verzasca valley. Here, I cut off the internet and phone connection, trying to be an invisible phantom in the village.

I asked staff from the residence team to buy me a map of the areas between Frasco and Locarno, based on which I came up with a complete escape route so that I knew where to move to if I was exposed again or if I failed to eliminate the threat.

About halfway through the residency, as all the excitement has faded, I got used to life in the mountain. Yet, by the same time, something interesting happened. It was early morning. As usual, I had my food and water ready and went to the forest to look for an abandoned marble quarry that I had found on the map the night before. According to the map, the quarry was on the other side of the mountain, and I needed to take a trail to cross. But when I got close to the top, I found that the trail was blocked by rows of giant trees that had fallen in the storm a few days before.

While I was hesitating, a man walked to me from another trail. He looks around 60 years old, fully tattooed on his right arm with a green totem. The guy told me that the trail path was blocked and there was a heavy morning mist deeper in the mountain. He proposed I go back. My instinct signalized me this man was weird, but somehow I was attracted by the weirdness as well. My curiosity overcame everything by the end. I turned back and went downhill after him.

He asked about why I was in that forest, why I was interested in finding that quarry, and why I was carrying a camera, as if he was interrogating me. After checking several times that my camera was well turned off, he invited me to join him for a place. He took me off from the trail path to another direction deeper into the forest. At the fork in the trail, a harrow leaned there“Here used to be my house”, he said.

I named him Mr. Privato. Since we met the first time in the forest, again, I seemed to get involved in another tracking game. He appeared in many places of my daily life in the valley, the pond down to the mountain, the bistrot halfway up the valley, and around the house where I stayed. He stared at me from distance but said no words.

When I told this to the residency team, they said, “You’ve been tracked again”. That made sense. In an everyone-knows-everyone village like Frasco, no one knew who he is, and no one knew where he came from. I even followed him secretly several times, seemed that he was not in touch with any others. Such an intruder became by the end  a surprise of my stay in the residency, which drove the story forward.

Forest where I encountered Mr. Privato

The opening of our residency show was on same the day as the hunting season started. I was curious if Mr. Privato will be there among all the guests, but he didn’t show up that day. This is probably the difference between creation and real life. Stories always have an ending, so we know what happens to the characters by the end. However, that’s probably not the case in real life. My five-week stay in Verzasca Valley was like an immersive experience of improvisational theatre in which I was both a character and the director, running back and forth between the story and real life. Another storm embraced the valley in an unexpected afternoon, then the summer run away with all the coincidences and uncertainties that it brought. Leaves quit the branch, water became more blueish from the warm turquoise. Autumn falls.

(Banner image: Installation view of Memories of Things Past at Verzasca Foto Festival. Photo by Shi Zhen.)


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