Gallery visit: Video Bureau

Caochangdi’s exhibition space is a unique institution worthy of your time

Video Bureau stands out from Beijing’s many galleries, museums and less easily defined art spaces in that its explicit focus is video art. Located in the northern artist enclave of Caochangdi and open only four days a week, it’s also explicit in its function, which is to archive and preserve video artworks. This strictly defined purpose fosters an insular, academic style, but the space arguably deserves a wider audience and greater recognition for the important and unique cultural work it does.


Video Bureau was conceptualised and opened by Chen Tong, Zhu Jia and Feng Lu, all figures heavily involved in the field of video art. In 2011, they began to think about organising exhibitions, and were initially given a space in the basement of the Today Art Museum in Shuangjing, in which they exhibited some video works. Not content with this set-up, they next moved towards opening a non-profit exhibition space, but quickly saw a problem with attempting to find a meaningful niche within Beijing’s many art spaces. It was with this in mind that they eschewed the traditional exhibition model, instead choosing to archive art. In March 2012 they opened Beijing Video Bureau, with a Guangzhou branch following soon after.


On entering the large warehouse space in the Caochangdi art district, it’s impossible not to notice the wall plastered with the portraits of the 57 artists whose artwork Video Bureau currently holds, running chronologically from the first artist they collected up to the most recent. This tableau is a kind of visual record of a growing archive. Opposite is a concrete wall that functions as a projection screen for the works of the two most recently catalogued artists. The pared-down aesthetic of the building’s furniture and fittings is simple and functional, just like the institution itself.


Stacked in a corner are the physical archives, piles of DVDs next to binders full of detailed information about each video work. There’s no need to make an appointment or even say anything on arrival – simply find the artist you’re looking for, choose from their full collection of video works, sit at one of the four computers and begin watching.


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Although it might sometimes be possible to find some of these video works online, it is more or less impossible to track down an artist’s entire output outside of an institution like Video Bureau, which archives at least 12 artists annually. New video works and archival materials are made available on the last odd-numbered Friday of an odd-numbered month. The selection of artists is intentionally broad and diverse, coming from different regions of China and from abroad. The artists represented are different ages, and at different stages of their careers.


This month, the strange animated worlds of artist Lu Yang – in collaboration with a Japanese gentleman who was castrated and proceeded to serve the results to a group of willing dinner guests – will be added to the archive. Expect hyper-real constructions full of sci-fi characters backed by eclectic musical soundtracks from Lu, the youngest artist to represent China at the 2015 Venice Biennale.


Also recently added to the archives were the works of Soda Jerk, a duo formed in Sydneyand now based in New York, who sample and remix found footage to construct their own visions. Their work raises questions of originality: can something original be created with others’ work?


Great artists abound at Video Bureau. Zhang Peili is commonly known as the father of video art in China. In 1986 he created the work 30x30, widely considered to be the first example of Chinese video art. The artist, wearing rubber gloves (a common motif in his work), repeatedly breaks and then repairs a 30x30cm mirror over the course of three hours, until the film in the camera runs out.


Another favourite from the archive is Ma Qiusha’s From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiaobeili, a deceptively simple video in which the artist talks straight into the camera about her strict upbringing, recounting stories of her parents forcing her into various pursuits with the hope of her achieving success. The story is moving enough in itself, but at the end there is a surprise, which we won’t ruin, but suffice to say it adds a whole other layer of poignancy and opens the video up to a massive range of interpretations.


Despite video art’s rich potential for creativity and its ability to directly draw the viewer in, it’s always been a bit of a nuisance to the art world. While museums can exhibit it relatively easily, what are private collectors meant to do? Play the video on loop in their house?


These same collectors are also much less willing to spend cash on something that lacks the aura of uniqueness emitted by paintings and sculptures. Since they are less likely to sell, commercial galleries are often reluctant to exhibit them. It’s for these reasons that archiving video works in a nonprofit space is such a necessity. At Video Bureau, we can view the history of Chinese video art from the early experiments of Zhang Peili, to later works like those of Ma Qiusha, right up to the present day via young artists like Lu Yang. With the inclusion of international artists like Soda Jerk we can place Chinese works in a wider context.


Where else can you do that? We told you Video Bureau stands out.

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Video Bureau

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A non-profit that provides space to exhibit and archive video art

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(Caochangdi, Chaoyang)

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