Cheng Ran (b. 1981, Inner Mongolia, China) is one of the most promising Chinese artists of his generation. Since 2005, Cheng has been producing film and video works that draw widely from both Western and Chinese literature, poetry, cinema, and visual culture, fabricating new narratives that combine myths and historical events. “Cheng Ran: Diary of a Madman” marks the culmination of his three-month residency at the New Museum, initiated in partnership with K11 Art Foundation.
The exhibition borrows its title from what is widely considered China’s first modern short story, written by Lu Xun in 1918. Just as Lu Xun’s story comprises first-person narratives of a character at the margins of society who gradually turns mad, Cheng’s fifteen new videos take the form of diaristic vignettes that reveal a larger assessment of a foreign place through the eyes of an outsider. As a first-time visitor to the United States, Cheng approaches New York already familiar with iconic and cinematic images of the city, simultaneously intending to find and capture what is typically excluded from such views.
Cheng’s earliest works, shot entirely in the confines of his apartment, attempted to make compelling the ordinary and unspectacular aspects of his immediate environment. Inspired by filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and Béla Tarr, Cheng’s subsequent films and videos often registered his curiosity as he observed the overlooked and incongruous aspects of everyday life and chronicled his interactions with remote and historic sites. His new multi-video work, Diary of a Madman (2016), includes imagery from his early morning explorations of New York City streets, a trip to the Staten Island Bay, and a visit to an abandoned psychiatric hospital on Long Island, exposing his sense of estrangement amid his encounters with uncelebrated and obscure facets of the city.
Embracing a long lineage of experimental cinema, Cheng’s new work follows the making of his nine-hour epic In Course of the Miraculous (2015), which imagines the stories behind three real-life mysterious disappearances. These include British mountaineer George Mallory, who went missing while ascending Mount Everest in 1924; artist Bas Jan Ader, who vanished during his 1975 journey across the Atlantic as part of a performance titled In Search of the Miraculous; and the Chinese fishing trawler Lu Rong Yu no. 2682, which in 2011 returned to land after eight months with only one-third of its original crew still alive. With a narrative inspired by fables and mythic literature, Cheng reinterprets the title of Ader’s final work, and in doing so, reflects on his paradoxical pursuit of the inexplicable or unimaginable parts of history. In Course of the Miraculous will be screened on select days in the New Museum Theater.