In the early 2000, I met China Blue in New York and heard her speaking about sculpture in ways I had not considered sculpture previously. As a former student, at Hunter College, of minimal and post-minimal sculptor Robert Morris, China Blue had developed an attention to space, and more specifically to the space surrounding sculpture; more than to the sculpture or the object itself. How was that space shaped by an object? How was the viewer’s impacted by that relationship?
At the time, also, China Blue spoke about negative and odd physical spaces that could be fixed and how to improve our relationship with them. She started developing an artistic Feng Shui, which broadly inspired by her Chinese background, could correct inhabited spaces, exhibition spaces among others, and heal viewers. From that angle, China Blue expanded her investigations, from object and space, to sounds, and started asking: how does sound look like? And how can sound shape spaces and viewer’s experiences?
Intrigued, in 2004, I invited China Blue to work on two solo-exhibitions of her work simultaneously at l’Atheneum and Interface in Dijon, France. At Interface—an alternative art space run by former art students from the National Beaux-Art School—, she presented among other works, Mikey vs Fabio (2004), a sound piece based on the recording of a table tennis game. Mikey vs Fabio spatialized and somewhat materialized, through a surround sound system, the impact sounds of an invisible ping pong ball on the walls of a totally empty space; animating it. The space where the piece was located was a passage, a rather narrow corridor rarely used by other artists who had presented works at Interface—not only because it would not fit the scale of most works to allow a comfortable viewing experience, but also because it did not even feel appropriate for a viewer’s pause; yet, this space, also appropriately reminded of the proportions of a ping pong table. There, like in many other spaces and corners at Interface—a beautiful Victorian-style private apartment in the city historical center of Dijon—, China Blue created pretexts for stops, allowing her sound works to guide the discovery of the physicality and specificities of the architectural spaces.
At l’Atheneum—Bourgogne University Cultural Center for students, located in a modern concrete building on campus, in the outskirts of the city center—, China Blue also tackled the difficulties presented by another space of passage: the exhibition space itself. The exhibition room had been intentionally, but unfortunately, positioned between the building entrances (where was there was also the student’s bar) and the computer room; in order to encourage (or oblige) students to see art on their way from the bar to the computers. To combat the inefficient dynamics of the art space, China Blue built a large structure at the center of the exhibition room that literally interrupted the students’ path. The construction was made of two pairs of interrupted walls, creating doors at each corner. Then, using sound of wind chimes, warm orange-yellowish paint and neon lights, as well as comfortable seats, she created within these walls an inviting space for students’ relaxation. Those visitors who instead decided to challenge the artist’s invitation for a pause, and ventured around the walls, saw drawings based on the room floor plans. These were populated with lines and arrows, suggesting movements and rhythms, materializing the circulation of sounds and energy inevitably surrounding them; whether they were aware of them or not.
In Dijon, not only did the individual pieces focus on creating connections with the viewer (and, beyond, with the larger environment surrounding the viewer), but the entire project titled Fluid Paths also intended to force connections—some formal, aural, some structural or relational—, also between both spaces. Even if l’Atheneum and Interface shared an overall common goal of promoting contemporary art, they were doing so with very different staff, audience, purpose, means, and ultimately philosophies. Throughout time, I understood that China Blue’s work would bring together what seems disjointed, even sometimes irrelevant, as long as they could complement and improve one another.
In reverse, China Blue has also engaged in her more recent works with entropic and maybe necrotic prognoses and dynamics. With her interactive sound-light installations Fireflies Project (2011), Fireflies Grove (2012-15), and 8 Bit Crickets (2013), she collides nature, man, and culture. She presents in these installation hordes of small electronic insects, equipped with motion sensors, reacting by blinking and chirping to the presence of an audience, and variably depending on the quantity and position of it. Sometimes also, the viewer would activate the simulated insect colonies with flashlights. Here, China Blue shows a denatured relationship in the form of a playful, but senseless, and unproductive communication. She is right to insist that man, technology, and nature co-exist and are interconnected in invisible ways; and we are all aware as well how nature is currently suffering from mother earth’s abusive exploitation, resulting in an increasingly unbalanced eco-system shortly frightening just everything as we have known it.
China Blue’s latest endeavors have brought her to expand her field of artistic practice, beyond earth’s ground and man’s life experiences, to larger unheard aural phenomena. For example, in 2007, she captured the energy of Paris by recording the sonic vibrations of the metallic structure of the Eiffel tower. Or similarly, in 2009, when she recorded NASA’s Vertical Gun—conceived to simulate meteorite impacts in deep space. Cassini’s Dreams—comprised of a sound piece installation and of paintings, which is currently presented at the Venice Biennale (2019)— is from this same body of work. The sound piece results from the sonification of the latest high-resolution images taken by Cassini of planet Saturn’s rings, combined with an audio piece. It also includes sounds from propellers, dusts, and ice, as China Blue specifies; in order to direct our attention onto the details and anomalies of some of the largest and most mysterious invisible astral events that surrounding us. If another proof is needed, consider her paintings (also on display at the Venice Biennale) which, based on Saturn’s rings, are made in infrared color spectrum. “The infrared range is a field that humans cannot see but exists everywhere” she explains.
Beyond objecthood and what is visible or accessible to us, up to the eternal void of the entire universe, there is much to hear and to understand, as China Blue demonstrates. In her negentropic world, nothing is still nor silent, the void is filled with the sounds of incommensurable invisible forces that can be heard by those who listen to them.
New York, April 6th, 2019
Stéphanie Jeanjean is an art historian, expert in modern and contemporary European art and a curator. Her research investigates the history and the institutionalization of video art and the projected image, informed by feminist militant video and sociological art and more recently relational and new media contemporary art.
She teaches Art History at The CUNY Graduate Center, Cooper Union as well as and at Sotheby’s Institute in New York. She has spoken on these topics in international conferences located in France, USA (CAA), UK (Tate Britain), and South Korea (KAIST). She is also a regular speaker, as Gallery Educator, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. As an expert in modern and contemporary European art, she lectures for the Smithsonian Journeys in France, London and in Switzerland.
Her work has been published in Afterall, London and Cinema in the Expanded Field (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2016) and at The Engine Institute. She curated a project screening of early French video at The Kitchen in New York (summer 2012).
She co-founded Hors d’œuvre: le journal de l’art contemporain and worked at the contemporary art center Le Consortium and for the publisher Les presses du réel, in Dijon. She has developed a book series dedicated to new scholarship on modern and contemporary art, artists’ writings and archives, as well as translations of original texts into English for Les presses du réel, in Dijon.
She holds a MA from Bourgogne University, France, and a PhD from the Graduate Center of CUNY, The City University of New York.