We are at the Audemars Piguet booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong – or rather, I am. Cheng Ran is not, having momentarily escaped the fortress that is the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre for a breath of fresh air and a smoke. It’s fun to play spot-the-artists at the city’s premier art fair. Not everyone goes from the beard-and-bun look popularised by the likes of Takashi Murakami and Ai Wei Wei, or the fashion-forward statements preferred by the likes of Lee Bul or Terence Koh. And it’s unlikely any artist represented by a blue-chip Basel gallery would be caught dead in the G-string and bloodied menstrual pad that one headline-making “performance artist” sported as he was chased down and eventually escorted out by Convention Centre security guards.
The majority of Chinese contemporary artists are the most unassuming guys in the room. Case in point: when we locate him, Cheng is in a hoodie, NYPD T-shirt and jeans. His forearms are sleeved in tattoos and his hair is bleached and styled in a side-swept bowl cut. It’s loud here, and he’s quiet, both in appearance and in volume. His work is a little like that, too. In collaboration with the watch brand Audemars Piguet, Cheng is debuting the piece Circadian Rhythm, a video work that’s on display in a side room within the booth. In it, various scenes are depicted: water droplets dangle precariously before a zoom lens, a forest flashes into sight, a butterfly flutters its wings. There’s an insistent pulsing behind the piano chords that form the soundtrack. If you’re in Art Basel in Basel this month, it’s on view again at the home base of the fair, also at the Audemars Piguet booth (the brand is a global partner).
The piece is rhythmic, mesmerising and beautiful (if that isn’t a bad word in the art world today). At times the flickering scenes feel like the opening sequence for some high-budget art film, at others they could be cuts from a new David Attenborough nature documentary. You can imagine Cheng would have great success as a cinematographer or art-house film director. We talk to him about why the art world called his name.
A lot of your film work is very strong in cinematography. What to you is the difference between an artistic film and video art?
There probably isn’t that big a difference. It’s probably more to do with the commercial market than the piece itself. My direction, though, isn’t towards professional filmmaking. I see things from a fine-art perspective.
Why did you choose video as your medium?
Painting was very static to me. I wanted something that had a more active element to it. There wasn’t that kind of speciality in China at the time, but some artists were doing it. I wanted to do something more forward thinking.
When you were growing up, what was your experience with art?
I started learning to draw when I was six, but I wouldn’t call that art. That was education. But a lot of my influence came from Chinese art, not from my family. My father works in the footwear industry.
Why did you want to be an artist then?
Freedom! An artist never has to go to the office. I’ve never worked in an office. The other thing is, I simply liked it. It held an attraction for me, this ability to communicate what can’t be communicated with language.
You’ve just recently finished a residency with K11 Art Foundation and New Museum, shown in New York, in which you created the video work Diary of a Madman.
It was a particularly good experience. It was my first time in New York, and I was there for three months. I was quite happy during this time — I went everywhere, and in the end I created 15 films based on what I got to know in New York. To me, it’s a very cultural and multicultural city, and the New Museum is an institution I particularly respect.
K11 as an organisation has been quite important to your career – besides the residency, it also mounted your video work In Course of the Miraculous. What are your thoughts on its mission?
K11 has a very international perspective and they work across so many fields. They have a lot of programmes with the world’s top art institutions; they’re expanding so quickly and will ultimately influence how the world views Chinese contemporary art. They’re opening a whole new world in terms of how to offer arts patronage and how to get the world at large involved in the art world.
How do you go from an idea to piece of work?
Sometimes I can decide to do a nine-hour piece in the time frame of one second. That’s ideal. Like this piece [Circadian Rhythm]: after visiting the [Audemars Piguet] factory and the Vallée de Joux, I had a very strong thought process and I started filming immediately. So for me, going from concept creation is very fast.
Do you think about the viewer’s experience when you’re creating a piece?
Not particularly. I don’t think my pieces have some sort of answer to a question, it’s more that the piece is the question, or it represents my experience, my feelings. I’m transmitting my sensations to the audience; they can attempt to understand it or not, it’s open-ended
With In Course of the Miraculous – it’s nine hours long – how do you wish people to interact with it?
It’s also open-ended. You can go and see a part of it, or you can sit there for a day. It doesn’t matter either way to me. It’s like owning a watch. You can stare at the time, but time won’t stop moving if you stop looking at it.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on several different pieces right now. Hong Kong is the next stop in the [Madman] trilogy after New York. The third stop will be in Israel, the last of three journeys in three places. Hong Kong has a lot of interesting stops: Sham Shui Po, Tuen Mun, Kowloon, Wan Chai. Places where people really live, to see Hong Kong’s culture.