Premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in conjunction with the 2016–17 exhibition Tales of Our Time, He Xiangyu’s first feature film was inspired by a personal quest. After living in Berlin and the United States, He returned to his hometown of Kuandian, by the Yalu River that runs between China and North Korea—only to find a place in which he had become a stranger. Exquisitely framed by Shu Chou’s camera in The Swim, the town’s bucolic landscapes are haunted by a hidden history. This past is brought to light through interviews with Chinese veterans of the Korean war and North Korean defectors who have sought a better life in China, including women who were deceived by human traffickers and sold as wives to Chinese men. The veterans display their wrinkles, their aging bodies, and a mixture of pride and sadness in their memories of a distant war. The defectors often have to hide their faces—for fear of deportation or, for the women trapped in bad marriages, of retaliation from their husbands. For them, speaking is painful and difficult, fraught with silence, hesitations, occasional tears, and the uneasiness of navigating between several languages or dialects.
These first-person narratives draw an unexpected portrait of the town, marked by the physical and symbolic borders between two countries, and the multiple traumas created by this fracture. Yet the framing maintains a distance between the artist and the interviewees. In the final scene, however, He plunges into the Yalu River and swims toward North Korea, wearing a rubber suit and in broad daylight. While presenting a stark contrast with the darker, more tragic experience of his subjects, this performative act is an attempt to reenact their border-crossing journey. “I wanted to explore what was going on here in a very personal, physical way, in touch with the elements of the town: the water,” He explained. Description adapted from Bérénice Reynaud. (Dir.: He Xiangyu, China, 2017, 96 min., DCP, Mandarin and Korean with English subtitles)
He Xiangyu is a conceptual artist who lives and work in Beijing and Berlin. Born in 1986 in Liaoning Province, he graduated from Shenyang Normal University in 2008. He is known for his large-scale installations that involve human labor and processes, such as Cola Project (2009–11) and Tank Project (2011–13). A self-described “cultural nomad,” he also involves his own body to explore the challenges of cultural (dis)assimilation and transnational identity. In Palate Project (2012–ongoing), inspired by his physical efforts to master the sounds of the English language, he “translates” the ridges, bumps, and grooves of his palate, as perceived by his tongue, into various visual forms, such as drawings and molds. He has made a number of videos as part of his installations; The Swim is his first feature.