Multichannel HD-video installation © 2013 Paula Muhr

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In 2013 Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, invited his countrymen to „dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation“. Since Xi’s implementation of the phrase „Chinese dream“, this idiom has become one of the most frequently used terms in the Chinese media.

The phrase Chinese dream currently possesses an almost programmatic character, as it is used by the new Chinese government to symbolise China’s bright future. Yet, it also seems an apt term to describe China’s present status as the world’s second largest economy and its unprecedented development over the past two decades.

My work „Chinese Dream“, created during a two-month-stay in China, explores if an abstract concept can be translated into individual dreams and values. The starting point of the work are the interviews which I have conducted with a number of Chinese individuals of different ages, professional backgrounds and holding different social positions. They were all asked to formulate their personal interpretation of the Chinese dream.

The multi-media installation juxtaposes mute fragments from the filmed interviews with video and sound recordings I made during my long walks in China’s megacities such as Shenzhen, Shanghai and Hongkong. While the filmed interviews place focus on a number of specifically chosen individuals and their hopes and dreams, my other recordings represent more metaphoric interpretations of the everyday environment of the new China.

Whether I was filming people or the reflections of lavishly lit-up skyscrapers on the water surfaces of Victoria Harbour in Hongkong and at the Pudong district in Shanghai, all elements of the installation directly or indirectly reference the concept of the Chinese dream. They deal with more or less tangible effects of the Chinese dream on the everyday lives of China’s inhabitants living in its richest and most developed metropolitan areas.

One particularly significant aspect of the work is its preoccupation with the problem of translation. As a foreigner in China without any knowledge of the Chinese language, I was forced to rely on the kind help of those around me, not only to translate for me, but also to interpret and explain at times very different social and cultural customs. One such specific cultural aspect was the fact that, when asking people to participate in my project, I never received a single outright refusal. Those who felt reluctant to appear in my installation simply avoided giving any direct answer. This silence puzzeld me at first, until I have learnt that according to the Chinese speech culture, one should never say „No“.

A number of choices regarding what to include in and what to omit from the installation were driven by my own translational efforts, both regarding the unfamiliar cultural context in which I was working, and the lack of any knowledge of the Chinese language, which made the direct communication with my interviewees in most cases impossible.

The final installation combines almost abstract images of the flickering water surfaces at night, made at the places of highly concentrated economic power, with mute one-minute loops of the interviewees. The close-up video portraits of the people who participated in the interview represent a slow-motion analysis of their mostly unconscious facial gestures. The only sound in the installation is a recording I made in a crowded Shenzhen park at night of a man performing vocal exercises and afterwards singing.

My „Chinese Dream“ represents a synthesis of several closely intertwined and interdependent processes of translation, (mis)interpretations and omissions, resulting in a very subjective image of contemporary China.