Sandy Ding: Self Explosion of the Spirit

Sandy Ding is, so far as I can tell, a movement of one: trained in China and the United States, he is perhaps the only experimental filmmaker working in celluloid in the mainland. With his newest film, Night Awake, he has likewise made an experimental feature in a genre of one. Call it transcendental materialism or else psychedelic concrete. Whatever it is, it breathes new life into dead things.

It starts with a clock and a few electronic screeches. The clock doubles in superimposition and appears to move over itself before being smashed repeatedly in slow motion. “All you need for a movie” wrote Godard, “is a gun and a girl”; for Ding, we could say, it is a clock and a hammer. The concept that the images give rise to is clear: destroy our mechanized understanding of clock-time so that a new kind of time can appear, “a little time in its pure state.”

Shot in the rainforests of Guatemala on extremely outdated film stock—Lucky brand, the only maker of 16mm film in China, produced primarily for military purposes—the degraded emulsion rarely coagulates into anything recognizable; the decomposition of the image becomes primary. Streaks, anomalies, and rapidly shifting patterns of crystalline splotches dominate the screen. From behind this gray and white veil we catch brief glimpses of photographic imagery: in focus and out, recognizable and not, always primarily a play of light and shadow. Between them, we may detect a journey past mountains and streams, but are we ascending or descending? It is a floating world with image cells that surface and sink. Scale shifts unexpectedly—a spider web waving in the wind has the same presence and grandeur as a majestic cliff—giving each shot a totemic quality. We then enter a prolonged, dreamy period in the abstract film-deterioration space, after which clear images of an ancient pyramid suddenly erupt out of the miasma. This comes as something of a shock, like a bell ringing at the end of a long silence, and signals the beginning of the end of the film, the completion of its occult ritual.

In fact, the movie is a tripartite ritual. There was first a ritual to create it: prior to filming, Ding performed a ceremony to call a lunar deity into his camera, such that for him the movie is “downloaded from the moon”; it records another, performed at the aforementioned pyramid; and it enacts a third in the screening room upon viewing. To watch Night Awake is to go into a trance; but, it is an uncanny trance, one in which you are always keenly aware of the material conditions of the medium inducing the experience. It is not medium specific so much as medium as medium: 16mm clairvoyance.

Some may note similarities with filmic projects of the 1960s, in particular raucous New American Cinema at the cusp of its transition into stately Structural Film. Very well. It should also be noted that there is a potentially related cultural and political awakening at present in China, resulting in an explosion of underground art, noise music, and audio-visual performance. “The reason may be different,” Ding writes, “but the outcome is similar: the spirit starts to expose itself… For China, it is the self explosion of the depressed spirit.”

Dwelling overlong on these similarities, however, could distract us from other clear affinities: for while Ding’s project is both psychedelic and overtly spiritual—its explicit aim is to bring new consciousness into the world—it is perhaps a psychedelic spirituality derived less from utopian countercultural projects of the late 60s than their latter-day, libertarian, techno-infused brand of consciousness expansion typified by Silicon Valley’s nether side: Burning Man.

Why then filter this mystico-techno-positivism back through celluloid, a disappearing medium harkening more to cinema’s past than its present? The answer can only be that this is its very subject. It is about death, a funerary paean to film, a deep dive into the materiality of film itself in order to record, revel in, and grieve its passing. “In China, film is dead,” Ding told me. “I thought, if it is going to die, we should appreciate that process.” The deteriorated imagery is a picture of cinema’s advanced state of decomposition, or as Ding put it, “This is out of the graveyard.” An experimental zombie movie? Maybe, but it is film itself that has been reanimated.
Sandy Ding filming Night Awake
Unless otherwise noted, all images are from Sandy Ding's Night Awake (2016), courtesy the artist.