Ohio University

Student Explores Connections to Home: Film and Video Art in Contemporary China

Student Explores Connections to Home: Film and Video Art in Contemporary China
Zhou Chao in Rome, Italy, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Zhou Chao is an artist who identifies with the wanderer, the traveler, the explorer—having left home, she also carries the idea of home with her wherever she goes. From her undergraduate studies at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, where she focused on public art practice and theory, to her graduate studies in Italy at the Academy of Fine Art, Rome, Zhou’s interest in the philosophy of art and aesthetics finally led her to the Interdisciplinary Arts Ph.D. program at OHIO in 2016.

As a developing artist, her drive to strike a balance between pure scholarship and artistic production found a home in the community of artists and scholars at OHIO who have helped her develop both, simultaneously providing space for growth and encouragement to experiment. A unique academic track, the Artist/Scholar Ph.D. requires candidates to complete both theoretical research and practical artistic production concurrently. This balance allows Zhou, currently in her third year in the program, the opportunity to pair a deeper understanding of the philosophy of art with her artist projects in film.

Since leaving home, she's grown increasingly aware of the connection, alienation, and interaction between people from Western and Eastern backgrounds. Her interest in the tensions between the Self and the Other propel her ongoing curiosity.

Zhou’s research interests explore the particular differences between Chinese and Western arts and cultures at the turn of the 21st century, which she approaches from a variety of playful angles when making films and videos, and through an orderly, analytical lens in her scholarship.

Specifically, she is engaged in a philosophical investigation and analysis of contemporary Chinese films and video arts from 1990 to 2018, and related cultural theories, from the narrative work of Ann Hui (The Postmodern Life of My Aunt, 2007) and Jia Zhangke (Still Life, 2006), to the contemporary experimental film and video art of Yang Fudong and Tang Nannan.

While language barriers, even the small ones, are a recurring factor in her experience of adjusting to study in the United States, Zhou finds that the visual language of cinema provides a channel to express her cultural encounters through sound and image. She explores these cultural and language barriers, her own identity, and the ever present pull of her memories of home through her balance of personal and theoretical work.

“Mostly, I’ve been wandering away from home since I was sixteen years old. The connection between my homeland and me seems to become more and more fragile and vague with time,” said Zhou.


Zhou Chou, Interview with Three Strangers, 2017.
Still from An Interview of Three People, by Zhou, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

In her 2017 short film, An Interview of Three People, Zhou is present both on and off camera, playing interviewer and subject in discussions with people from different cultural backgrounds. She draws out these effortful experiences through her use of audio effects, using the redacting power of the “beep” sound layered over the words of the speakers to create a puzzling and comic version of mundane and sometimes awkward exchanges.

The idiosyncrasies built into cross-cultural conversation become a nagging distraction for the viewer, who is left with more questions than answers. There is a form of cinematic and psychological dissonance in her films, which is caused by the frictions between cultural and language interaction.

Zhou describes her recent films as "exploring the internal relationship between personal experience and cultural contexts by revealing the subjectivity of cinematic language." 

While the western imagination is embracing the interchangeable role of artist as scholar today, this dynamic and fluid notion of scholar/artist has deep roots in China, according to Zhou, who describes a long running connection in Chinese thought between artists and theorists.


Zhou Chou in Wanderer Carrying Roots, 2018.
Still from Wanderer Carrying Roots, a 2018 film by Zhou. Image courtesy of the artist.


In her recent short experimental film, Wanderer Carrying Roots, which screened at this year’s Athens International Film and Video Festival, Zhou reflects on her sense of nostalgia for a lost homeland, both literally, through the use of reflections in the window of a train, and metaphorically, through the use of sound, color shift, and abstraction, all working together to create a metaphorical journey of a passenger deep in thought.

As Zhou describes the film, “everything that objectively has been seen and heard is intermingled into subjective feelings; everything that has been represented in the film is transformed to a subjective perception.”

This subjectivity is important for Zhou, who finds inspiration in the smallest of exchanges, and every-day, cross-cultural conversations. As a multilingual speaker with enough confidence to admit when she is struggling to find the correct language to express an idea, she embraces the misinterpretations that filter our experiences of life in a transcultural world, one where the flow of influence is multi-directional, and inter-generational. While her research provides room to understand the thoughts and perceptions of voices from the past and present, her artistic practice makes room for her to synthesize the abstract and highly subjective elements of her personal experience.

In 2018, Zhou was awarded the Seigfred Outstanding Teacher Award at Ohio University, and she presented papers at the 24th World Congress of Philosophy, Beijing, China, the Annual Conference of the the Rocky Mountain Division of the American Society for Aesthetics, Santa Fe, and the Annual Conference of the British Postgraduate Network for Chinese Studies, Oxford University, UK.


Read more stories from Spring 2019 issue of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts Alumni News.