Cheng Ran’s Diary of a Madman: Manchester Plan, New Bees is the culmination of the artist’s short-term residency at CFCCA, documenting his observations of Greater Manchester’s urban culture. Manchester Plan, New Bees marks the latest instalment in Cheng’s Diary of a Madman series, an ongoing project which has previously seen the artist examine the disparate cultural landscapes of New York, Jerusalem and Hong Kong, all of which are exhibited here alongside the artist’s new work. The series takes its title from Lu Xun’s 1918 short story, ‘Diary of a Madman’, presented as diary entries of a ‘madman’ on the margins of society. “Everything requires careful consideration if one is to understand it”, a repeated line by Xun’s narrator, encapsulates Cheng’s approach to new cities and unfamiliar geographical landscapes. Accumulating a plethora of visual material, the artist traverses and captures the overlooked and obscure aspects of divergent cultural spheres from an alienated, almost obsessive, perspective akin to the ‘madman’.
The Chinese artist’s video installations play on a loop in the darkened gallery space partially lit by a seedy red light, reminiscent of neon advertising signs, emanating from a gap at the bottom of the walls. The focal point of the gallery space is Cheng’s newly commissioned ‘Manchester Plan’ (2019), a large-scale work consisting of multi-screen unsynchronised videos projected onto a wooden sculpted screen in the middle of the gallery. Installed directly onto the grey tiled gallery floor, the installation creates a sense of being on the pavement experiencing the city through the artist’s eyes. Layering moving image, photography, animation and narration, Cheng’s vision of Manchester, like the experience of being in a big city, is a sensory overload.
A series of close-ups of four individuals fade into ghostly apparitions as layers of flickering and flashing images and footage taken in and around Manchester city centre flood the screen. From Chinatown to Castlefield, canals to casinos, sex shops to Sacha’s, Cheng’s position as an outsider in the city represents an experience both rooted within the allure of fantasy and a sense of isolation. Underneath the work’s pulsating electronic soundtrack that fills the gallery, the voiceover, distortedly delivered in both Chinese and English, reinforces this loneliness: “I feel like I’m invisible, I wish I could be important.” Permeating ‘Manchester Plan’ is a recurring grid motif, lifted from the distinctive honeycombed ashtrays found in the city’s public bins. Drawing on the Manchester worker bee, the city’s historic symbol, Cheng explores the pulsating ‘hive’ network that animates the city while reinforcing a sense of self-sufficiency and survival shared by the worker bee and the stranger in an unfamiliar urban environment.
On either side of ‘Manchester Plan’, two smaller screens play the artist’s earlier works that similarly utilise first person narrative to create a profound sense of loss, alienation and madness. ‘Diary of a Madman: New York’ (2016), completed during a three-month residency at the New Museum, New York, shows a series of short vignettes that draw on literature, poetry, philosophy, cinema and visual culture to fabricate new narratives around the streets of New York City, from a singing trash bag to a reimagining of Plato’s Cave. ‘Diary of a Madman: Jerusalem’ (2016), completed during a residency at Output, Jerusalem, defamiliarises the city to create a disorienting sense of experiencing a city as an ‘outsider’, where a fear of forgetting one’s own language is related to a loss of self. Largely made up of iPhone photographs and screenshots, ‘Diary of a Madman: Hong Kong’ (2017), meanwhile, reflects on the cost of the city’s rapid growth on both the natural environment and the city’s residents.
Using his marginalised position, Cheng creates a portrait of global cities through the eyes of an outsider that is at once familiar and unfamiliar. Through video works that are simultaneously chaotic, rambling and poignant, the artist exposes the incongruous aspects of our surrounding environments that challenges the distinction between residents and outsiders within a city.
Cheng Ran: Diary of a Madman – Manchester Plan, New Bees is at CFCCA from 25 October 2019 – 12 January 2020.
Rachel Hughes is a writer based in Manchester.