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October 15, 2018

Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes

“This is a man. He’s recorded 300 times each day. This is a woman. Her privacy is all used up.”

Visual artist Xu Bing composed this dystopian love story entirely from surveillance footage recorded in China and uploaded by institutions and individuals. The title evokes the composite image of a world seen through an insect’s eyes. Real-life locations come together in constellations, in a kind of montage you could call statistical. The necessarily loose narrative is unified by poet Zhai Yongming’s fictional dialogue, Yoshihiro Hano’s score, and Le Danfeng’s sound design, while the agitated rhythm of Matthieu Laclau’s editing suggests clicking or swiping through videos to settle, for a moment, on the bizarre or banal. As it begins, Qing Ting is leaving the monastery where she has been training as a nun—the composite image revealing the startling knowledge that even Buddhist monasteries in China are under heavy surveillance. Taking a job at an industrial dairy farm, she meets Ke Fan, who becomes enamored of her. Ke Fan goes to jail for attacking a woman who insults Qing Ting. Once he is released, he searches for Qing Ting without success, disoriented by the numerous young women in offices, cafés and beauty parlors who resemble her, until he begins to suspect that she has reinvented herself online.

Dragonfly Eyes deals in a paradox: On the one hand, surveillance performs as it was designed, capturing people and events unawares; it permits glimpses of the world in what André Bazin would have called its virginal purity, from a pedestrian’s disconsolate gesture to a spider’s web glittering with dew. Indeed, we can bring Bazin’s attitude not to the events in the footage but to the footage itself: ignored, ugly, an attempt to comprehend the world from a limited perspective. On the other hand, people and things have come to conform to surveillance’s informational image. In the film, a theme of plastic surgery resonates with the way surveillance captures and encodes the surfaces of things, and, in turn, people (and cows, engineered to produce more milk) transform to more closely resemble a certain ideal.

Now assisted by image-recognition software and big data, surveillance constructs a statistical world from metadata. In some of the more recent footage, facial-recognition software draws its rectangles around the characters and even estimates what they are doing (“the woman no249627 takes off her shirt”), amplifying the sense that people can be replaced by their metadata. An atmosphere of amorality or neutrality envelops the two characters as they drift from scene to scene. The cameras’ disinterested gaze captures terrifying scenes of plane crashes, suicides and natural disasters with the same bland attention they accord to the most trivial of recorded events, creating an almost exhilarating sense of general annihilation. Surveillance cameras don’t judge, and neither does the film. – Laura U. Marks, film writer, programmer, Professor in the School for Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, and Visiting Lecturer on Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University

The HFA, VES Department and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard welcome Xu Bing, who will introduce the screening on Monday and will give the 2018-2019 Kim and Judy Davis Dean’s Lecture in the Arts at Radcliffe’s Knafel Center (10 Garden St., Cambridge) Tuesday October 16 at 4:15pm. The lecture is free, but registration is required. Please visit

Special thanks: Jennifer Roberts, Becky Wassarman—Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard.

Free Admission
Introduction by Xu Bing

Monday October 15 at 7pm

Dragonfly Eyes

Directed by Xu Bing
China 2017, DCP, color, 81 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

DCP courtesy Xu Bing Studio.

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