River Cao is a moving image and performance artist based in London.River’s research revolves around the rebuilding of landscapes and the returning of revenants; folkloric animated corpses that return to haunt the living. Using mourning as a method, he creates narrative spaces to rethink the emotion of grief.
River’s recent work ‘River is My Hometown’ (2021) was exhibited at Saatchi Gallery in the exhibition London Grads Now.21 , nominated in Selected’s 11th program in 2021, which was organised by The Jarman Award (Film London) and Video Club UK, and has been widely screened across the UK. River’s ‘Galaxy TV Online Shopping’ (2019) was shortlisted for the China Golden Shuanmazhuan Awards, screened at theICA, London and selected for the 2020 Art & Design Education FutureLab at the West Bund Art Centre, Shanghai. His work “‘Forest Picture’ (2018)” was included in the 2018 Beate album of the Ludwig Museum of Art, in Germany and shortlisted for the Gallery Mcube’s "experimental short film project.
Q: In your latest film ‘River Is my Hometown’ (2021) you describe feeling a strong sense of loss for your hometown Nanxiang located by the Yangtze River Basin in Hunan Province, China. Has the pandemic and international restrictions intensified your relationship to your hometown?
Yes, the relationship has become more complicated, and the feeling it brings to me is more intense.
When the pandemic and lockdown started in the UK, I went back to my hometown in China, and because of the disparity in information about Covid-19 between China and UK, and the fear of potential disaster in my hometown, they treated me as a returnee like facing the virus itself, which made me feel like I had become a threat, both physically and mentally.It also made me feel very guilty and my sense of loss even became stronger.
On the other hand, during the pandemic, I was able to stay at my mother's house longer because all my classes went online at the time, and I had more time to build connections with the landscape of waters from my memory and meet my longing, because many scenes are unique there, and these scenes are also what I have been trying to re- represent in my works. Therefore, this relationship was contradictory at that moment as well.
Q: Your work addresses ideas of melancholy for the loss of your hometown and the impact this has had on your identity. I was wondering if you could expand on this relationship?
My hometown is a small town by the river in southern China, which was destroyed by a catastrophic flood in 1998. The economic and cultural decline of the town was slowly recovered after several years, but it seems that the post-disaster sensitivity and repressed thoughts still remain affecting people in this area; several local tragedies caused by cultural and educational issues in recent years may point at this series of contradictions.
Growing up in such an environment has always been very depressing, especially as a queer person. Under the generally unoptimistic environment of gender education in China, the vigilant, conservative and oppressive post-disaster environment in my hometown made me even more confused and anxious about my self-identity, which also brought me a lot of incomprehension and contradictions, both from my family and from the environment around me at that time. Every time I returned to my hometown, this contradictionintensified over and over again. This complex contradiction extends to politics, personal rights, and trans-identity, and for so long, it has given me a very broad sense of grief and loss. I started to think, maybe I lost my hometown in 1998.
When I was in high school, I left my hometown and went to study in more international cities, such as Tianjin, Beijing and London. But when I lived in each different city, I always looked for landscapes of waters similar to my hometown, because I miss the quiet natural scenes there with special and personal meaning, and for practice, it is also a way to relieve my inner anxiety. I wrote in my personal statement:
“My work has always been trying to find a way to relieve my inner sense of loss, which is rooted in a desire for tranquillity and fantasy.”
Q: How do you think as humans we can rethink the way we deal with mourning and loss? What methods and tools do you think we can use?
I think there are multiple ways to do it, and this is a very personal approach.
In the traditional way, crying and lamenting probably are very direct and efficient methods to face a super-strong subject emotion. But in a far-reaching and meaningful sense, perhaps we need to find a more sustainable method, mourning is also a gradual response to wider or personal topics, such as the pandemic, the violence of gender, colonialism, the inequality of rights, body policies, the demise of order and the private experience of the individual.
Mourning can be a creation of text, like the Duino Elegies by Rilke. It can be a collection or collage of some special senes of memories, like NOX’ by Anne Carson, or material processes and metaphors for technology, such as ‘Mines, Bombs, and Spirits’ by Steven Claydon. It can also be the landscape I create in my work ‘River is My Hometown’, that returns me in the form of revenant to a hometown that transcends the geographic concept of place.
Q: When did you realise you wanted to work in film over other mediums?
I think I start out with my sensitivity to sound. When I hear a sound, it's easy for me to have the picture in my head, these intermittent pictures combined with sound, always give me some surprise. So I explored a lot about moving image with sound in the beginning. I think it remains most of my personal feelings in this way.
Q: Water often becomes the conceptual medium in your work and you’ve previously spoken about being heavily influenced by its possibilities, whether catastrophic, spiritual or literal. How do you think about water in relation to your practice?
Actually, water does not appear in my work alone, it is usually accompanied by a special scene. For example the special local funeral ritual from my hometown; ‘Plead for Water’ (in the first part of ‘River is My Hometown’), and the flood views in my work. These are all closely related to the water’s environment I grew up in, which is also an important part of the landscape that has a special meaning to me, and is wet, quiet, dangerous. You can regard the collection and rebuilding of these scenes as my work of mourning, and then I bring these landscapes into my inner world, so we have “in my invisible landscape, the most beautiful, you make me more angel-known, those are invisible” - Duino Elegies, the first elegy.
Q: What was the process involved in making the film ‘River is my Hometown’? How was it made and how do you work?
This was a very long step, and of course also influenced by the pandemic.
I planned more on the practice of live performances in the beginning. I also prepared the performance of ‘River is My Hometown’ in 2020. I wanted to reproduce the funeral ritual Plead for Water from my hometown, but due to the lockdown and pandemic, my performance plan was terminated, and I returned to my hometown.
During the time I spent in my hometown, I experienced the death of my great-grandfather and the seasonal floods, I experienced the full process of ‘Plead for Water’ at my great-grandfather's funeral, which made me have more intuitive feelings, and I started learning to fly drones, because I think the drone's perspective is a very potential view — light and straight through the outside world, floating in the air and staring at my hometown. So I started using the drone to collect scenes of floods every morning around 4-5 am for half a month. I think capturing these views will help me to approach the positionality and gaze of the revenant in my future work.
After I returned to London in 2021, I started to conceive the structure of the whole short film, but there is no fixed narrative, I usually choose to keep a more non-textual structure to the scene composition. I did a video performance with my friend in a reservoir in north London where I found that it was really similar to my hometown. My friend Hao Tan designed the costume in the film, and I worked with Owen Pratt on the sound. Owen completed a very impressive soundtrack, it has an amazing chemical reaction when combined the with the previously shot drone footage. After this, I finished ‘River is My Hometown’.
Q: You’ve recently graduated from the Royal College of Art, already had your work exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in the exhibition London Grads Now.21 and been nominated in the 11th ‘Selected’ Program, organised by The Jarman Award and Video Club UK, among other achievements. What advice would you have for anyone wanting to start out in film?
Be brave, be playful, be sensitive. Starting to film is really exciting for me as well in the beginning. I will test a lot of different devices and then use them in a targeted way to achieve the picture I want.So keep experimenting and keep freshness. I think this is a good way to start filming.
Q: And lastly what are you working on next?
just finished my exhibition in the Saatchi Gallery, and having a show in Sadie Coles HQ with Queer Direct currently, which was an amazing experience. I am also about to start my residency at Letchworth Garden City and create new works. The radical activism of building a utopia that happened in the 20th Century during the Letchworth Garden City Movement really inspired me. I want to focus more on how mourning becomes a fluid translation strategy for the externalisation of melancholic thought and feelings of loss.