Review by Julie Niemi
I am writing today to unpack this concise collection of stories.
Packaged in a small, pocket sized book designed by Sam de Groot, the stories are a scattered diary and epistolary woven into a poetic, historical first-person recollection of space and time.
Unraveled over 159 pages and cut into three sections called volumes, this cast of characters possesses a rather neurotic, observational quality in their letters and entries. Fang poignantly captures these moments of pivotal self-reflection. Take for example Vladmir Xie, our protagonist in Volume 3. Sporadically published by e-flux last year, the format are letters written by Xie to his unresponsive fictional savior: “I don’t know your real name, but I’m sure ‘Navigator’ is an appropriate substitute that both reflects my place where I hold you in my heart and conveys respect I’ve silently maintained for you these many years.” The Navigator’s identity is never revealed, and ultimately doesn’t quite matter, but rather, the purpose of the fictional receiver provides Xie an audience on which to project his thoughts.
Xie’s account reveals the psychological and physiological states during a 520-day simulated space mission to Mars. Located in the outskirts of Moscow, Xie is in constant observance by a managerial team outside the module, dictating his time with menial tasks and tests–a structure for Xie to build a routine. A contemporary Chinese writer setting a story in Moscow of course teases the spectre of the once and future power of communism. For our narrator, the acknowledgement of the managerial gaze is the perfect hybridization of dystopian democracy and networked society, as surveillance here is presented two-fold: the managerial network provides human contact, which is comforting and occupying, but the long-term paranoia is significantly devastating. As the chapter continues, we witness the deterioration and loneliness of Xie, leaving a pressing question which steadily persists throughout Volume 3 and the entire book: is the data monitoring about observing the individual or observing the performance of the individual?
In Volume 2, casting a combative reality TV crew, Notes from the Glass House gives a short metaphor of a sort of Mies van der Rohe-style glasshouse as an observation point for human conflict and affect. The actors are categorized as participants, as the chapter cuts between the internal workings of the cast and the voyeuristic quality of the audiences watching at home. As the actors engage in real human emotion with one another, the chapter cuts to a distaste from the audience as TV sets are smashed or turned off. Ratings go down, the show goes off the air. Entertainment over emotion. Fang’s exploration into the surveillance of participation implicates art and exhibition making, which makes sense given the author’s co-founding of the influential Chinese art spaces/projects Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, and The Pavilion, Beijing.
Dear Navigator extends the playful rigor of Fang’s total practice within art as both an organizer and writer. The 10 stories in their entirety reveal a melancholy, yet humorous, voice reflecting on everyday life in our strange technological times as well as the haunting, unwieldy past that put us here.
Hu Fang, Dear Navigator. Sternberg Press, 2014.