Nancy Zhong ’15 is an artist who can’t restrict herself to a single medium. She was originally trained as a draftsperson to draw and paint, but she also dabbles in certain forms of carpentry and sculpture. In fact, Zhong has coined herself “a multimedia installation artist” and has applied her endless curiosity to answering a number of questions about the meaning and purpose of different types of art. As a studio art and history double major at the College, Zhong is able to use her artistic skills to create images, stories and histories of her own.
One question that is always in the back of her mind is that of the distinction between “high” and “low” art. While traditionally art has been reserved for the wealthy, the highly educated and the powerful, it has been evolving in modern times into an outlet of creative expression for all. “I’m struggling this semester with what it means when my work is made in a vacuum, the vacuum mainly being a gallery space,” Zhong said. Art galleries, including those at the College, can sometimes be isolating, exclusive experiences where visitors untrained in the discipline of art may feel unwelcome. Zhong strives to keep her art accessible.
“Personally I think everyone is an artist,” Zhong said. “I’m not being facetious here – everyone is a creator.” While everyone may not be an artist in a traditional sense, Zhong sees society itself as a canvas on which people’s thoughts and influences are the paint. “Everyone is adding something to the community, whether [or not] they’re self-consciously thinking about it,” Zhong said.
The piece that perhaps best represented the questions that have been driving Zhong’s artistic exploration was her “The Big Brother Theme Party, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Public Panopticon.” Performed on Oct. 19, 2013, the piece was a unique blend of an absurdist theater performance, an online game show, a documented recording and a piece of performance art. The piece was funded by Immediate Theater, which is a branch of the College’s student-run theater organization Cap & Bells.
The “show” involved a few volunteers, including Zhong, playing the lewd Apples to Apples spinoff Cards Against Humanity together in front of a live audience. The rules of the game were added to and manipulated by the participants so that the game progressed in several rounds, and when a player lost a round, he or she was shut out of the next one. This added to the theatricality of the already humorous game and helped the game transform into a piece of performance art.
The performance was also recorded and streamed live from four different angles on Tinychat.com, a browser-based chat client that allows anyone to make a webcam feed available live to a public audience. This aspect of the show reflected the principles behind its title, as the performers played for and were watched by an unseen Internet audience. The term “Big Brother” was a reference to both the reality show, in which a group of strangers all living in the same house are carefully documented, and the all-seeing dictator that controls the dystopian society of Airstrip One in George Orwell’s 1984. Both the reality show and Orwell’s novel operate under the metaphor of the panopticon, in which the behavior of an individual can be regulated with a combination of isolation and constant unseen surveillance.
The internet audience during the show was also voting live for who they thought should win the game and cheering on the “contestants,” thus making the piece also one of participatory theater, another love of Zhong’s. “What I want to do with my work is raise questions that I think are important and aren’t always necessarily addressed,” she said. “[Theater is] a very different form of interacting with art – you encounter it, and you don’t even realize it’s art.”
By taking a card game that much of the audience had likely played, without considering it to be art, and making it the focus of the piece, Zhong manipulated the definition of what art could be to those who experienced it. In taking the game to the stage she elevated it to an art form, but by making it easy for the public to engage in it online, Zhong also grounded it as a piece of “low art.” “I love things that have to do with a very holistic experience, but not in a way that makes it precious,” Zhong said.
Aside from staging performances pieces, Zhong is also heavily immersed in filmmaking. She’s currently enrolled in an independent study course with Arthur Lett, Jr. ’52 Artist-in-Residence in Art Silas Howard, and has taken a filmmaking class with art professor Liza Johnson. While she quit music classes long before college, Zhong has also recently picked up the drums for the first time to play in the anti-capitalist punk band Bread Helmets along with Brian Trelegan ’16 and Nile Livingston ’15. Although outside of her comfort zone, Zhong is incorporating the medium of music into her quest to explore the many directions art can take. She will be performing with Bread Helmets at Williamstown’s annual music festival, Billstock, this weekend at the Red Herring.