The venue for the newly launched CCA Berlin has all the markings of an up-and-coming cultural center in a soon-to-be-gentrified area. Within this semi-industrial space, He Xiangyu’s House of Nations, 2021, feels oddly at home. In one of the first scenes of the twenty-nine-minute single-channel video, a Chinese exchange student pulls an old carpet down a street using a trolley. Once he arrives at the “House of Nations,” a dormitory for international students in Berlin-Wedding, the protagonist cuts a piece of the rug to fit the floor of his room. In the gloomy images that follow, Xiangyu tracks the student’s daily routine, which is interrupted by episodes of cycling through an empty tunnel at night. Few words are spoken throughout the twenty-nine minutes of footage. A rare conversation takes place over dinner with fellow Chinese students; his colleague offhandedly mentions a passed entry exam to study music, providing one of the few glimpses into what these students hope to gain from this experience.
Global mobility has increased opportunities for education, but at a price of rootlessness and isolation. House of Nations brings this into focus through sustained attention to an individual experience. The handheld camera follows its protagonist closely. In more social moments, it feels like the artist is part of the crowd. Just before a shot of the student smoking alone outside in the dark, however, Xiangyu’s camera takes an abruptly steep angle to his subject. The effect is one of intimacy and immediacy, an effect heightened by later footage of an outdoor bondage session with a friend. The lens holds so tightly to the bodies, that one can barely see the autumnal woods and gray sky.