The debut of Chunsheng’s film The first man who bought a juicer bought it not for drinking juice falls almost exactly eighty years after the original broadcast of Orson Welles’ radio play The War of the Worlds, the inspiration for the artist’s Artpace project. Welles’ feature, a fictional account of an alien invasion, was thought by many to be a realistic news bulletin and incited panic across the nation. The widespread misinterpretation of Welles’ “report” illustrates the precariousness of human perception and the disturbing influence of technology and mass media on collective action, particularly with regard to paranoia. Chunsheng’s film documents the mechanical workings of a combine, a machine used for harvesting grain. The first man who bought a juicer bought it not for drinking juice has all the trappings of a classic science fiction scenario, showing technology as a creation that threatens to undermine and enslave its creator.
The combine, one of only two protagonists in the film, can be likened to a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster. The machine, which is cared for by a mechanic, is constantly in need of repair. The documentation of the combine, from its “birth” in a factory to its ”life” as it works in a field, is steeped in symbolism, casting man and machine in a relationship in which humanity is doomed to serve the slave it has created to serve itself.
In this not so subtle critique of science and industry, The first man who bought a juicer bought it not for drinking juice joins sweeping panoramic shots of Texas farmland with long-take footage of the combine to create a diametrical opposition between the natural world and the manufactured environment. The American heartland is pictured as under siege by the rapacious forces of technology.
Chunsheng’s past work is similarly informed by themes of implacable industry and human struggle. His actors are often shown in a state of perpetual malaise, repeating pointless exercises with no apparent resolution or engaging in absurd physical conflicts, like the mechanic in The first man who bought a juicer bought it not for drinking juice who toils endlessly to maintain his machine. In Chunsheng’s world, people are reduced to automatons, figures that represent the consequences of the communal thinking brought about by both mass production and political oppression. His work seems to suggest that while technological progress may improve the quality of life, it also heightens social impotence. Couched in the films of a young Chinese national who came of age in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and China’s shift away from Mao-Tse Tung’s agrarian collectivization, the implications of this message are enormous.