Thursday, April 07, 2011

High in the gorges a rock dam will rise

I have been reading about contemporary Chinese artists this week - disturbing news of the detention of Ai Weiwei and an interesting survey of recent art questioning Chinese state power in David Clarke's book Water and Art.  Clarke traces the importance of water control schemes in modern China: the Yangtze river bridge at Wuhan linking north and south for the first time, the bridge at Nanjing built in 1968 entirely by Chinese engineers, the South-North Water Transfer Project and most recently The Three Gorges Dam which has flooded a landscape celebrated in Chinese literature.  Whilst earlier artists celebrated these achievements (Wei Zixi's The Yangtze River Becomes a Thoroughfare, 1973), recent artists have been freer to depict their human cost (Liu Xiaodong's Three Gorges: Displaced Population, 2003)In 1995, a year after the Three Gorges Dam was given the go-ahead, Zhuang Hui made a series of transitory marks at locations that would soon be submerged, had them photographed and exhibited as Longitude 109.88 E and Latitude 31.09 N.  These were among the works in a show in Chicago a couple of years ago called 'Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Chinese Contemporary Art.'

Wang Jin's Fighting the Flood - Red Flag Canal (1994) involved a trip to another famous Mao era water-control project.  There the artist released 50kg of red pigment into the water, transforming the colour of communism into an agent of pollution, as well as a memorial to the blood sacrificed by those who built the canal.  David Clarke relates this work to Olafur Eliasson's similar Green River works, in which green dye has been poured into various rivers around the world and the artist has waited to observe people's reactions.  In an interview Eliasson recounted how in Tokyo 'a lot of people stopped and looked... And of course they were stunned. I did it in a spot where the cherry blossom comes out a month later. It's well known as a beautiful place. Actually the police came and. basically I ran away. And the police then put up posters asking anybody who had seen somebody suspicious to contact them.'  Incidentally, both of these river dying projects were preceded by an attempt by Denis Oppenheim and Peter Hutchison in 1969 to paint the irregular shape of Highway 20 onto the waters of a Caribbean cove, using magenta dye and gasoline.  Unfortunately the dye seeped ashore, impregnated beach towels and then, through the hotel washing machines, contaminated other laundry so that "everything was pink".  Oppneheim said later that he considered the outcome a better work than the one he had originally envisaged.

Some of the contemporary Chinese artists discussed in Water and Art have been producing work that challenges the Chinese cult of swimming, typified by Mao, who developed it into a public spectacle (see clip below).  This was not about immersion in nature or a Daoist sense of going with the flow; Mao said that 'swimming is an exercise of struggling with nature', and 'the current going against you can train your will and courage to be stronger.'  Mao's swim across the Yangtze in 1956, with its emphasis on the body and endurance, in some ways 'strangely prefigures aspects of Chinese performance art.' An earlier chapter of Clarke's book is devoted to Fu Baoshi, who specialised in rainswept landscapes but also painted On the Theme of Mao Zedong's 'Swimming'.  'Swimming' was the poem Mao wrote after crossing the Yangtze, but its emphasis on the mastery of nature is barely felt in Fu's painting, which seems to show Mao's head marooned in a vast expanse of water.  Painted in 1958, this work could not be directly critical but was hardly heroic either.  And in adding calligraphy to the painting, Fu chose to ignore those lines in which Mao looked to the future: 'high in the gorges a rock dam will rise, / cutting off Wu Mountain's cloud and rain. / A still lake will climb in the tall gorges.'

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