What follows is an extract of my presentation at ICAS 8 in Macao last June, in a fascinating panel on “Ruins, Heritage and Monumentality in China”. A very special thanks to the other participants, Angela Becher from SOAS, Shuli Wang from University College London, and Cathryn Clayton (University of Hawaii at Manoa) who acted as discussant, as well as the audience who attended, in the last day of an intense four-day conference, and provided great comments and connections.
Against the Ruin: Demolition Sites in Contemporary Experimental Photography from China
Urban transformation has had a starring role in China’s economic reforms, both as one of its major engines as well as a visible indicator of their results. Housing shortage, a highly profitable real state market and the plan to increase urban population, and with it, to boost domestic consumption, have stimulated plans of urban renewal. For growingly decentralized local governments, land revenues have become a large source of income, as well as a fast track for modernization, visually expressed by new business districts, high rises and shopping malls.
Contemporary Chinese artists, and among them experimental photographers, have been attracted to this rapid and widespread transformation, and in particular, to the rubble of demolition, a prolonged and disturbing presence in many Chinese cities.
A legal framework that grants land ownership to the state while allowing a market of land use, and the embedded connivance of official and semi-official agencies with real state developers have sparked speculation with centrally-located plots, resulting in wastelands and lunar landscapes. Improvisation and over investment have translated in half-finished buildings or projects, the so-called lanweilou烂尾楼.
Moreover, demolition of areas where compensation was still negotiated with other neighbors has collapsed spatial distinctions and brought rubble deep into the everyday, a gradual course of action has also at work in the Three Gorges Dam project area, where a number of cities to be covered by the waters have been demolished and scavenged to prevent underwater hazards. Indeed, the particular economy of demolition, consisting of a slow salvaging and recycling of construction materials, rebar and all sorts of metals have also contributed to the emergence of ruinous landscapes.
Different critics, academics and curators have used the category of ‘ruins’ to describe many of these artworks. So perhaps we should stop a bit and analyze the term. ‘Ruin’, as an archaeological site itself, is made of different layers of meaning coming from different historical periods. As the editors of a recent edited volume on The Ruins of Modernity have noted, ruins contain a “suggestive, unstable semantic potential”. Because of this instability, ruins thus often turn to be “the playground of speculative strategies that tell us more about the beholder than about the ruin or its original environment” (ibid). Paradoxically, then, the very existence of ruins depends on a particular historical present and its strategies of framing and appropriation of the past.
From a linguistic perspective, we see how the word ‘ruin’, a Latinate which refers to ‘collapsed stones’, extended into a verb meaning ‘to break or spoil something’, engages in a complex dialogue with its Chinese counterparts. Ruins are often translated as feixu废墟, destruction of houses or cities caused by natural or human-made disaster or neglect. It is a quite modern word, made of fei废, ‘waste, rubbish’, as in feiwu废物 or feipin废品, and also ‘uselessness’, as in feihua废话, useless talk, and xu墟, with the radical of void or emptiness, and denoting a ruin. Among contemporary Chinese intellectuals, abandoned cultural relics are often described as feixu and lamented for what they symbolize of China’s disregard for its cultural heritage, a significant example being Yu Qiuyu余秋雨 widely read book of essays A Bitter Journey Through Culture (Wenhua Kulu), where poetically he defines feixu as “destruction, a wreck, but also a farewell and a choice”.
Ruins, from a materialist perspective, are just architectural rubble, but a centuries-long discoursive operation have turned them into a privileged cultural and aesthetic object. As testified by Yu Qiuyu’s rhetoric of cultural sublime, and the work of some contemporary artists who, as we will see, transform material remains of urban demolition into significant spaces, feixu in itself might not automatically convey the same as ‘ruins’ in the Western aesthetic tradition. Other concepts, like that of yizhi遗址, are needed by unambiguously mark a memorial or a historical relic: the Yuanming Yuan, the old imperial gardens in Beijing that include the ruins of Western-style palaces designed by Jesuits of the Qianlong court, is referred as a yizhi gongyuan, or relic garden. Feixu, rather than returning a perfect mirror-image of ‘ruins’, adds to the semantic and visual meaning of ruins with an emphasis on waste, discarded materials, or rubbish.
Inserted in transnational circulation, Chinese images of urban rubble can be aesthetically claimed by the so-called ‘ruin porn’ strategies, which “dislocate the political dynamics of ruin in favor of momentary sensations and lurid plots” (Finoki). In contrast, I’d like to underscore how feixu, nodding to vastus, the origin of waste and devastation (a very interesting point raised by Will Viney in his fascinating blog Waste Effects), echoes an ongoing interest in cultural studies and the social sciences about marginal spaces and wasteful materiality.
Besides their importance for environmental and cultural preservation, and the necessary acknowledgement and critique of disaster capitalism and its ‘creative destruction’ processes, demolition sites and industrial ruins are growingly regarded as spaces that have loosen up, and where the order of everyday normativity, with its “arrangement of things in place, the performance of regulated actions, the display of goods lined up as commodities or for show-ruin spaces are ripe with transgressive and transcendent possibilities” (Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality, 2005).
Under this light, demolished plots and buildings are something more than a mere testimony of ruthless urban development. It has been experimental photographers, rather than those with a documentary or ethnographic approach, who have produced more and more interesting work on urban demolition. As a term naming a group of contemporary Chinese artists, ‘experimental’ has gained currency over avant-garde, unofficial, or underground, too often dependent on the connection of Chinese artworks (and literature and film) with their political context and criticism. In photography, it developed in the mid-90s, departing from utilitarian, art-salon, and ‘socio-political’ approaches (Karen Smith).
In Chinese, ‘experimental’ is shiyan实验, combining shi 实, solid or true, a key element in photography, perhaps even more in China, with yan验, test or experience, the idea of undergoing an event, as in jingyan经验 or tiyan体验, to learn from experience. In the context of Chinese contemporary artwork, it supposes an actualization of the reform motto ‘search truth from facts’ (shishi qiu shi实事求是) with an emphasis on subjective experience.
Urban wastelands and heaps of rubble are spaces of heightened materiality, where the everyday arrangement of objects and the normative uses of spaces are turned upside down. Entering the demolition lot is thus first and foremost a sensual and unregulated experience of estrangement and unexpected encounters, and triggers different regimes of interaction. In addition, demolition offers a possibility to test new expressive possibilities and expanding the limits of the artist language and media.
Urban renewal projects have disposed of centuries-old buildings and urban layouts, as in the case of Beijing hutongs. But even in the cases of houses and buildings with no historical value, these spaces have turned into what for Yu Qiuyu was a “magnetic field, between the poles of past and future”, a heightened connection with remembrance and perdurability.
In Stephen Owen’s analysis on ancient elegiac huaigu poetry (Remembrances: The Experience of the Past in Classical Chinese Literature, 1986), we find an interesting note on the phenomenology of erasure. He writes, “for an erasure to be present to us, we must know that something was there; we must see the traces of the erasure…Because we crave to ‘be’-in body, in works, in writing-we can never view such erasures dispassionately, as mere blank space”.
The interrelation with the demolition site has frequently resulted in highly ritualized performances of loss, dislocation, and search. Echoing ancient poets and scholars who would connect with their predecessors by visiting the same place or writing an alluding poem or commentary, performance allows to recreate an experience rather than an object, as what been lost, in many occasions, is not so much a material object but forms of conviviality, social networks, a way of life. As artist Song Dong, who wrote his diary with water on a stone, what gets performed is memory rather than the record: as historian Wu Hung succinctly describes, “to reclaim the past one must perform the past”.
My note on ‘ritual’, beyond the connections frequently established by critics and historian between performance and ritual in China, is established for the repetitive and serialized nature of many photographic works. Returning again and again to the demolished plot, some photographers explore ways to structure a course of action–performance art in Chinese, xingwei yishu行为艺术, translates as behaviour art.
Besides the document of performances and site-specific installations, photography has also recorded elaborated tableaux and even recreation of demolished structures. Moreover, different techniques of photographic composition and manipulation, have served to superimpose traces and memories. Given the cultural connections with ancient practices of remembrance noted above, it might not come as a surprise that ghosts are frequent apparitions in these theaters of memory.
In a final note, I’d like to note the growing dialogue with their Chinese artistic and aesthetic tradition. After the rupture of previous generations and the adoption of Western trends, techniques and models, it is possible to witness a tendency to acknowledge Chinese compositions, like those of ancient shanshui landscape masters.
As shown in the recently published by art historian Wu Hung A Story of Ruins, while ruin images have a Western origin, ancient Chinese painting up to Shitao developed its own visual forms and tropes to reflect on the past and its erasure. Perhaps the future of Chinese art will growingly recuperate such vernacular forms in a context of technological and visual transnational circulation.