Digging a Hole in China

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the Digging a Hole in China (事件的地貌) exhibition, curated by Venus Lau. the exhibition features a range of works that were produced from the mid-1990s forward, roughly a decade after the idea of land art had been picked up by Chinese artists and only a few years after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, where he confirmed that China would continue to liberalize its economy. The stated goal of the exhibition, which positions itself between China and the West is,

[T]o expose and analyze the discrepancies between this genre of work and ‘conventional’ land art understood in the Western-centric art historical context, thereby probing the potential of ‘land’–as a cultural and political concept–in artistic practice.

The exhibition itself is wonderfully large-scale; where else but China, one might ask, can artists and curators literally dig holes into the concrete floor of their exhibition space? Propitiation by Liu Wei and Colin Chinnery does just that, revealing the layers–soil and bricks and concrete–on which the exhibition stands. Of course, as Li Jinghu noted during the talk, the hierarchical organization of work in China affords this scale of artist praxis. For his piece, Square, Li Jinghu worked with a contractor and a construction team to have the marble flagstones at Dongguan’s central plaza cut into pieces that became the elements of a pyramid. And at OCAT this relatively small pyramid echoes the presence of the Window of the World pyramid, which is also a component of the Overseas Chinese Town portfolio, as well as part of the corporation’s ongoing efforts to use culture to enhance the value of their real estate holdings in post-industrial Shenzhen. (In terms of chronology, theme parks appeared roughly a decade before high art.)

Indeed, each of the pieces in Digging speaks to the ongoing transformation of rural China into the wild, Disney-esque roller coaster of Chinese mega-cities, which have replaced agrarian fields as the unit at which land and people are organized, and have also become the focus of China’s state-led development. In 2014, for example, the state released its “National New-type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020)“, which aims to stimulate the national economy through large-scale urbanization projects. Rural urbanization matters because the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is tied to the country’s standard of living; Deng Xiaoping initiated Reform and Opening by stating that “poverty is not communism.” Shenzhen has long been the model for China’s experiments in rural urbanization and RMB City, Cao Fei’s contribution to the exploration of what land real estate means reminds us just how ungrounded–yet so thrilling–this rush to a prosperous future (of unlimited consumption) has been. Cao Fei launched the project in 2008 and her Second Life “Beijing” (the key landmarks are all in Beijing) resonates in Shenzhen, the home of Tencent and Huawei as well as Huaqiangbei, the Disneyland of hackers, shanzhai, and electronics start-ups, a place that can turn out new “smart” products faster than anywhere else on the planet.

Against this larger context, where art praxis models itself on construction and urbanization carries the burden of national salvation (or at least the legitimacy of its ruling class), Wang Jianwei’s work from the 1990s presents a world that seems long ago and faraway. Passé,  prosaic, even boring (and boring is not a criticism, but a sign of our hyper urban times; it takes a decision to listen to and watch a farmer discuss and complete the day-to-day chores of growing food), Circulation: Sowing and Harvesting [1993-1994], Production [1996], and Living Elsewhere [1999]seem twice removed from the exhibit. On the one hand, these works locate the viewer in China’s rural interior (neidi), where agrarian production is the only economic option available. Since the start of Reform and Opening, villages located near container ports have opted to collectively industrialize, assembling the tchotchkes and fashions of consumers here and elsewhere in order to bootstrap themselves into a higher income bracket. China’s coastal township and village enterprises were so successful in rural transformation (if not urbanization strictly speaking), researchers have offered TVEs as models for other developing countries seeking to modernize intractable countrysides. On the other hand, Wang Jianwei’s works seem quaintly tu (土), which might be translated as rustic or provincial. They are from a time when it was still possible to imagine farmers and farming as respectable. The work was hard, yes. The work was bitter, often. But. Agriculture–low tech and messy–was once upon a time recognized as contributing value to the nation. Today, the countryside is viewed as a problem to be solved and if Ou Ning is to be believed, the ongoing decline of the Chinese countryside can be reversed through situated art praxis.

The place of farmers and farming in the national imaginary leads me to more philosophical considerations which Digging opens. First and foremost is the question of what “land” is and what can and cannot be capture in translation. On the face of it, “land” is tudi (土地). However, like many words in Chinese, tudi is a composite of two ideograms that have different meanings. Tu refers to something like earth or soil, and when paired with rang (壤) it allows for cultivation. In contrast, di is more explicitly about the social use of earth, and appears in composite words such as land (dipi 地皮) and real estate (dichan 地产). Consequently, in Shenzhen it is possible to say that although there is di, there is a shortage of tu. Telling, one of the colloquial expressions for transforming polders into land is “zaodi (造地, literally produce land)”, while one form of land reclamation is “qitu (弃土, literally dumping earth [into coastal waters])”; in other words, land is always already created, while earth is disposable. This distinction is particularly relevant in Shenzhen where coastal land reclamation of both sorts contributed to the city’s early boom (the scale of the process can be viewed from space). What’s more, when taken together, tudi is not only “land” and all that it implies, but also the name of the local land god. Throughout the Chinese countryside and many of its cities, it is possible to find small shrines to Tudi Gong (土地公) and his wife, Tudi Popo. And the fact that Tudi Gong is male and explicitly linked with agricultural (landed?) prosperity importantly frames the conversations that Digging hopes to stimulate. Tudi–land–might be understood as the conditions and practices that allow for social reproduction. Tudi–land–is always already socialized, at once available for human use and not; Tudi must be appeased and even then he might bestow blessings elsewhere.

In contrast to the pieces in Digging, many of the earth (or land) art that show up in the west might be more closely linked with the recuperation of Gaia, an earth goddess. Indeed, the juxtaposition of Tudi Gong with Gaia suggests a second philosophical consideration for mapping the importance of “land” in diversely situated art praxes. Tudi Gong explicitly evokes rural China and its patrimonial traditions, while Gaia conjures images of hippies and New Age adventures–Mother Nature. Sudden, abrupt cognitive dissonance as land and earth seemingly fly off into different value regimes. Inquiring minds want to know; just what do the works in Digging have in common with such iconic earth artists such as Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Christo? The Digging artists are primarily male and interested in how human beings use and are used by tudi/land and its institutions. Meanwhile, the earth/land artists were primarily U.S. American and interested in calling attention to the potential of something outside human endeavor–nature as having  an intrinsic value which is manifest in unique, usually stunning landscapes without visible human traces (except for the work of art). The Digging artists call our attention to social reproduction. The earth artists drew our gaze to the elusive border that separates society from its nonhuman other.

All this to say that the English title of the exhibition, Digging a Hole in China is growing on me. The Chinese title, Shijian de Dimao (事件的地貌) cites Paul Virlio’s book, A Landscape of Events, focusing our attention on the land-appearance (a literal translation of the compound, 地貌) of events. As I wandered through the exhibition, the Chinese title seemed more appropriate, and frankly less about marketing strategies. However, the English title–its overdetermined and clunky pun, notwithstanding–actually invokes the labor that transforms tu and earth alike into “tudi/land”. At stake is not so much what is seen (or even how it is viewed), but rather the insight (!) that human labor makes tudi/land endlessly productive, even when no longer fertile.

The exhibition is on until June 26 if you have a chance to visit OCAT. Impressions from the opening of Digging a Hole in China, below:

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