Huang Yihong came to Baishizhou with a plan—to explore the materiality of different objects and experiment using them to create different objects. As an aesthetic concept, materiality is a response to both formalism’s emphasis on visual aspects of art and structuralism’s interest in context and communication. Materiality is time and situation based: it acknowledges that the human experience takes physical form. This kind of artistic exploration requires curiosity, patience, and a systematic method of exploring objects, their physicality, and their social context. Imagine, for example, everything that might possibly be done with the green netting that is ubiquitous on Chinese construction sites. The netting keeps dust in place on recently demolished sites and hangs protectively around buildings under construction. Now consider: given this context, what does it mean when an artist wraps an old brick in green netting?
In the first week of July, Baishizhou renters began receiving eviction notices and by the time Yihong arrived on August 3, the neighborhood was already swept up in the uncertainties of relocation: Where would children go to school? Could young office workers find cheap housing conveniently located near their jobs? How many people faced choosing between affordable housing in an inconvenient place and expensive housing in a convenient location? Where would all of the mom & pops business owners go? After all, many had been working in Baishizhou for over a decade. Once their business moved, they would have to beginning again. These questions, of course, are not simply practical, but also existential because the physical act of moving symbolizes the transformation of a life. We are no longer who we were and not yet sure of who we will become.
The materiality of Baishizhou itself changed Huang Yihong’s plans. Instead of exploring random objects in Baishizhou, Yihong found himself exploring the possibilities of objects associated with moving—eviction notices, moving trucks, and discarded objects that were left behind as trash. The first work that he presented, Four Ounces to Remove 1,000 Pounds (四两拔千斤) comprised eviction notices and a discarded scale, which he placed on top of an electric box alongside Shahe Street. Photographed within the rush of Baishizhou’s busiest street, this simple object functions like the still eye of the storm, revealing how intangible emotions take physical form. The scale shows that the total weight of the eviction notices was eight ounces. However, those small, crumbled sheets of paper pointed to the immaterial stress of moving; the heart when it is being extracted from a familiar environment, Yihong said, it can feel like it weighs 1,000 pounds.
Huang Yihong’s second piece, Clearance Sale took the materiality of moving from the unbearable lightness of eviction notices to the unnoticed heaviness of moving trucks. After all, it is not only objects that are being evacuated, but also people, their everyday lives, and the dreams that brought them to Baishizhou. In the liminal period between issuing eviction notices and demolishing Baishizhou’s handshake buildings, one of the most common scenes is people loading moving vans. In bags and boxes, each person and every family carries with them diverse objects—bed frames and mattresses, kitchen supplies, and clothing—that comprised their physical household. Yihong photographed the front of thirty-five moving vans, each headed toward unknown destinations. These photographs were then attached to panels on a pinwheel. Yihong mounted the pinwheels on concrete blocks and setting them on a rooftop, where they spun gaily in the wind. Until they didn’t. In photographs of pinwheels beneath a bright blue sky and photographs of damaged pinwheels that no longer spin, we experience how works of art mediate between the physical and the imaginary. Clearance Sale takes us outside the material practicalities of moving, giving us perspective on the logic of a human life; we spin until we don’t.
This is, of course, the beauty of site-specific art. It takes ordinary objects and emotions, as well as bits of overheard conversation from a unique place and transforms them into symbols of what it means to be human. Four Ounces to Remove 1,000 Pounds and Clearance Sale both manifest the actual conditions of mass eviction in Baishizhou and symbolizes the general human condition. We come into the world, we create the conditions for everyday life, and we keep turning the wheel, until we can’t. What’s more, this process connects us all.
Huang Yihong’s final project, Gift materialized how we are all integrated into the demolition and relocation of Baishizhou. Yihong prepared a gift for Handshake 302 and for each of the participants at his salon. For Handshake 302, Yihong made a pinwheel with photographs of participants hands. For salon participants, he wrapped bricks in green netting and placed them in a festive gift bag. Each participant brought their gift home and was asked to photograph them in a different setting, sending the pin and the photo to Yihong. After the salon, Kaiqin brought out red paper and scissors. Yihong and the five members of Handshake cut paper characters for “demolition” and hung them on two of the walls. The next day, Monday, August 19, 2019, Yihong printed the photographs of wrapped bricks and gift bags, placing them on a map of Shenzhen. That afternoon, when Handshake 302 moved out of Shangbaishi Building 49, Room 302 on the room was itself a work of art. On the third wall, the completed Gift tracked paths in and out of Baishizhou. A pinwheel spun at the center of it all.