orange tubes

This morning while touring an abandoned factory in Shekou, I encountered massive orange tubes. By themselves somewhat uninteresting, yet arranged beneath a banyan tree suddenly transformed into art. And that seems the way of it. As a new friend commented recently, “In a city, despite the buildings, ultimately the trees speak to the human soul.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

field at hongshuwan

Plastic bags and spent firecrackers accumulate on reclaimed field at the Hongshuwan subway station.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

seaworld trashed

Went to Seaworld today. The transformation of Shekou continues – open metro, raze everything in the sunken mall in front of De Galle’s ship, insert newer, taller, bigger, more expensive stuff. Images of wreckage du jour below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

found objects: houhai

this entry unites two of my obsessions: discarded objects and the houhai land reclamation project.

looking from old coastline toward the houhai land reclamation

in shekou, the land reclamation project continues, with new housing developments popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, so to speak. like any good mushroom, these developments thrive in dark and fetid spaces, only to be washed up and presented as luxuries. the first step in growing a development mushroom is razing whatever came before (in the sense of shenzhen history: this entry presupposes that the rural has already been displaced). what came before is usually narrow, one-story high temporary concrete structures, which functioned as residences and small businesses (more or less from the 1980a), but also more substantial, once-upon-a-time intended for the long haul, housing (late 80s, early 90s).

step two in cultivating mushrooms is picking through the rubble, scavanging whatever might still be of use–plastic can be sold, as can metals. as i stepped through the remains, i found a small clay teapot and picked it up. one of the pickers yelled at me in a henan dialect that i didn’t understand. when i asked if she wanted the teapot, however, she said no, adding in mandarin, “it can’t be sold.” she wasn’t interested in talking with me, lugging her scavagings to a truck, where a man weighed and bought them.

pickers, like this woman, move onto the temporary rubble heaps, setting up campsites that blend into the rubble. indeed, the campsites are difficult to distinguish from the garbage. the tents are made from the same plastic the pickers are scavanging and the kitchens seem burnt piles of stuff. but looking closely (or prying as the case may be), i saw fresh vegetables, packaged foods, and soap, although no source of fresh water. at this site, there were two campsites, and each had a separate stove. lucky pickers have a bicycle to cart findings to collection stations, where they can sell them.

step three, of course, is the arrival of construction crews. images of objects found while others picked, here.

houhai monuments–found objects

temporary nursery, houhai

it’s been over six months since i last walked this particular section of houhai. the road has been laid and now traverses the entire site. they’re even planting trees as part of shenzhen’s ongoing efforts to become a garden city. i snapped away, aware that houhai has yet to disappoint me; something there always fascinates. indeed, houhai has been central to found objects. i found teapot there, brought most of the other objects there, and have retuned to photograph the unmovable objects i have stumbled upon there.

lately, i’ve been thinking about my houhai fascination and suddenly realized that i am drawn to objects and sites that seem monumental, in all sences of that word. large, of course, so large that the scale of transformation slips away from my efforts to conceptualize it. but also, evocative of time and its passage. the monument commemorates some past event, keeping particular memories at play in shared worlds. indeed, the monument holds time in place, so that we might create a shared worlds.

and yet. the objects i photograph only gain their monumentality in digitalized retrospect, although sometimes i actually print an image. but on any ordinary day, the objects come and go, without comment, changing what houhai might mean, begging the question of whether or not houhai participates in a shared world before something “permanent” is constructed. on houhai, only buildings and streets are named. the rest vanishes.

today, in addition to the trees, i’ve uploaded a few houhai monuments, from the past few years.

mound, houhai april, 2006

glass edges

most construction sites in shenzhen are provisionally gated with cement and brick walls, glass edges, and barbed wire. once the project is finished, more elegant, or perhaps less blatent walls replace the makeshift as if it were all right, expected even to keep people off a construction site, but less savory to keep one’s neighbors outside the gate. i have uploaded some glass edges in my gallery.

objectified space

two questions have prompted me to specify what i want to achieve through the found objects project.

lesley sanderson posed the first question at the cruel/loving bodies exhibition, “look at you work critically and decide what you are trying to do.”

sasha welland then asked me, “why do you pick up the objects and photograph them elsewhere? why not just photograph them in place?”

a preliminary answer to these questions. in the found objects series, i map shenzhen from the perspective of the object. in constrast, i have tended to photograph large objects in place, calling attention to the construction of shenzhen through specific objects. how might this latter project be different from simply photographing places, which i’ve done all along?

while trying to get onto the houhai land reclamation project in shekou, i took pictures of discarded objects on that walk. i also photographed baskets left on a street.

Found Objects–Teapot Series

Gated Community Teapot
Originally uploaded by mary ann odonnell.

“Morning Tea”, a series of fifteen photographs and essay from my ongoing photo-ethnography Found Objects has been published in Archipelago, Winter 2006, Volume 9 (

blooming despite

Generally, walls of some kind not only separate construction sites from the street, but also provide a space for particular kinds of public discourse on and about Shenzhen. On these walls, development firms announce the future building, private eyes advertise their services, and the rare graffiti artist paints a picture. Construction teams tend the walls around important projects more carefully than they would the walls around lesser projects. Workers regularly touch up these walls, projecting an image of neat, orderly, and respectful construction. Guangdong plants, however, have little regard for edges and flourish even at concrete foundations. Please view these inadvertent blooms at:

what might street art be?

I’ve been thinking about the possibility of creating “experimental art” on Shenzhen’s streets. About a year ago, two Dutch artists led a two-day workshop here. They asked us to think about art as something that highlights the nature of everyday life. They suggested that by contrasting “unnatural” or “not normal” activities with quotidian routines, we could explore naturalized (but not natural) social forms and spaces. For example, a group of us sat on the steps of a building, playing with our cell phones. Normal activity for this space. However, every two minutes, we all looked up from our phones, stared straight ahead, and then turned our heads to the right. After a minute, we returned to playing with our cell phones. This kind of collective, planned activity constituted abnormal behavior for this space, highlighting the nature of “hanging out on steps” (among other things.)

At the time, I found this way of thinking quite useful, and have even used a version of it for my Found Objects series. However, the more I think about it, the more I wonder how much this strategy depends on the collective maintenance of social norms in order to be effective. What happens, for example, when the artist’s experiments can’t exceed extant uses of space? For example, walking from my apartment to a friend’s office in downtown Shenzhen the other day, I passed a woman eating out of a garbage can. She scooped handfuls of rice from a styrofoam container into her mouth. A child slept on her lap, his legs dangling near her left hip. Today, as I walked through the park, I noticed a man sitting on a park bench, legs spread, a limp penis in his right hand. Clearly, he intended to be seen because he was sitting next to sidewalk, rather than behind a bush. I’m not sure if he had just finished masturbating or urinating, but hand and organ both glistened in the afternoon sun. What kind of street art could say more about Shenzhen than these two performances? Or perhaps the question is, how might street art respond to these two performances?

Now, I’ve thought about photographing these and similar scenes, but part of me (and thus far the dominant part of me) resists. I don’t want to invade their privacy. This is the sentiment that prevents me from looking more closely and keeps me from snapping that picture. Clearly, they’re not worried about privacy in the way I’m used to thinking of it (behaviors that remain unseen, taking place behind closed doors). But I can’t convince myself that they would therefore welcome a photo shoot opportunity. At this moment, is turning one’s head away correct? Or would a more interesting form of art-response be to sit down and eat with the woman? Offer her food. Is the point to acknowledge the very specific reality at hand (so to speak), making street art a more explicit form of interactive improvisation? I’m as repelled by the idea of sitting down to eat from the garbage can as I am by taking pictures. Certainly, I had no desire to approach that man. What is it in me that turns away? Doesn’t want to look and yet wants to document this world?

It’s not even that these two performances are isolated events. I regularly see “abnormal” use of public spaces in Shenzhen. At construction sites and under park trees, workers take afternoon naps on woven bamboo mats. Beggars arrange themselves on most of the pedestrian overpasses throughout the city, while barbers set up shop underneath, placing a fold-up chair in front of a mirror that they have hung on the cement wall. At mealtime, many bring their rice bowls outside, squatting next to the road and people-watching. And I gaze, but out of the corner of my eyes, unable to bring myself to look directly at all this. It occurs to me that the reason they may have brought their lives to the street is that they can’t afford closed doors. So perhaps I am ashamed to look at poverty? But there may be other reasons they have brought their lives outdoors, just as there are other reasons I keep mine inside. If so, what then pre-empts a conversation? Or the possibility understanding? Is it that by looking away I am offering an exchange—don’t look too closely at me, and I won’t look too closely at you?

In Mandarin one of the words for “shameful” is “not fit to be seen by people (见不得人)”. What does that expression actually refer to? Is it the woman and her child? Is it the conditions that have forced her to eat out of a garbage can? Is it an American woman turning away? Is it how during public events police officers push her and others like her out of sight? Or is the question not what we look at, but how we go about looking? At that moment, is some kind of connection possible?