Wu Hung- Three Gorges Dam Contemporary Art

March 20, 2012

The lecture series this week was presented by Wu Hung. This lecture focused on Contemporary Art in response to the Three Gorges Dam, which is a recent architectural development and political issue in China. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam officially began in 1994. This large-scale project has created much controversy from the beginning. On the positive side towards wanting to build the dam, it was argued the following reasons. It could develop a lot of clean energy important to the growth and stability of the country. 1/9 of the energy could be supplied to China, which is equivalent to 15 million tons of coal and 15 nuclear power plants. They argued that it would lower gas emissions and help the environment. Also, control of the river will save and prevent deaths from flood issues (300,000 citizens have died from flooding in the 20th century). On the other hand, there are negative reactions. Many people reference the severe impact on the humans, i.e. thousands of towns had to relocate. Factories could contaminate the water. Furthermore, the whole ecosystem of the entire region would be disrupted, and some people were concerned for the loss of the natural beauty, which will be changed forever. Due to the fact that there are millions of Chinese people being affected with different reactions, a strong art response was rightfully natural. In this essay, I will focus on the artwork of three of the artists mentioned by Wu Hung.

Zhuang Hui was really at the forefront of the art response. He had been following the debate for years and planned out his long-term project from the beginning. He drilled holes into the ground in three sites (corresponding to the three gorges) prior to the construction. In a way, he is “digging up the land” and altering the land like the Dam project is. Hui then photographed the holes. He waited 12 years until the construction was complete and instructed a photographer to shoot the same locations as where his holes were placed years previously. In these photographs, we see vast spaces of water, and the extreme contrast to the way it used to look. The success of his artwork and strengths rely on his dedication to duration, and how it makes a huge visual and emotional impact. Hui, in an interview with Hung, explained that the pictures made his heart ache, because something had disappeared. There is a pain within him related to what was lost with the Three Gorges Dam.

Yun-fei Ji was an artistic vision since childhood, born with immense intelligence and talent. Ji skipped high school and went directly to Art Grad School. Upon graduation, Ji moved to NYC and was quickly recognized and became successful in some major shows in the 90s. Although art critics and curators were fascinated with his work produced in America, the Three Gorges Dam had created such an emotional response within him that he moved back to China. This really speaks to the grand impact that this Dam created across the entire globe. He had originally created art works that were done in the traditional Chinese landscape aesthetic, such as the well-known Travelers amid Streams and Mountains. However, Ji’s artwork was often surreal, with mythical creatures, and spoke to the traumatic past of China. The Three Gorges Dam shifted his gaze towards the present. Ji was extremely interested in the emotional and environmental impact in the local villages.  In the artwork entitled, “Water Rising,” the artist attempts to capture that moment of the villagers having to evacuate. Wu Hung found connections to Refugees, from the 13th and 14th centuries. Both of these artworks deal with people relocating, and both express the realistic and the grotesque. Both are responding to politics.

Chen Qiuling is a female artist that brought a different perspective on the Three Gorges Dam. First of all, she is a local person from the area affected. Originally in her career she worked with graphics and installation art. Upon returning home to her village, she filmed a video in response to her horrified, upset feelings. It was entitled, “Rhapsody on Farewell.” There are sequences of demolition of buildings, and her emotion and attachment to home is clearly conveyed. Qiuling told Wu Hung, when he interviewed her, that she felt someone had taken away her memories by force and that it made her very sad and angry. It is interesting that as she continued making art videos, her feelings evolved and changed. Her videos are as follows: Rhapsody on Farewell (2002), River, River (2005), Color Lines (2006), and Garden (2007). Her emotions and pain were resolved through the video making process. Garden shows new modern high rises that re-oriented peoples eyes towards different spectacles to reorient into seeing hope and a better future. Qiuling offers a valuable insiders position and she examines her day to day changes. She experienced sacrifice and shared her dream to have a better life in the future. The significance of her videos relies not in documentation, but in their sensitive reflection of complicated internal emotions of the artist personally.

There are two major considerations to consider when reflecting on the building of the dam and the art. First is how memory and recognition of the dam resides in minds and hearts. Second is to reflect on the art and politics interaction/relationship, and the content and language of artistic representation. Here we see three very different approaches to artistically representing the response to the Three Gorges Dam. Zhuang Hui documents the before and after through his conceptual art and we focus on the environmental impact here. Yun-fei Ji uses his traditional painting to focus on the politics and the people affected. Chen Qiuling uses her videos to offer an introspective of the emotional responses of a local citizen. All three of these offers a complex view on the Three Gorges Dam and definitely on contemporary art in China.


Zhuang Hui

Before- Holes

After- Water

 Yun-fei Ji

Chen Qiuling



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