Visiting Art Historian Lecture, Wu Hung, by: Athena Brownson

Athena Brownson

Visiting Art Historian Lecture, Wu Hung

“ The 3 Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art”

Through my studies as an Art Historian at the University of Colorado, Wu Hung has always been an art historian that I have encountered throughout my readings of Chinese art. Wu Hung is an extremely well known Art Historian, critic and Curator and is currently a professor at the University of Chicago, and an active curator.  I first encountered Wu Hung’s writings last semester while studying the Art of China, so I was very excited to go hear a lecture by an Art historian that I was already well versed in. This particular lecture by Wu Hung was regarding a show that he is currently curating and organizing that will take place in Beijing. This show will deal with the very controversial topic of the 3 Gorges Dam project that has been underway for the last decade in China.

Wu Hung began his lecture by explaining why the 3 Dams Project has been so controversial in China, and then went on to explain how different artists have approached responding to the project through art. The 3 Gorges Dam is the largest hydroelectric project in history and was started in 1994 on the Yongi River. The positive aspects of this dam is that it will create enough clean energy to supply 1/9 of China, which is the equivalent of 15 nuclear power plants. The negative aspects of the dam however are much greater, as building this dam caused 1500 villages to have to be relocated, while causing environmental damage as flooding this area caused the overflowing river water to become highly polluted. Wu wanted to focus this lecture around how contemporary Chinese artists are not only concerned with making huge amounts of money but in addressing the environmental issues facing China contemporarily. Given that this is one of the largest contemporary environmental issues today, Wu Hung decided to organize a show around how different artists have used different mediums to respond to the 3 Gorges Dam project. Wu Hung thus chose 4 Chinese artists who he felt addressed the issue of the dam in different yet successful ways.

The first artist that Wu Hung talked about is a conceptual artist by the name of Zhuang Hui who completed his piece 4 months after the dam was started. Zhaung chose three spots along the river and drilled holes in the rock at each location on the riverbed. These holes constructed various shapes and were then photographed by the artist and released a year later. Since the photos release, the piece has been called one of the most meaningful contemporary works to come out of China, as it addresses the idea of what the holes would eventually look like once they are covered in water when the river is flooded. His holes became yet another piece of the landscape that would soon vanish from the construction of the dam.

The second artist that Wu Hung chose for this show is a young painter named Yun-fei Ji.  Yun-fei is considered a child prodigy and paints contemporary subject matter in classical Chinese styles such as hanging scrolls and hand scrolls. Yun-fei likes to deal with traumatic events in history through his works making the 3 dams project the perfect subject matter for him to paint. This particular piece was painted on rice paper and depicts the destruction of a village by the flooding of the river. This painting is his way of connecting himself to contemporary issues and reflecting upon the trauma that this project has caused.

The third artists chosen by Wu Hung to be in this show is a video artist named Chen Quiling. Chen grew up on the Yongi River and had her house destroyed by the flooding of the river. Chen made 4 videos in 4 years about the dam focusing first on the destruction caused by the dam and then later on the construction and rebuilding after the event. Creating these videos seemed to be a healing experience for the artist and she realized that new life could be born following such drastic destruction.

The final artist that Wu Hung chose for this exhibition is a painter by the name of Liu Xinodong. Liu created one massive oil painting, which depicts 5 scenes in a row that he chose to paint en situ on the river. This painting was completed in three weeks with the artist working all day long to capture the scene in front of him. The process of creating this action painting was a performance in its own right as he was trying to capture the spontaneity of the river. Wu Hung was most impressed with the fact that although Liu was a realist painter he breaks from the Chinese tradition of social realism and is dealing with an actual event.

In conclusion, Wu Hung gave an excellent lecture that was a pleasure to attend. It is clear that Wu Hung wants to focus his efforts on artists who are not only trying to make money, but who are making a statement regarding the current state of things in China. Wu Hung emphasizes the importance of art to comment on social, political, environmental and religious problems of the time.

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