Wu Hung Lecture: Engaging the Real

In March, I attended Wu Hung’s artist lecture, Engaging the Real: The Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art. I expected to learn about Wu Hung’s art, but instead I learned about four artists that were involved in the art that responded to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. The Three Gorges Dam was a massive hydroelectric dam that spread across the Yangtze River in China. It involved three dams that trapped water to create an artificial lake. Its completion is expected in the very near future, though its construction has been going on for almost eighteen years. According to Wu Hung, the dam is capable of providing power to one ninth of China, and with less greenhouse pollution. Its construction, however, disrupted the environment and flooded towns. The flooded towns had laboratories and hospitals that were not properly cleaned before the flood so all the left over chemicals contaminated the water. But this huge spectacle attracted many artists, especially in photography, painting, installations and film. Wu Hung’s focus was on engaging with reality, so basically art as a personal response to environmental, political, and economic issues.

The first artist mentioned was Zhuang Hui, an artist in performance and conceptual photography. His site-specific piece was called ‘27 Holes’ and was a large amount of holes drilled into the ground near the Yangtze River designed to capture water. He based his piece off an idea from White Emperor City, where the people drilled holes in the ground around the peninsula, so when it flooded the peninsula became an island. The main product of this piece was shown through the photos taken of Hui during the drilling. He chose not to continually visit the site, and finally came back to it after twelve years. The result was nothing spectacular because the whole river had flooded and turned into the lake. I think this piece was a comment on the fact that no one person could stop the flooding of the river. The building of the dam and its effects were inevitable, so there was really no reason to fight it.

The second artist presented was Yun-Fei Ji, a traditional artist that did paintings on rice paper in response to the Three Gorges Dam and its aftermath. His art was very earthy from the rice paper and choice of colors. I liked how he used a traditional basis to respond to contemporary issues. The paintings were of refugees that were driven out of their homes for the flooding, and the damage that the flooding caused.

Chen Quiling was the next artist that Wu Hung addressed, a video artist local to the area. She created a video about her destroyed home and life from her childhood. She lived there before the dam was built and went back only to find its destruction. The video is called ‘Rhapsody of Farewell,’ in which a character of Chen kills her actual self. This is to symbolize the death of a place, through the death of a person. A lot of memories that make people unique are from where they grew up and to see that place destroyed is like destroying a part of yourself. She later made three videos on the Three Gorges Dam, all representing different emotions towards the dam and its effects. These videos were called ‘River, River’ (2005), ‘Color Lines’ (2006), and ‘The Garden’ (2007). The different emotions in each one conflict with one another, which to me seems like a comment on the different points of view concerning the dam. On one hand, there is a lot of energy being harnessed with less greenhouse pollution, but on the other hand, a lot of people and wildlife suffered from its construction.

The final artist to be presented was Liu Xiaodong, who was an oil painter who put himself in the shoes of the migrants and painted under similar conditions. His painting, ‘Hot Bed,’ was a huge piece that he painted outside next to the shore. Since the dams were trapping water, the shores were rising quickly and he had to work hard under the hot sun in order to finish it before it was destroyed. Wu Hung called it “self-induced pressure to finish.” This piece was a mixture of painting and site-specific performance art. Liu believes that the artist cannot remain inactive, and must act as a worker under such circumstances. For one to act, they have to be there. I find his style refreshing. When I picture an artist working, I think of a studio with an easel and an artist. Liu changed his scenery, therefore changing his style of art. There was no real comfort zone because there was always a chance it could storm, or get extremely hot. The artist will inevitably adapt differently to this environment than to a familiar studio where everything remains generally constant.

The purpose of this artist lecture was to beckon the question of whether or not Chinese Contemporary Art should address reality. Wu Hung also asked what its social role was, and whether or not it contributes to artistic innovation. I think the social role of this art is to inform the audience on a more personal and creative way. People can complain all they want, but it is much more effective to capture those feelings in a piece of art and present it in that form. In addition, I believe that it is very important to address reality in all forms of art. Reality is what we experience, so we know it pretty well. The more we understand our experiences, the more passionate our message becomes. It is hard to be passionate about something that does not exist, in my opinion. Reality is fuel for artistic innovation because everyone’s reality is unique, which is something to be embraced.

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