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By: Yan Preston
Yan Preston will be in China for a research and development trip for her project that explores the Yangtze River and the current urbanisation process in China in April and May 2011. For one month she will live next to the river, reflect her experience and produce new work. The project is supported by Arts Council England, Grants for the Arts.
# 15 [4 June 2011]
24th May 2011 The exhibition
The exhibition finally opened. The space isn’t perfect. It was a cafe-book bar and this is their first proper exhibition. But it’s good anyway as this is my first show in China, after having left her for so many years. Through making and installing the work I’ve gained a lot of new understanding about China and made many new friends.
The exhibition has a theme of ‘water’ and ‘city’, it has three parts: the photos I took during the Trial Point System; the ‘forest’ and ‘city’ photos from Chongqing City; and the stone/video installations. It’s surprising that people welcomed the stones so much. Many asked me to hold the stones a bit more before they took them home, others spent a long time playing with them. It is through the stones that I can see people’s love to the Yangtze and the nature. Some asked me why I took photos of the trees, since they are so ordinary and ‘daily’. But one 9-year-old girl answered that question for me, she said: “The big trees are all wounded, they’re bleeding; they got all their branches chopped off---it’s not environmental -friendly at all!”
I feel that it’s been a great trip and I experimented a lot in Chongqing. However to grasp a country properly, one month is really next-to-nothing. China is changing so fast and is full of energy, I have a lot of interest in it. But this will be a long process, if I want to produce some really powerful work her.
# 14 [4 June 2011]
21 May 2011 Life of a river
The exhibition day is approaching fast. Apart from taking pictures of the river and the city, I’m now trying something that’s entirely new to me. I’ve been collecting stones at the river bank and hope to make some installations with them.
I discovered that from far away, the river always looks very calm, not interesting and full of concrete scars. But when I got close to the river, the rounded stones appeared , just as so many river banks. I’ve been playing with the stones, just as how I always did in my childhood. It seems the river now has gradually become a ‘river’ again, something part of the romantic nature that I can play with and have a connection too. And the stones have become the link between me the river. In the exhibition I’ll have red stones and stones with white circles. I’ve also done something to make them more ‘special’.
'red stones. each one was held in my palm for 10 seconds.
stones with white circles. each circle was felt and followed by my finger tips.'
This obviously has a lot of reference to Richard Long’s work. But he doesn’t seem to hold his subjects this way. Anyway, I’ll have a go.
Apart from the stones I’ve also been making videos that are about the swallows, tadpoles and water flow at the river. Again, all these are surprises that were only discovered by being very close to the river. The river is still full of life.
# 13 [2 June 2011]
19th May 2011 Trial Point 4 - the missed one
GPS: 29.17”890’N 106.23”178’E Altitude: 555ft
After wandering in the city for two weeks, it’s refreshing to concentrate on the river for a day again. This time I didn’t expect much from Point 4, I might struggle to take a picture again.
But Point 4 was everything you can find by the river. A massive paper plant with great blue domes, a typical white-red chimney and a container port dominate the opposite bank. On this side, one can find a ship-building yard, a small port, a pebble-digging site, some sand-digging boats and some vegetable patches.Viewed from our 60km train journey along the river, similar view was constant all the way through. We managed to find a good spot for the photograph. But what I’m considering now is the advantages, disadvantages, and meanings of this ‘Point Approach’.
It is a good way to keep close to the river site as well as to collect convincing data. So far every point has pointed to the same conclusion: the uncontrollable industrialisation and urbanisation of China on the huge cost of its natural and cultural environment. Many of the damages are probably not reservable.
But after all these, a river in my mind will always be a river. I might not find it here by the side of the Yangtze, but it’s still there.The Point System obviously has its charm of travelling, but is this what I’m after for the work? How do I bring out the river that’s in my mind?
# 12 [23 May 2011]
18th May 2011 A forest city
I’ve been photographing a lot in the last few days. There’s something that struck me. Perhaps it is the contrast between the old and the new town? Yesterday, from the golden towers, I walked into an area that’s partly demolished. This area has an unusual atmosphere, a landscape that I haven’t seen in all the new areas.....the trees...the trees are higher than the buildings. They grow on the buildings, even grow into them. In a way, the human structures and the nature have grown and intertwined together here. Walking in tree shadows feels very different from walking in the gaps of skyscrapers.
Apart from the new skyscrapers, I’ve also been photographing the new ‘forests’ in the city. In order to build a ‘forest city’, tens of thousands of mature trees have been bought from all over the country and the world. They have their branches seriously chopped and transported to a new place. Then they get a lot of nutrition injected into them. I hope they’ll survive.
On the top of a small hill there’s a steel tower for carrying electric cables. Underneath there’s a bird-keeping club: the Chinese like to keep birds in cages in order to enjoy their singing. Neighbours in this area will bring their birds to this strange place for the 'fresh' air. It’s such a sad place...
# 11 [23 May 2011]
17th May 2011 The old lady
In the extremely busy area of Yang Jia Ping, an old lady sat on the pedestrian path making old-fashioned shoes by hands. I was drawn to her by her silver hair, extremely-winkled face and slow-moving hands.
She’s eighty-three years old, yet she’s still sitting here in the traffic, working on something extremely delicate. They’re so beautiful, with the time and slow motions that went into them. I bought three pairs, purely out of admiration, for her. Despite her good eyes and hands, she struggled to work out the total price. We told her it’s RMB104, and asked if I could have RMB 4 discount (not for the bargaining, but to see how she would react). She said: “Are you not embarrassed to ask for discount, look how old I am!” Ha, she’s still very smart! So I gave her RMB 105.
Afterwards I tried to find her again, just to watch her working. But she’s nowhere to be seen again.
# 10 [23 May 2011]
15th May 2011 A full day in Chongqing
During a photography session in the morning I noticed a group of people gathering at a small, dark corner squeezed between a green belt and a wall. There were incense being burnt so it must have something to do with an ancestor ceremony again. Unable to find a path, I walked through the vegetation to talk to them.
So here is the story: they buried their parents’ cinerary caskets into the rocks of a small outcrop.. Being high on top of a hill and facing the Yangtze River directly with an open view, this used to be a great cinerarium location according to Chinese Feng Shui theory. But over the years so many apartment blocks have been built in this area. The river view is completely obstructed. Further more, property developers also turned this hill into their ‘green belt’ and built more blocks behind the outcrop. In the end a space of only two metes’ width were left for the graves. There is no path or anything for access. As a result, most people decided to dig out the caskets and move them to somewhere else; now only a few caskets are still there. This family decided to keep their dead parents there because “ it’s better if they can avoid moving.”
I asked them how they feel about this. They said: “ The city is developing so fast. We don’t have a choice.” As every Chinese I’ve asked about this kind of situation. They always have the same answer without any doubt or emotional change.....
In the afternoon we went to the old town near Chao Tian Men. I found the messy, organic old town in stark contrast to the posh ‘property show rooms’ which are dominating in the city scenery. We also enjoyed the cable car across the river. With the many new bridges, cable cars are not useful anymore so most of them have be demolished. We even found a beautiful youth hotel with Chinese-style decoration------the first oasis in Chongqing. The city is becoming fuller to me.
# 9 [23 May 2011]
13th May 2011 Art in China
I’ve been back to Beijing for some meetings and delivering some talks at Sichuan Fine Art Institute and Chongqing Technology and Business University. The contemporary art scene in China seems very interesting.
In Beijing I talked to a friend who is working on a few financial projects relevant to the arts. According to him some ‘culture assets&equity exchanges’ in China (which are backed up by the state) are currently testing out the market with art works. Apparently one ’exchange’ bought in one painting, then sold it between the staff themselves for a few rounds at first. When the price was bounced high, a lot of public money followed in blindly. So somebody made a lot of money in this game but most of them lost. Now the government has realised the risks in this and is starting to take control. Another ‘exchange’ is said to try a new project using commissioned artworks as a way to generate profit through selling out in auctions.
Up to now, all the artists I’ve met in China seem to make a good living. Almost all the artists in Chongqing teach in universities with a stable salary. Besides that, some collaborate with international funds, others take advantages of the domestic resources. There seems to be a big demand for the arts: paintings and sculptures are particularly popular. A painting by a known artist is easily sold for a few thousands pounds at least. Business in graphic design is good too because they can take up a lot of commercial projects. To teach has another advantage: they have a lot of students to help them in all aspects of the production. For art students, the university fee is higher than normal. But if they can get into a good subject, such as design, they can find highly paid jobs even during the study . Some students take on temporary jobs such as teaching children how to paint. In China many school children choose an art form as a serious hobby, because they can get extra points with this when they have to pass the university entry exams. Therefore art teachers are particularly in demand. Art universities are rich too, for example, Sichuan Fine Art Institute charges about £1,500 per student per year. And they have over 15,000 students!
# 8 [10 May 2011]
8th May 2011 Trial Point 5 Playtime with the river
GPS: 29.39”074’N 106.52”999’E Altitude: 534ft
Trial Point 5 is the last point for this trip. Due to limited time we’ll have to catch up with Point 4 on another day. P4 is next to a train station so we don’t need to hire a car.
We drove towards the direction of Yichang, past some farmland and found P5. As usual, people are building a road next to it. By now I’ve come to understand that a water channel like this is an obvious route for us too. So it’s ‘logical’ to see so many ‘riverside road’ being built. I thought of River Ribble in the Yorkshire Dales, there’s always a railway and a road parallel to the river. It’s just that I don’t get to see the time when they were building these. But China is still developing so infrastructures like roads are much needed and are being built everywhere.
So I ignored the muddy road and scrambled downhill to the waterside. For the first time during the trip it’s sunny. So I sun-bathed for a while, played with the water and mud, and took a couple of pictures of the water. On the way up I persuaded myself to take a couple of the road too, in case I’ll need them when pictures are put together.
So far I’ve completed most of the ‘Trial Point System’, but I feel it isn’t time to say if it’ll work on the entire river yet. I still have over two weeks left to learn more about the river.
# 7 [9 May 2011]
6th-7th May 2011 Trial Point 3 Nothing is innocent
GPS 28.59”929’N 105.49”890’E Altitude：668ft
After lunch we set off to Point 3. The next 100 kilometers took us four hours to cover: from concrete motorway to muddy tracks. After asking directions for no less than 20 times, with the help of two mobile GPS and two maps, we finally arrived- this time at place without any factories or big buildings. Standing next to the river, I felt the closest to it since the project started, there’s no other sound apart from the river. I haven’t experienced this quietness for years in China.
The sand was very fine. The bed cost £1 per person per night.
In the morning I woke up in the songs of birds and small noise of the tiny port. However, the next 20 minutes changed my view about this place. Our host came up and started talking to me. As he went on my heart sank deeper and deeper. This stretch of the river has deep water and no reef; it has been rented to him from the government. It’ll be developed into a beautiful port and he’ll make a lot of money from it. Apart from this, the sand, stones, his shop and the basic port he built over the last 10 years will all create big fortunes for him when the time comes. He told me that ‘if you live next to the mountain, you ‘eat’ the mountain; if you live next to the river, you ‘eat’ the river’. Now I can see how literal this is. The duck we had last night was hunted next to the river; all his income comes from some aspects of the river; and his future, his sons’ and grandsons’ futures all lie on the river.
This says to me again: in China now, nature is shown no mercy. No mercy at all. Nothing is innocent, everything is valued only by their economic potential. If this is the known result of my ‘point system’, then I’m not sure if I want to continue.
# 6 [9 May 2011]
6th May 2011 Trial Point 2 A breath of relief
GPS 28.52”478’N 105.26”981'E Altitude：723ft
In the morning we found Trial Point 2 without problem. It’s in the city centre of Luzhou, next to some high apartment buildings. To our surprise again, having just left the busy city centre, the river at Point 2 is reasonably pleasant and quiet. At least there’s no digger in the immediate area, although another big bridge is being built around the corner (for which I chose to turn a blind eye). There’re buildings on both sides of the river but the river banks are almost left alone apart from being covered by some vegetable patches. There’s a ditch leading to the river but the water doesn’t smell or have strange colours. Many swallows were flying next to the water, and I could see some green grass----first time during this trip!
At some point a bright-coloured paper house appeared on the bank. I suddenly realised this had something to do with the piles of ashes I saw before. What are they for? I quickly went to the ‘house’ and set up the camera. Before long a group of people arrived with some loud Chinese traditional music. They started running around the house, chanting something at the same time------this is a ceremony for worshipping their dead ancestors. Traditionally they’d do this at the graves but the city is so big now, there’s no space for such things like burning a paper house. So they’ve come to the river, the only place with some open space.
This for me, is one of the charms of the ‘Point system’----you can never foresee what’s happening next.
Yan Preston is a photographer and visual artist based in West Yorkshire. Her work is primarily fine art photography, but it also includes installation, art-research and creative community engagements. Her current photographic work focuses on the relationship between human and nature. Being a British-Chinese artist, she is exploring this topic in both Britain and China.
Yan Preston's work has been shown in national and regional galleries such as the National Portrait Gallery and York Art Gallery.
She is currently completing a PhD in Photography at the University of Plymouth under the supervision of Jem Southam, Liz Wells and David Chandler.