Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
Ideas? Technical issues?
» Feedback to a-n
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.
# 1 [3 May 2011]
28th April 2011. First Day at Chongqing
I finally arrived at Chongqing. This is my second trip to the Yangtze River. For the first trip, I went to Yi Chang, the downstream border city of the Three Gorges Dam (Chongqing is the upstream border city of the Dam).
My initial motivation for the project was to pay a proper visit to my Mother River. However this imagined relationship with the river was completely broken during my visit to Yi Chang. The river has been transformed by the completion of the Dam and it isn't beautiful at all (at least compared to my imagination of it). The landscape along the river was of a massive industrialisation and urbanisation process, during which nature seems to be taken for granted. I found it hard to grasp or to take photos for. So this time at Chongqing I hope to somehow build a relationship with the river.
For the first afternoon I visited Chongqing Fine Art College. The campus was full of peach blossoms and rape seed flowers. Ancient－style stone bridges, pavilions and farming tools were bought from other places to decorate the campus. It was beautiful but in stark contrast to all the new urban areas outside of the campus. It seems to me that these things are being abandoned and destroyed daily outside, while other people are paying a fortune to re-build them in this campus.
The photos with this post are from my trip to Yi Chang.
# 2 [3 May 2011]
29th Apil 2011
First real day with the river
Today has been a full and important day. After months’ preparation, I finally had the opportunity to stroll and sit next to the river.
In the morning I set off to Li Jia Tuo Bridge in the south east part of the town. The 10-minute’s walk between 501 Artspace and the bridge is full of noise, dust and crazy vechiles, just as anywhere else in China. I walked to the other side of the bridge, found a steep path and descended all the way to the riverside. To my surprise, the exposed muddy river bed was covered by human and animal footprints. It seemed that it is actually a busy place, despite its ugly appearance. A couple were catching tadpoles for their child from a small pond formed by trapped water. They originally came to fly the kite but there was no wind. The river seemed to have changed now: when I was so close to it, it suddenly became alive: the water was running fairly fast, with small waves washing the shiny sand constantly.
In the afternoon I visited another stretch of the river with two local friends. By accident we called into a Buddhism temple, which is next door to the grey power station. The red wall and tranquil atmosphere of the temple are of sharp contrast of its neighbour, but we don’t how long it’ll be there for. This whole area is obviously waiting to be turned into yet more skyscrapers.
In the evening I was having posh coffee in a five-star hotel with a friend. Sitting in the lounge full of marble columns and crystal chandelier, I was actually thinking about the grey river with its messy concrete structures. There seemed to be a sharp contrast again.
# 3 [3 May 2011]
1 May 2011
Today’s experience seems to be damaging for my emotional well-being.
I went to downtown Chongqing with the intention to find the photo lab but even the policeman seemed to know nothing about their local area. So I gave up the idea and walked to Chao Tian Men (the Sky Gate), where the confluence of Jia Ling Jiang and the Yangtze River is. It is obviously the centre of Chongqing.
I was immediately swallowed by the endless skyscrapers. To see them from a distance is one thing, to completely emerge into them is absolutely another thing. The weather was of typical China, overcast and extremely foggy. I walked in the extremely dense high-buildings, people, cars and noise, feeling weightless and soulless. It was indeed a human world, everything is made for and by us, including the limited number of plants. How does it feel to live in a concrete world like this all the time? According to Taoism, human and other things in the universe, such as mountains, rivers, plants and animals, are in the same energy circle; by standing on a mountain top, humans can absorb energy from the universe without obstacle. If this is correct, then what’s happening here? There is nothing else for us to exchange or absorb energy. Does that mean we are more fragile? Without fresh recharge of life forces? If human beings are also part of nature, then we seem to be cut off from everything else that’s nature. I thought of making pictures, but my instinct is to run away, to find a breathing place.
So I thought of my approach to the project again. Perhaps I just need to follow my heart, if city centres are unbearable, then I can escape to the river side. At least there’s a belt of a few hundred meters’ width that isn’t covered by buildings, people, or cars yet.
# 4 [9 May 2011]
4th May 2011 Three rainy days
It’s been raining for 3 days in Chongqing and the visibility is really bad. I haven’t taken a single photo during this time but it’s been a productive time.
Firstly, I’m finally setting off to do a ‘trial point system’ tomorrow for 4 days. This is one of my original ideas for tackling the river: to divide its length in equal sections, to travel along the river but only take photographs at the dividing points. In 2009 and 2010 I tried this system on the River Ribble, but the Yangtze is a whole new story. It’s simply tooooo big! Now I have many questions towards this system but things will only get clarified after the test. I have randomly pinned down a starting point near the city of Yibin, about 400km upstream from Chongqing. From there I’ll travel downstream, taking photographs at the dividing points of every 100 km. For the time being only 5 points will be tested but hopefully I can have a taste of this method. Two local friends are going with me, it’s great to have friends and to discuss plans with them.
We have also decided to have my residency exhibition in a new art gallery-cafe in Jiangbei District in Chongqing. Now I have a nice place to work for, I can collect more pebbles and take more photos.
Also I’ve spoken to a famous geologist and explorer, Mr. Yang Yong, who is going to the source area of the Yangtze this summer. It’s possible that I can join their team and go to Tibet. How exciting!
I’ll let you know how our point system goes...
# 5 [9 May 2011]
5th May 2011
Trial Point 1 - A hit on my head.
GPS: 28.48”400’N, 104.52”322’E. Altitude：869ft.
We drove for over 4 hours from Chongqing upstream along the Yangtze, and located the Trial Point 0 without much trouble. From Google Earth there is a big island in the middle of the river, and the Point is right next to the island. When we were getting close the landscape along the river seemed reasonably tranquil, Perhaps I can get something ‘pictorial’? However things changed very quickly when the Point location came into view: the island is being dug out by over twenty diggers and trucks. The stones forming the island are dug away to a nearby outdoor factory and turned into sand to build the road from Yibin to Shanghai. A bit further from bank, the land was covered by many small factories, and the dark red water from the factories was flowing to the river.
I am deeply saddened by this view. The concept of a river in my mind is so different from reality, and this has been proven again and again during my journey along 1000 kilometres of this river. I fear that all my points will fall on locations like this. I am not even sure if it’s worth going on.
# 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.
# 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.
# 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.
# 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!
# 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.
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.