'People without history are the History'
Zhuang Hui and Dan'er as memorizers
As I write this essay, the global conference on climate change is on in Copenhagen, and the leaders of the most powerful countries of the world are discussing the importance of ecological issues as opposed to economic concerns. China is one of the most involved countries along with the United States. We do not know if the meeting will be of any use for the future humanity, and whether 'alternative' values will replace the materialistic thirst which is still the rule everywhere. I mention it here because Zhuang Hui's and Dan'er, two of the most prominent Chinese artists in world have recently put ecological issues at the centre of their work.
The artist as an inseparable part of society
Zhuang Hui was born in Yumen about 47 years ago. His father initially worked as an itinerant photographer and was then employed in a photographic studio in Yumen. As a child, Zhuang Hui used to follow his father to his workplace and therefore had early exposure to photography. No wonder he has developed a special relationship with it. One of his most successful works, the 'Group Photo' series, taken mainly from 1996 to 1998 used a camera with rotating lens, which could cover a wide space and portray huge groups of people – up to several hundreds. The artist's presence in the extreme right corner of all the photos, a detail that escapes the notice of the viewers in general, is a fundamental clue to understanding the work: the artist wishes to express his sense of belonging in contrast to his marginality to the 'masses.'
The most noticeable characteristic of the series that comes under the title 'Group Photo' is that they can be appreciated by viewers of different socio-cultural backgrounds. To the Chinese, they are a reminder of a certain atmosphere, a special period of time in the life of the People's Republic when work unions were the most important social factor, one that shaped everyone's life. To a foreigner, it constitutes a fascinating visual iconography, with its black and white mysteriously inexpressive faces in the hundreds, all lined up tidily, forming an ideogram of sorts belonging to a dreamt about exotic Chinese socialist realities.
Another of Zhuang Hui's works – I was deeply moved by at the very first encounter – is 'Workshop' the life-sized reproduction in polystyrene of the factory where he worked as a youngster. This is the famous 'Dongfeng Hong' (The East is Red), the first tractor factory in China, based in Luoyang, a place where by then Zhuang Hui had moved to. The environment where he had worked for several years had been reconstructed in minute detail with elements carefully reconstructed in polystyrene and then painstakingly and skillfully painted in a hyper-realistic way by Guo Chi. Even the meal consumed by a virtual worker is there, laid on a simple table.
I can't think of any work by Zhuang Hui which doesn't need long preparation, thoughtful processes, painstaking skills and a meticulous set up. The artist can handle tremendous pressure, he is apt to pay attention to the tiniest detail; he also deals with workers and artisans in a respectful yet firm manner. This is a man who combines a generous and open frame of mind and a professional seriousness which manifest themselves in myriad ways in his work and life. To those true artists who do not consider making art as a mere profession but continue to produce art because they feel a thirst for it, because for them it is the only way to express themselves, or to satisfy that internal urge to experience life in a very subjective way and to let others course through it.
In the 10 or so years I have known Zhuang Hui, I have admired his total devotion to the art-life matrix developed as a practice.
His lifestyle has not changed much; the ebb and flow of money has not affected his ideals, neither has it dried his creative juice, or distanced him from the social issues which are his main concerns.
There is a red thread in everybody's life – I believe, one which helps us achieve an 'inner coherence', which we especially expect from people with a clear mind – who follow a lifelong purpose. That, in my opinion is evident in Zhuang Hui's artistic productions.
This coherence has nothing to do with the choice of any special medium, of any particular subject matter; it is rather the emanation of a way of Being that originates from interests and thoughts which are rooted in the early years of one's life.
Zhuang Hui creates works which spring out of his own experiences, though his personal story is very much connected to his country's history, and thus can be considered 'collective' in many respect. Whereas the same might be true in the art scene of many countries, it is especially noticeable in China, where, due to a wide levelling of society for several decades, most people share similar working and living conditions.
I feel that, as it often happens, those works which are closer to the artist's autobiography are the most vibrant, the most moving. But, because Zhuang Hui's background is common to many people, and as he chooses a very clear and 'readable' ways to express his feelings, his issues can easily be understood and shared by all. His is not the story of a single person; it is rather the story of millions of Chinese people. His need to relate to the past and present events of his country's history shows how deep his personal commitment is with regards to his own role as an intellectual in China.
A few years ago Zhuang Hui found a companion to his ideals, a person who could follow him and at the same time give him new input. Dan'er, being younger and one who comes from a different background, complements Zhuang Hui's ideas with her own fresh thoughts.
Yumen: a community reconstructed
The last exhibition I saw of Zhuang Hui and Dan'er is 'Yumen' at Three Shadows in Beijing. It opened just a few days after I had come back to China in September 2009, for my usual long visit.
As I previously noted Zhuang Hui was born in Yumen, Gansu, and from there he moved to Luoyang when he was very young. I know that in the last few years, after a long absence, he started to go back to his city of birth, during each summer, and has therefore noted the changes that have occurred there. The city, which has been one of the most important places in China for petroleum extraction (a huge percentage of the country's total crude oil produced in the last forty-five years came from this city, according to the records quoted in the catalogue) is now on the threshold of an economic disaster due to the shortage of crude oil. The city was founded on October 1957 as the 'first industry base', before the discovery of Daqing in 1959. But since 1998, Yumen has been categorized as the 'second group of resource-exhausted cities in China.' 'The air is heavily polluted, so is the groundwater, while the original landscape, geology and vegetation have been heavily damaged. Landslide and desertification are becoming severe.' As a result of the shortage of crude oil, 'pressure of employment and social conflicts are significant. […] By 2007, over 90.000 [of the original 130.000] people moved out of the old city. Besides the remaining workers of the oilfields, those left behind were mostly the elderly, disabled or unemployed.'
These records have been collected by Zhuang Hui and Dan'er in two years of hard work, in order to put together an objective survey of Yumen's situation. The result has been neatly composed in a bilingual catalogue where one can get a reasonably complete historical description of Yumen's relationship to the discovery, extraction and exhaustion of crude oil. I remember that when Zhuang Hui sent me this survey via e-mail, I objected, pointing out that it was a valuable sociological and historical data – but where was the art in all this?
Both the exhibition and the catalogue are made of two different parts. The first is made of visual and written documents aimed at giving an exhaustive view of the city's situation. These documents need to be read and examined carefully – that is why on the first floor of Three Shadows, the exhibition space run by photographers Rong Rong and Inri in Chaochangdi, Beijing, Zhuang Hui and Dan'er installed a long table with several catalogues to flip through.
But it is true that few people are ready to spend time reading documents at an art show.
Then there's the 'personal story' which collides with the 'collective story.' Zhuang Hui goes back to find his own roots and he also tries to intervene in the local scene in his own way, that is to recuperate memories of his childhood, of his father, and to see them in the context of the present.
Zhuang Hui and Dan'er rented a space little more than a year ago; renovated it to establish a photo studio. Zhuang Hui's elder brother, Zhuang Jun, who used to work as photographers like their father, joined hands to help float a business enterprise together with the other employees. The studio, called 'Yumen Family Studio', has been active from July 14, 2008 to June 30, 2009 before it was shut down at the end of the project.
The second part of the catalogue is made up of records of this experience – from the leasing contract to the documentary images of the renovation work, to the receipts of all the expenses incurred – everything is brought under the same roof .
As one goes up the stairs, leaving the first floor 'research space', one suddenly finds a multimedial space. The photo studio has been reconstructed perfectly, with the dresses, tools and backgrounds that are traditionally used. A video which records the preparatory process between shots (the person photographed is arranging hair and clothes, trying out difference expressions…) and is accompanied by the rhythmic sound of a diaphragm opening and closing, creating an interesting rhythm. We can witness those people's expressions as if they were still there. For me this video is the most successful part of the whole, complex exhibition.
In two other huge rooms walls are covered with enlargements of the original photos taken in the studio. In one room there are 'photos with background' of groups or individuals: they are imaginative, with all sorts of fancy dresses and exotic tools. A shocking counterpart is a batch of pasted photocopies of the meagre monthly profits the studio used to make. However, the unbelievable reality is that, compared to other studios in Yumen it was still doing quite well.
In the other room dozens of enlarged 'standard photos' are hung. The walls are completely covered with mostly emotion-less faces on red backgrounds.
As in all Zhuang Hui's works, every detail has been looked after carefully. Photos are neatly printed on a hard surface and beautifully framed at the four corners, like in old photo albums.
Finally, descending back to the first floor through another staircase, one gets to watch numerous photographic shots (projected simultaneously on screens), displaying images of Yumen as it is today – an 'exhausted' city on the verge of complete decay, and nearly abandoned.
Personal memories and feelings, and also hopes and despair – all this are intertwined here with social issues in a subtle way. Like in the previous works, the artist's autobiographic presence is only a suggestive sign: not evident as data, nor stressed with its full emotive power. Far from the 'leading action' that is decisive in many of his colleagues' work, Zhuang Hui's comes to light gradually, they reveal themselves to the eyes of only those who look at his work very carefully, and are willing to 'read between the lines.'
Being more fortunate and gifted than most common people, whose existence is destined to elapse without having the chance to speak up, or to leave any legacy behind, they have managed to take their destiny into their own hands by attempting a personal re-interpretation of 'reality' – or at least – to express their judgments about it.
Their critical and/or poetic approach is not representative only of themselves but of a collective to which they belong as they give voice to an enlarged, speechless humanity. Posterity included.
MONICA DEMATTÉ is an art writer and curator based in Italy. This article was specially commissioned for Depart, which was written during her stay in Vigolo Vattaro, December 18th, 2009.