Song Dong and the “Wisdom of the Poor”

Song Dong, "Wisdom of the Poor," 2005. Image via UCCA.

The hutongs of Beijing have long been sites of informal gatherings, neighborly consideration, and thrifty consumption. With the urbanization of the city, however, acres of old neighborhoods once animated by these cramped streets have been demolished, uprooting communities and collapsing the silently constructed social ecosystems therein. Alongside the tendency toward individualization inherent in modernity, the destruction of family homes and the physical erasure of the past have led to an overwhelming sense of estrangement among the former residents of these well-worn streets. To preserve the memories of the hutongs and to celebrate the simple wisdom that sustained them, Song Dong filled the enormous space of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing with the bric-a-brac and portions of dilapidated wooden residences that he salvaged from his mother’s home and from other decaying sites of an endangered society. Continue reading “Song Dong and the “Wisdom of the Poor””

Revisiting China’s Grand Canal

Philipp Scholz Rittermann, "Overview, Night Fish Market, Grand Canal, Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China," 2010.
Image via Scott Nichols Gallery.
As integral sites of commerce and transportation in any city, the waterways and river-sea routes of Yuan and Ming Beijing have been a major point of discussion in Professor Hay’s colloquium. Stretching for more than 1,000 miles, China’s Grand Canal is the oldest and largest canal ever built. Commissioned during the Wu Dynasty in 486 B.C.E., the canal underwent several stages of expansion and repair well into the reign of the Ming emperor Yongle in the 15th century. It functioned to ferry grain taxes from the south to the imperial seat in the north as well as to facilitate the shipment of goods and raw materials for the construction of temples, palaces and gardens. The Grand Canal was equally important in connecting the fairly landlocked city of Beijing to the maritime trade routes of the sea to the east. With 24 locks and some 60 bridges, the canal currently connects Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south. Continue reading “Revisiting China’s Grand Canal”

Chen Lianqing’s Forbidden City

Chen Lianqing, "Flooding in the Forbidden City II," 2006, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 250 cm. Image via Yan Gallery.
Chen Lianqing (b. 1967, Chongqing, China) creates highly polished, often humorous paintings of culturally significant monuments and buildings submerged in water. Using a limited palette of grey, red, and the occasional pop of orange, his work limns a response to the natural and man-made disasters that have scarred the Chinese landscape in recent years. Born and educated in Sichuan province near the Yangzi in southwest China, Chen had a childhood shaped by the river’s seasonal flooding, the regular immersion of buildings, and the quiet leisure of workers relaxing along and in the river waters. Unfortunately, with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in 1994, his family was forced to relocate along with thousands of others, effectively washing away the setting of Chen’s youth. In a thoughtful and technically accomplished artistic riposte, Chen submerged in dark grey waters the most iconic architectural manifestation of political power and control in China – the Forbidden City in Beijing.  Continue reading “Chen Lianqing’s Forbidden City”

Zhang Dali’s Dialogue with Beijing

Zhang Dali, Dialogue: Forbidden City, Beijing, 1999. Chromogenic color print, 23 11/16 x 35 9/16 in. Image via The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Since 1995, Zhang Dali has been attempting to communicate with the city of Beijing through graffiti. Though the conversational efficacy of his work is up for debate, the signs of his instigations still litter the streets, crumbling walls and hutongs (the ubiquitous narrow alleyways) of Beijing. They are spray painted silhouettes of a bald-headed man, often accompanied by his tag “AK-47” or hollowed out to reveal a striking scene of a city that is in a constant state of construction, preservation and demolition. Zhang explains his work in this way: “This image is a condensation of my own likeness as an individual. It stands in my place to communicate with this city. I want to know everything about this city- its state of being, its transformation, its structure.” Continue reading “Zhang Dali’s Dialogue with Beijing”

Stay Tuned for the Green Beijing Series

The CAC blog is excited to introduce a new series of posts revolving around Professor Jonathan Hay’s current Green Beijing colloquium at the Institute. A collaborative effort led by current MA candidate Elizabeth Lee, this series will be posted regularly for the duration of the Fall 2011 semester, beginning on November 14.

Zhang Dali Demolition: Forbidden City, Beijing, 1998, chromogenic color print, 35 9/16 x 23 11/16" (90.3 x 60.1 cm). Image via The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The site of current day Beijing has seen its fair share of change. From Mongol pleasure palace to bustling Han metropolis, the city and the people who populated it have existed in a state of flux for centuries. In Professor Jonathan Hay’s Fall 2011 Green Beijing colloquium, we are focusing on the 15th century in an attempt to recreate the Ming dynasty capital in all its urban (and surprisingly verdant) glory. Through the surviving pieces of the imperial palace (aka the Forbidden City), the temples, and the surrounding parks and lakes, we are inching slowly toward an understanding of the various levels of symbolism encoded within the urban landscape of Ming Beijing. The ideological and experiential dimensions of Ming Beijing are further colored by student-led cross-cultural comparisons with cities like Angkor, Delhi, and Kyoto. While the colloquium attempts to build a vision of Beijing rooted in the past, this blog is an effort to pull the discussion closer to our own time.

By listing and discussing some contemporary artworks that deal with the historical sites we investigate—for example, the Temple of Heaven, Beihai, Beijing’s “seas,” and the city’s hutongs—we hope to create a dialogue between Ming Beijing and the Chinese capital of the 21st century.