Experimental Photography of Ruins in China


A review of Building a History of Experimental Photography of Ruins in Chinese Demolition, by Xavier Ortells-Nicolau.

“A philosopher who has evolved his entire thinking from the fundamental themes of the philosophy of science, and followed the main line of the active, growing rationalism of contemporary science as closely as he could, must forget his learning and break with all his habits of philosophical research, if he wants to study the problems posed by the poetic imagination.” (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1964).

Beginning with such an assertion, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard directed his spearhead to the Positivism philosophy acclaimed by Auguste Comte, who advocated that reality could only be attained through empirical observations and specific scientific methods. Bachelard, however, initiated another approach that refused to place the reason and science beyond the “sudden salience on the surface of the psyche,” that is, the poetic of image. Space, or to be more specific in this review of Xavier Ortells-Nicolau’s dissertation, Urban Demolition and the Aesthetics of Recent Ruins in Experimental Photography from China, the ruin is defined beyond the mere material perspective of architectural remnants at the first place. “For here the cultural past doesn’t count.” Bachelard wrote, to which Ortells-Nicolau responds: “a ruin is not a given, transparent, or immediate aesthetic and cultural object. Rather, a ruin is the result of discursive (textual, visual) constructs that frame rubble, debris, and architectural waste, and transforms it into a significant emblem of personal and collective memory and identity” (p. 19).

The slight difference between Bachelard and Ortells-Nicolau is that Bachelard was seeking a phenomenological solution that inscribes the essence of the geometry or structure of space at large, where our souls and spirits rather than our flesh and stuff can be better placed, whilst Ortells-Nicolau, from a historical point of view and drawing on Chinese experimental photographic practices, aims to explore how a certain form of space, the ruin, is mediated within various discourses across time, rejecting the idea that the sociocultural meaning of such form of space is inherently embedded. In this light, one will regard Ortells-Nicolau’s dissertation as multi-disciplinary, involving both a macroscopic structural analysis of the socio-historical background of the demolition progress in a reforming China, and a microscopic art and visual study concerned with the subtly interactional network among photographers and their photographs. It also explores how these photographic practices project and represent broader social facts of contemporary China.

The first three chapters in Part 1 describe the socio-historical background and narrate the theoretical frameworks of the dissertation. Chapter 1 describes the nation-wide demolition project across China which results in a sharp increase of remnants and rubble and lays down a solid material basis for photographic endeavours. Some important artists and their works, which will be discussed in detail in the second part, are introduced here, such as Ai Weiwei, Rong Rong, Zhan Wang, Sun Yanchu, etc. In Chapter 2, previous discussions of theoretical engagement with ruins as a research subject are presented in comparative tension between the Chinese and the Western traditions. These discussions draw heavily on Wu Hung’s theoretical contributions to the study of Chinese ruins, the outcomes of which have been rigorously articulated in his monograph A Story of Ruin: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (2012). Though Ortells-Nicolau writes that Wu Hung is the “most influential academic reference for this dissertation” (p. 11), he also points out that Wu Hung’s work treats China as a passive recipient of the Western ruins discourse, failing “to address the possible continuities of ancient, local concepts and practices in modern artworks” after Shitao, an artist who was active in 18th Century China. (pp. 880-881) Thus the author emphasizes contemporary Chinese artists as active subjects who embrace the discourse of ruins derived from a demolition social movement. Unlike a pure Western invasion, such discourse for the author is an integration of ruins discourses from both Western and Chinese sides. In Chapter 3, the author analyses the entanglements between photography and ruins from a historical point of view, which leads to deeper biographical studies in Part 2.

The second part of the author’s work examines the experimental and art photographic spectrum in China over 20 years (from the 1990s to the 2010s) in relation to the representation of demolition. Through 22 case studies, especially focusing on their socio-historical background and impact on the Chinese art world, Ortells-Nicolau sets up six categories in a chronological and thematic order, according to the content, styles, and forms carried out by different artists. These categories, impossible to separate with clear boundaries, each stress different aspects of ruiins, such as multi-media practice, concept and performance, architectural features, and metaphoric meanings. Ortells-Nicolau’s organization of historical materials resembles the work of Chinese historian Sima Qian, the first individual-oriented history written in the form of biographies, treating history as periodic facts led by significant figures and events. “Representativeness over exhaustiveness”, are the words which Ortells-Nicolau articulates uses to articulate his approach to historiography in the dissertation.

Chapter 4 describes the initial photographic and artistic practices on demolition in the 1990s, with examples of the works of Geng Jianyi, Huang Yan, Zhan Wang, and Zhang Dali. In Chapter 5, the timeline ranges from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, and discusses in great detail the art photographer Rong Rong and his works. The idea that demolition as concept and performance is emphasised during this historical stage is derived from Rong Rong’s early photographic series East Village. In this series, he documented some crucial figures and moments of Chinese experimental art, such as Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s music show and Zhang Yuan’s performance. Most of these artistic practices are seen as the revival of conceptual art in China, yet ironically, the East Village was eventually demolished in 2003. In Chapter 6, the author continues to explore the experimental photography of demolition in the 2000s under the category of performance and phantasmagoria. These photographic works shed more light on the engagement of personal emotion, memories, and the ruinous aesthetic. The artists included are Qin Wen, Chen Jiagang, Chen Qiulin, and Yang Yi. Within their photographs, phantasmal presences are often adopted as a metaphor for the old days.

Chapter 7 continues to discuss photography during the 2000s, only from a different perspective of (re)constructing ruins in experimental photography. The chapter “analyses the (re)creation of urban demolition and ruinous landscapes in photo-potage and staged photography” (p. 215) produced by Wang Qingsong, Jiang Pengyi, Caofei, and Wang Xiaotao. In Chapter 8, a turn from learning American conceptual art to following the typologic photography of the German school is explored. Landscapes and cityscapes of ruins in photographs taken by Ai Weiwei, Zeng Li, Luo Yongjin, Wang Jinsong, and Shaoyinong and Muchen rigorously reflect the national demolition project and the embarrassing consequences caused by modernisation discourse. In Chapter 9, some recent figurations of ruins imaginary in China after 2010 are discussed. Among them include Yang Yongliang and Yao Lu, two promising artists who use digital techniques to reconstruct traditional Chinese paintings. The chapter also explores the work of Sun Yanchu, whose photographic series Obsessed is regarded as an everyday documentation of the transformation of Zhengzhou, capital city of Henan, and Zhang Kechun’s work on documenting the landscape of the Yellow River, which shows the ruinous views along the riversides, illustrating a poetic feeling of nostalgia through distant composition.

Overall, this excellent work provides readers with an anthology of Chinese experimental photographic practices since the 1990s. The sophisticated theoretical discussion and effort to ground theories and qualitative studies within a concrete social-historical background of Chinese demolition progress are indeed impressive.

Yunchang Yang
Department of Anthropology
University College London

Primary Sources
Material support from 10 Chancery Lane Gallery and artists
Interviews and conversations with artists, photographers and scholars
Artists’ websites

Dissertation Information
Universitat Autonomy de Barcelona. 2015. 324pp. Primary Advisor: Carles Prado-Fonts

Image: Sun Yanchu, Obsessed 2004-2011, curtesy by the artist.

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