In Summer 2014 at Tsinghua University in Beijing I gave a paper to my Chinese language classmates and instructors introducing Caochangdi Workstation and its Folk Memory Project. It was an act of translation, both between languages, and also of experience into discourse. Figure 1 is the lecture in Chinese and figure 2, its translation in English.
By presenting my lecture first, I seek to destabilize linear order, bringing the event itself as closely into the timespace of the analysis as possible. Like trauma, which is a retrospective category, analysis occurs after the event. Here I produce three modes of translation and repetition of Caochangdi as conceived and re-conceived through multiple registers and forms of representation. The document of the process of interpreting thrice lends itself to Caochangdi Workstation, a site that similarly mediates between the multiplicities which are meaningfully interwoven through the art that takes place there-- the rural-urban dynamic, the past and the present, and the body existing in time and space.
There are four parts to this piece -- three illustrations, my original lecture in Chinese, its translation, and my ethnographic analysis.
The first illustration is a map of Beijing with Caochangdi and 798 highlighted in order to visualize the design of Beijing and the locations of the art villages within the city. Beijing has various types of urban forms, configurations of neighborhoods, as well as rapid gentrification, allowing people to live and practice art in ways and in spaces that are constantly emergent. One such form, not unique to Beijing, but particular in certain respects to China, is the art village. Art villages do not occur in a singular way, rather, there are variations. In the mid-nineteen eighties, Chinese artists began working in abandoned houses near the Old Summer Palace. In the mid-nineteen nineties they were evicted from there and started moving into the Factory District where 798 Art Zone now stands. Caochangdi, in the Northwest of Beijing, neighbors 798.
The second illustration is a timeline of the events relevant to the Folk Memory Project--both Chinese historical events and my own ethnographic moments. For the sake of contextual clarity, this story begins in 1949 with Mao Zedong and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In 1958, villages were converted into People’s communes according to state policy, followed by a three-year famine. The subsequent three decades saw the beginning and end of the Cultural Revolution, and Reform and Opening under Deng Xiaoping. In the eighties and nineties the art village movement arose, and in 2010 the Folk Memory Project began. My account begins in 2014, with this lecture in which I discuss the work of the artists at Caochangdi, spanning four years, and their mining of a roughly sixty-year history. My analysis concludes in the year 2015. This is a story about time, and an exploration in self-reflexivity through form; the temporal content of the art practice demands a temporally aware register. By inserting myself into the story, I add a second performance and a third historical narrative.
The third illustration, “Place That Weep,” is the illustrator, Lauren Matthews’ interpretation of the overarching themes--the past, the urban pilgrimage, time and space compression, the burden of memory, and the aesthetics of the footage. In this picture, the map of China became a figure of a weeping pilgrim as the artist worked through the idea that places themselves remember. As with W.J.T. Mitchell’s wanting image, the space itself demanded to be an actor in a process of memorialization. Created through a series of dialogues with Matthews, the illustrations mediate my interpretation of the space.
This site is presented in the form of a triptych, an originally religious form, in a piece about a pilgrimage, a typically religious journey. Most obviously, the triptych, a form arising in early Christian art, places this story in conversation with iconography, which has deep implications for reflecting on the Socialist period using visual methods. Mao Zedong demolished China’s visual landscape of all images but that of himself. The triptych, parallel to the parodic forms utilized by Chinese contemporary art, especially in the nineteen nineties, serves as a prod at the iconoclasm of the Mao period. It also folds into my understanding of the Folk Memory Project as a story of three generations; the artists, their estranged and disapproving parents, and the elderly informants, whose voices and faces appear in the hours of footage at the Workstation. Finally, the triptych is about my position as an ethnographer, a translator and an analyst of the visual, in three languages, Chinese, English, and illustrations. It makes my process of interpretation visible, and mimics the work of the artists who, by offering live presentations about their experiences in the field, continually expose their own methods.
Participation in the Folk Memory Project produces a reversal of the migration from the countryside to the city, which dominates the historical moment in which the project is situated. Like relational aesthetics, which is art practice that employs the social as its medium, the Folk Memory Project uses history as its medium, gathering ingredients, through ethnographic methods, for art production. Participation, in this urban context, creates a space of togetherness, unlike the anonymous existence that is possible in a city as large as Beijing. Beyond the daily habits instilled by group living, participation also transforms the artists by changing their minds about methods of historical understanding, their relationships with their parents and their plans for the future. On a small scale, the site of Caochangdi Workstation alters the possibilities of its inhabitants. The artists enter the space, leave and come back to it, repeatedly, as a part of their residency, and, ultimately, leave changed.
Recent debates prompt thinking about the possibility that art, or what Marianne Hirsch calls, “aesthetic encounters,” may be more effective than monuments at memorializing. In China, cities have histories of trauma; they are themselves monuments to a recent past characterized by destruction and construction. In the past 60 years, urban space in China has been witness to depopulation and then repopulation with rapid, expansive urbanization. Urban sites in China have an undeniable newness; an effect of post-socialism; they are populated by massive numbers of people who have migrated from rural places. Robin Visser writes, “Urban Chinese will never again be rooted. Yet, aesthetic solutions can create a sense of place through attention to lived, historical space, in turn mitigating the capitalist violence and ‘mechanical reproduction’ so prevalent in the global city.” (Visser: 2010: 81-83).
The artists participating in the Folk Memory Project arrive at Caochangdi from elsewhere and then make it a home precisely by leaving. They are recent college graduates, some with dance backgrounds, some history, others have worked in theatre in China or abroad. The Folk Memory Project brings a set of rural experiences from the past into a contemporary urban space. This (dis)placement is an instantiation of what Walter Benjamin calls, “putting the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.” (Benjamin: 1936: 218). By depicting narratives of the great famine period, the Folk Memory Project addresses a traumatic period; in that sense it is like a treatment for trauma; the media it employs represent a reanimation of these rarely told stories.
It is also resonant with the sensory component of live performance essential to Wu Wenguang’s work. Wu employs embodied acts, for example the swallowing of excessive wads of toilet paper in his film, called “Treatment,” to express the feelings evoked by the care provided for his mother as she died. Encounters like these force viewers into kinetic empathy, feeling nauseous, violated, full, scratched, by such images, embodying what Wu may have felt during his mother’s passing.
The Folk Memory Project represents a compression of time. The artists, in a migratory process mimetic of the movement of the sent down youth during the Mao period and an inversion of the urban migration characterizing the reform period, construct an alternative history to the state sanctioned narrative. The project reformulates memory through performance and raises questions about form and representation. Because the memories are being presented in a mediated form (not directly by those who experienced the trauma) and because they are presented through a hybrid media, they are apt, as Marianne Hirsch (who would, perhaps, call this work post-post-memory) has suggested, to confronting catastrophe. When I asked Wu what the relationship is between the two forms, dance and film, the footage and the live performances with which they were mixed, he expressed ambiguity, describing a kind of magic by which the two exist alongside and mutually constitute each other. Rather than having a defined connection, the bodies of the filmmakers and the moving pictures they make are in the action of flowing, assembling, undoing, redefining and continual seeking.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Hannah Arendt, eds. New York: Schocken.
Visser, Robin. 2010. Cities Surround the Countryside: Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hirsch, Marianne. 2012. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press.