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Unlikely Harvest: An Arts Festival in Rural China Beats the Odds

Originally published December 17, 2012 on ChinaFile

A little over month ago, I found myself traveling to rural Anhui province. Coal+Ice, the documentary photography exhibition I had produced for Asia Society, had been invited to exhibit at the Yixian International Photography Festival. Logistically, this exhibit proved a daunting feat. Fifteen massive crates of photographs were driven all day from Beijing to Pingshan Village, where the power of ten men would carry each crate 500 meters down a rocky hill to the exhibition space, an ancestral hall that dates to the late Ming dynasty. I calculated our exhibition’s wattage needs and we borrowed electricity from the farm next door. Five villagers became our art handlers. We had only one week to install. On the day before the opening, we still had about two more hours of installation ahead of us when we discovered the festival had been “postponed” by the county government.

It might have just been another case of a creative endeavor fallen prey to the Chinese government’s paranoia ahead of the 18th Party Congress. But instead, after sitting around the ancestral hall for about half an hour, looking sullen and frustrated, our team stood up and finished installing the show, even though we knew few people—if any—would ever see it.

Yixian’s Festival was a small part of a larger effort by intellectuals and artists who have turned their attention and energies to “developing” the countryside even as China continues to urbanize. Rural reconstruction, as their movement is called, encompasses a series of efforts over the past century or so to revitalize the countryside through educational, economic, and cultural reform. The current experiments taking place in southern Anhui province are especially interesting because of the history of the region and the artistic background of the current participants.

Pingshan Village is situated in the historic Huizhou region of southeastern China. During the Ming dynasty, merchants brought great wealth to Huizhou. Youth from the area were encouraged to leave the region to apprentice and return with new skills. Craftsmanship and architecture flourished in this period, and the remnants of ancestral halls are seen throughout the region. Today, Yixian oversees a portion of this once-flourishing region that includes Pingshan Village and six other villages scheduled to participate in the Yixian International Photo Festival.

In 2011, Ou Ning and Zuo Jing, two creative entrepreneurs, made Yixian their second home. Ou edits Chutzpah, a bilingual literary magazine based in Beijing. He also makes documentary films and curates major contemporary art shows. This year, he curated Yixian’s Photo Festival. Zuo is also a curator, an artist, and the editor of two magazines, Han Pin and Bishan, focused on Chinese traditional culture. Together, they founded the Bishan Harvestival, a cultural festival in Yixian’s Bishan Village. In Bishan, Ou and Zuo are attempting to bridge the increasingly large divide between countryside and urban life; the Harvestival celebrates this effort. This year, the Photo Festival was to have coincided with the second Harvestival.

When Ou invited Coal+Ice to come to Yixian, we immediately accepted. This would be my seventh trip to China, but my first beyond its cities. Having grown up in semi-rural California and now living in New York City, I have long been interested in the relationship between countryside and city in the United States. I worry about what happens to communities when their most valuable export is their ambitious and educated children. Coal+Ice depicts the relationship between coal mining and climate change through photographs by thirty photographers from around the world, many from China. Given that rural regions often pay a more immediate price for our reliance on fossil fuels than urban areas do, I was eager to see how a rural audience would receive this project. And that is how I found myself traveling to the Anhui countryside this past November with my colleague Sun Yunfan and Coal+Ice exhibition designer Jeroen de Vries. (more…)

COAL+ICE at 17,723 ft.

Originally posted on Asia Blog.

Last September, the documentary photography exhibition COAL+ICE, a project of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, opened at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing to widespread international acclaim. The show features 30 photographers from around the world and collectively tells the story of the consequences our earth faces due to mankind’s continued use of coal.

Two elements stand at the heart of COAL+ICE. The first is a collection of Chinese coal mining photographs selected from Mined in China, an earlier Asia Society project curated by Susan Meiselas. The second is an ongoing project by mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears and his team at GlacierWorks to document the condition of glaciers in the Himalayas by retracing the steps of early mountaineer photographers like Vittorio Sella and George Mallory, and visually demonstrating the change in glacial mass over the past 100 years through comparative images.

COAL+ICE exhibition designer Jeroen de Vries designed the exhibit at Three Shadows to pose a riddle: What do these two things, coal and ice, have to do with one another? Breashears, inspired by this riddle and the importance of getting people to think about the relationship between coal use, climate change and the fate of the Himalayan glaciers, decided to take a selection of the coal mining photos with him on a trek to Mount Everest Base Camp, where he displayed the photos in a natural “ice gallery” on the Main Rongbuk Glacier. Reached by phone at his home in Marblehead, MA, Breashears discussed with Leah Thompson, COAL+ICE Associate Producer, what it was like to stage a photography exhibition at 17,723 feet above sea level.
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Natural Habitat

These photos represent the early days of what I hope will be an in depth look at girlhood in America. While I eventually hope to produce a short documentary looking at the relationship between corporate marketing and identity formation in young girls – I thought I would begin by exploring different representations of girlhood by asking girls between the ages of 2 and 12 to pick their favorite “toy,” loosely defined, and taking their portrait in the space where they are most likely to interact with the toy.

img_0352 Eileen “Deedee”

img_0086 Madelyn

img_0476 Emma
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Genocide No More – Save Darfur

Over the holidays I met with a group in my hometown, dedicated to raising awareness and money for humanitarian organizations working in Darfur. They asked me to produce a video about their group that would speak to their commitment in Darfur and show the breadth of their activities.

This video was produced for Genocide No More – Save Darfur in Redding, California. For more information, please visit: darfurredding.org

Thailand with a Single Roll of Film

17_25
04_11
27_36
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Official Coal+Ice Installation Tour

Producer: Leah Thompson
Installation Videography: Tal Unreich
Additional Camera: Keith Bedford, Leah Thompson


At Work »

Unlikely Harvest: An Arts Festival in Rural China Beats the Odds
Unlikely Harvest: An Arts Festival in Rural China Beats the Odds

Originally published December 17, 2012 on ChinaFile A little over month ago, I found myself travelin

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Video »

COAL+ICE at 17,723 ft.
COAL+ICE at 17,723 ft.

Coal+Ice is exhibited on Mount Everest's Main Rongbuk Glacier at 17,723 ft. Video and Interview wit

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These photos represent the early days of what I hope will be an in depth look at girlhood in America

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Writing »

Unlikely Harvest: An Arts Festival in Rural China Beats the Odds
Unlikely Harvest: An Arts Festival in Rural China Beats the Odds

Originally published December 17, 2012 on ChinaFile A little over month ago, I found myself travelin

More in Writing