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…)