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Flowing Waters Never Return to the Source: Visions of the Chinese River

The Jumièges Abbey is one of France’s oldest Benedictine monasteries, dating back to the seventh century. Situated just off the course of the Seine River in Normandy, part of the historical building was recently turned into an exhibition center for photography, and has hosted work by Josef Koudelka, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ange Leccia. Every show shares a common feature: they relate to the identity of the space. 

This month, a different waterway will run through the abbey’s ancient ruins: the Chinese river, examined through the work of 13 artists. In over 80 works of photography and moving-image, Flowing Waters Never Return to the Source explores the many ways in which artists have explored the Chinese river — as a physical, cultural, and political entity.

Here, we speak to co-curator of the show Victoria Jonathan, who speaks on behalf of herself and Bérénice Angremy — the team behind Jimei x Arles festival, and founders of the Franco-Chinese agency, Doors. Jonathan discusses the history of visual representations of the river, and how it captures the modernisation of China.

BJP-online: How did the idea for this exhibition come about?

Victoria Jonathan: When the organisers contacted Berenice and I, then acting as directors of the Jimei x Arles Photo Festival in Xiamen, China, to curate a show of Chinese photography, we naturally came up with the idea of the river as a central theme to the show, as a nod to the location of the Jumièges Abbey, which is near the Seine. The river is also a seminal theme in contemporary Chinese photography, with references to the traditional aesthetics and modern history of China. 

The river appears both as evidence and as a metaphor for the transformation of China over the past decades, which has had unprecedented and radical consequences on the landscape and environment, but also on the economy, society and culture. The title of the exhibition, Flowing Waters Never Return to the Source, is an excerpt from a poem by Li Bai (one of China’s most celebrated poets from the Tang dynasty, who wrote extensively about nature), which echoes an excerpt from Heraclitus’ Fragments: “You cannot step into the same river twice”. The world is constantly changing and evolving, there is no going back to the past or the origin. This verse felt like a suitable illustration of the course of history (and particularly the acceleration of history in China), and of photography’s relation to time and of man’s impact on nature. 

Through the vision of thirteen photographers and artists, this exhibition paints a portrait of a transitioning China, symbolised by the image of the river.

© Zhang Xiao.
They No. 004, 2007. © Zhang Xiao.

The exhibition’s structure employs the river as an avenue to contemplate three very different subjects — the historical visualisation of landscapes, urbanisation, and the environment. Could you explain your thinking behind the structure of this show?

Over the past 20 years, many photographers have produced work about the river in China. Constructions such as the Three Gorges Dam, cities like Chongqing, sites such as the Yangtze or the Yellow River, all of which point to the scale of urbanisation in contemporary China. This has inspired the work of not only photographers but filmmakers, visual artists and writers. 

In Chinese tradition, the river is a key element of ‘Shan shui’ (mountain-water) — a style of classical Chinese landscape paintings that illustrate a specific relation to nature, made of respect and veneration. In Western art history, landscape painting only appeared during the Renaissance period (1300-1600), whereas in China, it was as early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.C.) that an aesthetic conscience of nature emerged. Shan shui painting, which began to develop in the fifth century, does not attempt to represent nature in a realistic manner, but to provoke a spiritual emotion. This became problematic with the introduction of photography in China in the mid-19th century. How would this medium imported from the West, which allows one to capture reality instantly, transform the traditional Chinese representation of nature? 

The exhibition includes two very different artistic responses to this question, coming from Yang Yongliang and Michael Cherney, while other artists like Jia Zhangke or Zhang Kechun [below] directly refer to this tradition in their works.

Between the Mountains and Water. Stone in the Middle of the River, 2014. © Zhang Kechun.
The Yellow River. People Crossing the Yellow River with a photo of Mao Zedong, Henan, 2012. © Zhang Kechun.

The river is also an important symbol in Chinese modern history. Mao, who was an excellent swimmer, used the conquest of nature to demonstrate his own power. In 1966, he crossed the Yangtze at the age of 73, an event that was photographed and promoted through propaganda, and which triggered the Cultural Revolution. To this day, this epic swim is commemorated every year by swimmers crossing the Yangtze while holding portraits of Mao in their hands. One of Zhang Kechun’s photographs from the series The Yellow River [above] was shot during this commemoration.

More recently, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam between 1994 and 2009 intended to contain the deadly floods of the Yangtze river, and has enabled the development of the world’s biggest hydroelectric plant. More than two million people were displaced in the process, while 1300 historical and archaeological sites, 15 cities, and 116 villages were submerged.  Dry lakes, pollution, landslides — the environmental consequences are countless. The exhibition concludes with several works by photographers and artists who have documented the impact of this project on the local landscape, environment and society: Edward Burtynsky, Zhuang Hui, Chen Qiulin, Mu Ge, Liu Ke and Jia Zhangke [below].

Still Life, 2006 (108 minutes film). © Jia Zhangke.
© Mu Ge.

Could you tell us about the decisions you made when selecting artists? There are two non-Chinese photographers in the exhibition — Edward Burtynsky and Michael Cherney. Why did you feel it was important to include their work specifically?

The exhibition gathers works produced in the past two decades (between 1995 and 2019), a period of accelerated modernisation and development of contemporary art in China. The artists explore economic and political transformations of China as much as they participate in the artistic rise of the country.

China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 — after its urbanisation rate went from 36 per cent in 2000 to 60 per cent in 2018. The economic reform started in 1978 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, but the past two decades saw the rapid acceleration of urbanisation and industrialisation, and the emergence of a new superpower. 

One also must keep in mind that during the Mao era (1949-1976), the photographic medium was solely employed for propaganda. It is only in the 1980s and 1990s that artistic photography was reborn, mainly in underground circles. Photography as an art form has flourished in China in the past 20 years, with the emergence of artists and a new scene of galleries, festivals, and publishers to support their work.

Many non-Chinese photographers came to China during this same period to document the transformations on the landscape, and have produced exceptional works — Nadav Kander, Ian Teh, Tim Franco, and Cyrus Cornut, for example. We chose not to show these works in order to focus on Chinese creation, however we have included Michael Cherney [below], who has been living in China since 1990, studied calligraphy and developed an artistic work completely nurtured by Chinese traditional culture and contemporary reality.

Dam # 6, Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, China, 2005
. © Edward Burtynsky.

Edward Burtynsky [above] is the only exception to the rule. He has documented the global effect of industrialisation on the environment for the past 30 years, examining the origin of consumer goods and the scale of the landscape transformation, born out of our pursuit of progress. Naturally, his lifelong project has led him to China and to the Three Gorges Dam. We included his work for its balanced, relatively neutral view of the dam in the making, showing its massive scale to provide a photographic counterpart to the works of the Chinese artists showing in the exhibition. Their depiction of the river, and more particularly of the Three Gorges Dam, is dependent on their cultural history and political constraints in China, and tend to focus more on human scale against the backdrop of the dam’s gigantic structure.

The other thing in common between the selected artists is that they all work with time. All the works shown in the exhibition were produced over the course of several years. In photographing the rivers, the artists strode along their banks multiple times, observing its changes for years. Most of them employed pre-digital, lengthy photographic techniques, such as wet plate processes, and medium or large format cameras. It is all the more striking when you think of central themes of their work: change and acceleration.

By showing 13 different points of view that examine Chinese landscape today, the exhibition confronts all the different realities that can be witnessed along the Chinese river. Whether they focus on the rural or the urban, nature or humanity — these artists grasp the different facets of a landscape, which is physical, but also cultural, social and political. They contribute to the shaping of a new representation of Chinese landscape through art.

Flowing Waters Never Return to the Source will be on show at Jumièges Abbey, Normandy, France, from 15 July until 29 November. The exhibition catalogue is published by and available to purchase from Bandini Books.

© Ronghui Chen.
© Ronghui Chen.
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