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Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds In early August, 1995, residents of Chengdu, the capital city in Sichuan province, were amazed by a series of spectacles along the Funan River. They saw a young woman floating on a square raft with a mirrored surface. They saw a topless man keeping ducks in a fenced area by the shore, and releasing the ducks into the river one by one. They found washbasins at the entrance to Riverside Park, and were encouraged to wash their faces with water from the river.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 seconds As they encountered these strange situations along the river, they learned that this was an environmental art event titled “Keepers of the Waters.”

Skip to 1 minute and 1 second Funan River was heavily polluted after decades of intense urbanization and development. People dubbed it “the Rotten River.” As part of the effort to raise public awareness about the pollution problem, American artist Betsy Damon, who was known for her environmental art initiatives, was invited to Chengdu. Together with local artist Dai Guangyu, Damon enlisted the support of artists living in Chengdu and coming from other cities. From June to August, 1995, the artists attended workshops alongside scientists and policy makers; they then staged the first large-scale public event about water conservation in China.

Skip to 1 minute and 51 seconds At a public plaza, Dai Guangyu placed twelve medical trays on the ground. Portraits of the participating artists were soaked in water from the river. After a couple of days, the photos were badly eroded. This work illustrated a fact that was already known by the public. It still attracted passers-by because of its novel form.

Skip to 2 minutes and 18 seconds Yin Xiuzhen, who came to Chengdu from Beijing, froze ten cubic meters of water from Funan River, and arranged the ice blocks on a sidewalk. For two days she asked the public to wash the ice with her. She titled this work “Washing the River.” When the ice blocks finally melted away, sludge remained on the ground. In an on-site interview, Yin Xiuzhen said, Everyone should do something about the pollution problem, no matter what your job is. As an artist, I decided to visualize the problem in an artistic way.

Skip to 2 minutes and 57 seconds Even though the public was only asked to do something as simple as scrubbing the ice,

Skip to 3 minutes and 3 seconds the work delivered a clear message: getting rid of the pollution problem requires joint action. It is not enough just to stand there and talk about the problem. We all need to be actively involved.

Skip to 3 minutes and 18 seconds “Keepers of the Waters” felt like a festival. The finale took the form of a ritual to honour the river. Let’s watch a video clip recorded by Betsy Damon.

Skip to 3 minutes and 32 seconds The highlight for many people was this ritual of honoring the river. And what we have is a large constructed bamboo raft that was put together by a large group of people. And then one of Chengdu’s famous story tellers stepped forward and told stories about the river for about an hour. When he was finished, hundreds of people were invited to place lotuses in the baskets and give wishes for the river which were written down. Finally, the candles were starting to be lit.

Skip to 4 minutes and 18 seconds The entire event took about three hours and went from 5 o’clock till dark.

Skip to 4 minutes and 27 seconds And then 20 people lifted up the sculpture and began to parade through the night time tea gardens that lined the river. And as they paraded, hundreds of people joined following behind. Eventually, the lighting candles and lotuses and baskets were lowered into the water and flowed down the Funan.

Skip to 5 minutes and 1 second On the next day, the Director of the Environmental Protection Agency told Betsy, “I was really moved. All these events reminded me why I do this job. Water is the basis of life.” The following year, the second iteration of “Keepers of the Waters” was staged in Tibet. More artists joined. You can check out the works on seachina.net.

Case study: "Keepers of the Waters"

A number of artists created public installations and performances along the Funan River in Chengdu in 1995 to raise environmental consciousness. This event was organized by American artist Betsy Damon with the support of Chinese artist Dai Guangyu.

After watching the video above, you can visit seachina.net to see more details of this project:

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This video is from the free online course:

Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

City University of Hong Kong