What is socially engaged art? Before we discuss this term, let’s look at three examples. This photograph is dramatic. Ranges of barren mountains dominate the composition. In the foreground, eight trucks, covered with bright-colored tarpaulins, dot the winding road carved on the slope of the mountain. They look like toys, and their intense colors emit a sense of joy, defying the seriousness of the sharp ridges and dense clouds in the background. This photograph, produced at Que’er Mountain in 1999, came out of the “Moving Rainbow” project created by artist Xiong Wenyun. Moving Rainbow is more than a set of photographs.
Over a period of three years, between 1998 and 2001, Xiong Wenyun realized a series of art experiments along the highways leading from Qinghai and Sichuan into Tibet, culminating in two large-scale events that involved not only truck drivers, but also environmental activists, government officials, and journalists.
Besides producing photographs of motorcades forming “moving rainbows,” Xiong Wenyun and her supporters also organized other activities to promote environmental protection in the Tibetan region. They distributed leaflets, set up information displays, and collected signatures. The project contributed to an emerging discourse on environmentalism at the turn of the millennium. Xiong Wenyun was born in Sichuan province in 1953. During the Cultural Revolution, at the age of sixteen, she was sent to work in the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. In 1979 she entered the Sichuan Art Academy to study traditional Chinese painting. In 1987 she went to Japan to further her training and developed a passion for color field paintings.
After exhibiting her paintings at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in April 1998, Xiong Wenyun went to Tibet in May. She visited the Samye Monastery and the Kings’ Tombs in the Shannan area and realized a series of small-scale, site-specific experiments. She painted pebbles in bright colors, using the same palette she had been using in her paintings.
Xiong Wenyun’s work attracted attention from local residents but did not surprise them. They have long used natural materials stone, mud, and even water and wind to make small replicas of Buddhist statues and pagodas. And bright colors are everywhere to be seen in Tibet, the land closest to the sun.
Two months later, Xiong Wenyun went to Tibet again. This time she took a road trip along the Sichuan-Tibetan Highway for over 1,200 kilometers, traveling from Chengdu in Sichuan province to Qamdo in the eastern part of Tibet. Besides continuing her painting experiments, she turned her attention to the highway. She noticed that many trucks coming out of Tibet were carrying timber. During this trip she also encountered a rainbow, rising above the mountains into the clouded sky.
When she embarked on her third trip in October 1998, the highway was no longer just the road leading into Tibet, but had become the site of her focus. In the previous trips, Xiong Wenyun acted more like a keen observer. When she attempted artistic experiments, they were small and did not require interaction with other people. This time, however, she seemed to be more conscious of her identity as an artist at work. She invited photographer Luo Yongjin to travel with her, so her actions could be documented. She engaged in two series of works. In one series, she painted the visible ends of timber carried on the trucks.
Again she used the rainbow palette: red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, blue, and purple. In another series, she hung a piece of bright-colored cloth on a door, or a window of the shacks standing next to the highway. To realize these works, she had to talk to the truck drivers and the people living in the shacks to obtain their approval. On one occasion, upon seeing the red paint Xiong Wenyun was applying to the wood carried on his truck, a driver commented, “Yes, they are bleeding.” According to Xiong Wenyun, this was the first time that someone connected her actions to environmental issues. In March 1999, Xiong Wenyun participated in a group exhibition and showed some photographs from her trips in Tibet.
Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, published an article on her work and mentioned its connection to environmental protection. After this exhibition, Xiong Wenyun decided to continue her project and to make it visually more dramatic. She made seven waterproof tarpaulins, each in a rainbow color and large enough to cover the back of a truck. She took them with her to Que’er Mountain, 4,200 meters above sea level, and convinced a few truck drivers to put the tarpaulins on their trucks. The first moving rainbow thus came into being. To her surprise, the drivers liked the tarpaulins and wanted to buy them from her.
They told her that her products seemed more durable than those available on the market and these products would provide better protection for valuable goods like furs and cigarettes. Emboldened by the media attention she received and the truck drivers’ warm response, Xiong Wenyun committed herself to increasing the scale of the rainbow idea. She sought and obtained support from Southwest Jiaotong University, where she was teaching as a visiting professor. She also found a team of drivers in Chengdu who agreed to participate on a planned trip. On September 25, 1999, a departure ceremony was held in the south gate plaza of the university, attended by university officials and the CEO of a civil engineering firm that contributed some funds.
Fourteen trucks were draped in colored tarpaulins and left on an eight-day journey to Qamdo. This trip generated a set of photographs that are the most visually compelling. Xiong Wenyun directed the drivers, while Luo Yongjin, the photographer, set up the camera at strategic positions, often far away and on elevated ground, so he could capture panoramic views of the motorcade moving through the mountainous landscape.
Xiong Wenyun became more ambitious. She drafted a plan to recruit one thousand truck drivers to carry the Moving Rainbow along the Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet highways simultaneously into “the roof of the world” (Tibet).
She also gave the project a new name: Beijing-Everest Environmental Protection Activity. For the next year and a half, she devoted herself to seeking support in China and Japan.
She succeeded in building a partnership with two environmental NGOs: China Environmental Culture Promotion Association and Green Earth Volunteers. But she failed to secure any major financial sponsorship. After several delays, she decided to reduce the original scope and finance the project with her own savings and donations from other artists. On July 11, 2001, sixty trucks covered in colored tarpaulins left Golmud in Qinghai province for Tibet. Two weeks later, a number of trucks reached the base camp of Mount Everest, 5,400 meters above sea level. A series of events were also held at several stops along the road and later in Beijing to spread the message of environmental protection. The project was widely reported, in both local and national media.
In summary, Moving Rainbow evolved as Xiong Wenyun’s initial personal pilgrimages to Tibet grew into ever-larger participatory events. Xiong Wenyun did not have a master plan when she embarked on her first trip to Tibet. She tuned her work according to what she experienced on the road and how others responded to her gestures. At the same time, it is clear that the project could evolve because Xiong Wenyun did not content herself with the existing forms of art.