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Case study: “Tongyuanju”

Case study: "Tongyuanju"
Tongyuanju is a historical industrial district in the center of Chongqing, the largest city in southwestern China. In the 1960s, the main factory in Tongyuanju, a state-owned weapons manufacturer, employed more than 120,000 workers. In 2001, the company decided to move out of Central Chongqing, so they could sell the land, which had become highly valuable, to a real estate developer. Most residents agreed to relocate, but a few have refused to move, due to compensation disputes. Since then, these residents have been living in enclaves, surrounded by constant demolition and construction.
In 2009, Wang Haichuan, a Chongqing-based artist known for his paintings, became fascinated with Tongyuanju. He started to document its transformation, and created paintings about its architectural spaces. In his words, he “observed from a distance.” After a year, he felt that he should “go in.” By this, he meant building relationships with people living there. For the past six years, he has initiated a series of projects with the residents in one of the last remaining communities in Tongyuanju. I will describe two of these projects today.
In the summer of 2013, Wang Haichuan distributed 12 film cameras to eight families, and told them that they could photograph whatever they liked. He deliberately chose film cameras instead of digital ones. A resident jokingly remarked, “Now we are also making art.” Periodically Wang Haichuan went back to collect completed rolls of film, and gave the families new rolls.
A few months later, he organized a photography workshop for the participants. They gathered in an abandoned apartment, eating snacks and chatting casually. Wang Haichuan showed them some famous photographs and described the techniques, all in Chongqing dialect.
About 900 pictures were collected in this project.
The photographs covered a wide range of subject matter: Soviet-style buildings from the 1950s in which the families are still living, nearby high-rises just built by the real estate developer, neighborhood activities like outdoor dancing and Chinese chess games, and portraits of family members and pets.
To us outsiders, some photographs seem enigmatic: golden elephants, plastic roses, a Minnie Mouse balloon hanging upside-down, a girl with one hand blocking her face sitting in front of lotus-patterned wallpaper in neon green and pink. Many pictures are slightly out of focus or blurred. To us, they are like stills from a dreamy film. To the residents, they are memories of an uncertain time.
Traveling during major holidays has become widely popular for the Chinese middle class. In Chongqing in particular, many people travel during Chinese New Year to get away from the cold and damp winter. But residents in Tongyujuan did not want to travel. They told Wang Haichuan, “We have no money, plus what if the relocation policy changes just as we are traveling.” Wang Haichuan decided to organize a “trip” for the residents. He tidied up two abandoned rooms, and covered the walls with huge prints of tropical landscape. He strung lights in the courtyard, and set up a long table for a feast.
After the banquet, the residents started their “travels” in the decorated rooms. Affected by the festive atmosphere, some residents began to dance. Fantasy became reality. Wang Haichuan later commented, “I never expected that they would start dancing in front of these pictures. They felt good, and said that they were in Hawaii. Something inside them was activated. This perhaps is part of what art can do.” In the photography project described earlier, memory of the community how the residents are living in this moment of history is preserved by hundreds of pictures capturing slices of individual lives. In contrast, the travel party was created as a collective event for fun, and for collective remembrance.

Since 2010, Wang Haichuan has initiated a series of projects with the residents of Tongyuanju, a historic industrial district in the center of Chongqing that is being “redeveloped.”

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Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

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