Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art
Nasher Museum of Art
Through July 25

One of our basic human impulses is to record our experience, to leave traces for ourselves and others. Documentation of who we are and what we witness makes our days matter and wraps significance, if not a skin of permanence, around our actions. The undocumented quickly vanishes into the forgotten, and so might as well have never happeneda terrifying erasure.

This documentary impulse, rather than an ideological one, moved four leading Chinese artists to make the works in Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art, now on display at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University through July 25. Curator Wu Hung chose not just these artists but these specific works spanning different media and traditions to represent the varied impact of the largest engineering project in human history upon the Chinese consciousness.

Constructed between 1994 and 2008 but planned for decades before that, the Three Gorges Dam permanently submerged some 1,200 cities and villages and displaced more than a million people in central China, while providing one-ninth of the country’s electricity needs and alleviating the threat of catastrophic regional floods that killed thousands in 1954 and 1998. You can imagine, in the United States, that artistic reactions to such a project and its effects would express protest and deal with policy. But the works in this show are not primarily political reactions and, in this, express something essentially different about the Chinese character at the turn into the 21st century.

As you enter the gallery, it’s hard not to be immediately drawn to the bank of Zhuang Hui’s photographs on the far wall, taken directly above perfectly circular holes he dug at three sites now 100 meters under the Yangzi River. Also comprising a map of the Three Gorges region and current-day video of the three sites, “Longitude 109.88E and Latitude 31.09N, 1995-2008” echoes the dam project. The hole photography references an engineer’s survey and geological sampling, and the displacement of their images to the gallery wall rather than the floor conveys the abruptness of their disappearance underwater. Described as a veteran conceptual artist, Zhuang gives us undetermined, craftless images that open to as many interpretive directions as you want to take them in. Their expression of simultaneous absence and presence comes through in an optical illusion, vacillating between concave and convex to a viewer’s eye.

Liu Xiaodong’s likewise site-specific tack provides more direct emotional value in his five-panel oil painting “Hotbed,” depicting dam workers at rest and playing cards. Painted on the sun-baked rooftop of a building soon to be demolished and submerged, it reveals its conditions in quick, sketchy brush gestures, implying the impending demolition in unfinished areas of canvas. This is a departure for Liu, known as China’s most accomplished contemporary studio painter. In an accompanying video that shows Liu’s process, he explains his choice of working conditions as a need to “confine myself in a narrow space to paint, so that I can eradicate my rationality.” By showing how the laborers’ bodies are shaped by their work, just as the landscape will be reshaped by the dam, the painting itself becomes the dama wall that stores energy by stopping an image.

The other painter in the show, Brooklyn-based Yun-Fei Ji, works in the ancient literati tradition of brush and ink on scrolls. In “Water Rising,” a procession of refugees hauls its possessions through a ruined landscape. At first, the image seems a literal depiction of people fleeing the flood, but as you read it from either end it becomes surreal, simultaneously pre- and post-displacement. It’s hard to tell the possessions from the debris, or the refugees from the ghosts. Ji’s intentionally amateurish brushstroke expresses the forgotten histories that we walk over top of each day, as well as our own precarious role in them.

The progression of possible reactions to the dam projectfrom outrage to grief to acceptance and even optimismis best captured in the work of 30-something videographer and performance artist Chen Qiulin, whose artist talk April 1 should not be missed. As the only artist in the show originally from the Three Gorges area, Chen gives a more personal view across four short videos done between 2002 and 2007 that weave footage of Yangzi River life and dam demolition with that of traditional operatic characters wandering through the locations.

From the sadness and anger of her earliest video “Rhapsody on Farewell,” through the realization of the inevitability (and actual experience) of change in “River, River” and “Color Lines,” to the acknowledgment of the human power to adapt in her masterwork “The Garden,” Chen shows us her own change from political to personal. Her skillful collaging of these images and sounds has a transcendent narrative power that ultimately expresses how humanity moves forward, and that life is about not economies and electricity but is about people and their actions.

Displacement deflects most expectations of political rhetoric, so leave them in the Nasher parking lot to cook in your car. In our conversation after his curator talk on opening night, Wu Hung noted the resonance between the artists’ motivation and the desire of the Chinese people overall: “They want to embrace something real, not another ideology.” After all, what is more political than the real?