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Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art
Chen Quilin, Video still from River, River, 2005, Video (color, sound), 16:00. Courtesy of the artist and Max Protetch Gallery, New York.

CHICAGO.- The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangzi River in China is a massive project entwined in controversy. When finally completed, it will stand as the world’s largest generator of hydroelectric power, with a yearly output equal to that of fifty million tons of coal or fifteen nuclear power plants. However, the dam’s 375-mile reservoir has already displaced over one million people and submerged over one thousand towns and villages.

This exhibition presents work that four leading contemporary Chinese artists—Chen Qiulin, Yun-Fei Ji, Liu Xiaodong, and Zhuang Hui—have created in response to the dam. Despite differences in backgrounds and artistic practices, these artists have engaged with the theme of displacement, responding to the movement of people, the demolition of old towns and construction of new cities, and the astonishing changes the project is bringing to the local landscape. Through the powerful artworks and extensive educational programs, Displacement offers nuanced, thought-provoking perspectives on a project of great social, environmental, and global concern.

Displacement focuses on the powerful work that four artists have created in response to Three Gorges Dam. The massive hydroelectric project has captured the attention of many outside of China, and the environmental and sociological impacts of the dam have been widely discussed in the popular media as well as academic studies. Critics cite the human cost and environmental impact of the project: more than 1.3 million people will have been forced to relocate, the ecosystem of the region has been disrupted, and sites of archaeological and historical importance have been submerged. Yet supporters in China and elsewhere note that the dam allows for economic growth and stability: it is expected to supply one-ninth of the country’s electric power, lower greenhouse gas emissions, boost trade to the interior, and control the flooding which killed as many as 300,000 people in the twentieth century.

In thoughtfully complex works, Displacement offers new and nuanced perspectives on the Three Gorges Dam. Chen Qiulin’s series of four haunting videos—Rhapsody on Farewell (2002), River, River (2005), Color Lines (2006), and Garden (2007)—combine documentary footage and dreamlike sequences amid sites of demolition and construction along the Yangzi River. Yun-Fei Ji’s Water Rising (2006) is a long, scroll-like ink painting that is densely packed with displaced people and a disrupted landscape, rendered in a style that references the history of Chinese ink painting. Liu Xiaodong’s monumental Hotbed (2005) is a thirty-foot-long oil painting of vulnerable and virile migrant laborers and a hazy landscape that was made on site at the Yangzi River. Zhuang Hui’s conceptual photographic installation Longitude 109.88º E and Latitude 31.09º N (1995–2008) is one of the first works of art to deal directly with the Three Gorges Dam, and is shown here for the first time.

The Smart Museum’s presentation of Displacement also includes two handscroll ink paintings on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago: Yang Bu Moving His Family (Yuan dynasty, 1279–1368) and King Yu Moving a Mountain to Control the Floods (Ming dynasty, 1368–1644). These paintings help contextualize the contemporary works in relation to the broader tradition of Chinese history and art.

As one of the first institutions in this country to look seriously at contemporary Chinese art, the Smart Museum has earned wide acclaim for its collaborations with curator Wu Hung, the renowned University of Chicago professor and one of the field’s most distinguished historians. Displacement extends this series of collaborations and enriches our understanding of contemporary Chinese art. The majority of exhibitions organized outside of China in the past fifteen years have mainly showcased avant-garde or experimental works, which favor new forms and are often created for a global audience. In contrast, Displacement offers a more balanced view, including works from four major branches of contemporary Chinese art: performance and new media art, traditional ink painting, realist oil painting, and conceptual photography.

Although it is focused on contemporary Chinese art and the Three Gorges Dam, Displacement contributes to a more general discussion about the role of contemporary art in society. The exhibition and related educational programs aim to inform this debate and provide a platform for discussion, not only about what is happening along the Yangzi River in China, but also about the wider relationship between contemporary art and social, political, and environmental issues.

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