By Marisa Hamel
Great plans are afoot:
A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare,
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges
The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.
When Chairman Mao Zedong wrote this poem in 1956 after a swim in the Yangtze River, it was not likely he foresaw the environmental and social implications of the Three Gorges Dam that would come to dominate urban and rural China. Pollution, corruption and economic expansion interwoven with major water projects resulted in booming cities and the rapid displacement of rural villagers.
Six contemporary, non-Chinese photographers captured these changes. Their dramatic work is featured in a new exhibition at the Michigan State University Museum called Seeing China: Photographic Views and Viewpoints, on display from Jan. 19 until Aug. 30.
Sponsored in part by the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, the photographs of Steven Benson, Luis Delgado, Laurie Lambrecht, Fredrik Marsh, Philipp Rittermann and Brad Temkin, and stereographs from the museum’s collection—made in China between 1901 and 1905—present the stark shifts in China’s lands and waters through human activities and the struggles spurred by growing capitalism under its communist regime.
“Seeing China raises questions about environmental change and political responsibility, rapid urbanization and economic expansion, human and civil rights, and cultural diversity and change,” said Howard Bossen, co-curator of the exhibition, a professor in the MSU School of Journalism and member of the Knight Center’s associated faculty.
Two photographers focus directly on the environment and water resources, including the building of the Three Gorges Dam. Steven Benson’s photographs from his book, The Cost of Power in China: The Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River Valley, document his 1999 travels. “What stood out to me when I began to study the subject was the desire to build this dam across the Yangtze River 610 feet high and 1.3 miles long—creating a reservoir 50 miles longer than Lake Michigan in a densely populated area—was an example of how flaws in our perceptual system can cause immeasurable harm,” Benson said.
Benson’s photographs focus on everything from rural villages that are now 50 feet under water to new cities built on the promise of economic opportunity, and from anglers on the banks of toxic tributaries to workers on break at dam construction sites. As a foreign photographer, Benson encountered press restrictions from the Chinese government, which did not want these issues raised on international platforms.
“If you spend time with my photographs there is a sense of loss, mourning and sadness. There was a sense that everything I was looking at was going to disappear soon, and I was very, very aware of that,” Benson said.
What was meant to symbolize China’s might accurately reflected China’s mistakes: the capitalist initiative mixed as badly with communism as the Three Gorges Dam with the Yangtze River Valley.
In another area of the country, Rittermann photographed along the Emperor’s River, China’s Grand Canal, for 1,000 miles between Beijing and Hangzhou, capturing what he said is “missing from the news.” His vibrant color images boast HD-TV clarity and some span up to 10 feet across. Scenes of lumber barges passing under moldy stone bridges, nighttime markets and ports at dusk were created with temporally and spatially overlapping exposures, capturing the movement of men trading fish under floodlights and the expression of a boy yelling down the street amidst city-goers and shopkeepers. He describes them as “a breathtaking, fast-paced collision of antiquity and modernity; the newly rich vs. the long-suffering poor.”
Also on view are color photographs from Marsh’s “To Those Who Come After;” a busy barber shop, boys relaxing at a pool hall and clothes drying on wires above the street, characterizing the subtle, deserted and overlooked areas in rapidly disappearing old Guangzhou alongside a rapidly rising new city.
Balancing scenes of old and new, Lambrecht and Temkin contribute vibrant color pieces that we might imagine in classical China: Lambrecht’s diptychs of delicately blossoming trees in the Imperial Garden in Beijing and Temkin’s portraits of the Great Wall. And Luis Delgado’s artist book, Cuentos Chinos Attributed to Dr. Achoo, presents a whimsical look at the interplay between the “ancient and the gadget-driven eras.”
The exhibition will feature guest lectures throughout the spring by Benson, Delgado, Rittermann and Shirley Wajda from the MSU Museum. The complete schedule can be found at www.museum.msu.edu.
Seeing China is presented as part of a thematic year at MSU, The China Experience: An MSU Exploration of Arts & Culture. It is sponsored by the MSU Museum, Asian Studies Center, Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, School of Journalism, History Department, Honors College, Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities, Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives and the MSU Library.