Now on view through June 15 is the video installation Chen Qiulin: The Empty City, a visual tour de force that looks at what remains of her hometown, most of which was submerged by the massive Three Gorges Dam project. Chen Qiulin, who lives and works in Chengdu and has had exhibitions at the Hammer Museum at UCLA and the Broad Art Museum, has been at the museum to oversee the finishing touches and to attend this week’s members’ opening reception. Looking as delicate as a sparrow, but tough as nails when it comes to her art, Qiulin sat down with us to answer a few questions, with our Asian art curator Shawn Eichman serving as translator. (Qiulin is pictured above, wearing a lei museum trustee Cecilia Doo made with baby rosebuds from her own garden.)
How important is Wanzhou to you? So many artists move to Beijing or Shanghai, but you remain in your home province—why?
A lot of people tend to think of me as an artist focused on the Three Gorges Dam. Of course Sichuan Province is my home, but the impulse in wanting to do my art is the fact that when my village [Wanzhou] was going to be submerged, there were a lot of people affected personally, who were losing their homes and memories, [my art] isn’t so much about the places as the people and the effect of government policies on the people that I grew up with. When my village was being submerged, it was exactly the same time I was learning to be an artist. So as a matter of course it became subject matter for my art. At the same time, through that experience, I’ve come to feel that China is not Beijing or Shanghai or even Chengdu, it’s about the countless villages whose names are known only by the people who live there. This huge China, anonymous to the rest of the world, is really where the character and identity of China lies. It’s not in the major urban centers. It’s not so much a focus on Wanzhou or Sichuan as the unknown rural China that people overlook.
How did the Three Gorges dam inform you as an artist?
While studying printmaking at the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, I was going back to Wanzhou once a year and I noticed every time I returned there were huge changes in the landscape and in the way people thought about things. It was an external and internal change. I started to see possibilities as an artistic subject. That’s when I developed interest in video. I wanted to capture changes on video—this was something that was a problem on a national scale that needed to be addressed, people in all of China need to know about it.
Now that Three Gorges Dam is completed, will it continue to be subject matter for you?
To be honest, I’ve never really thought my art has to do with the Three Gorges Dam. It’s really about the effect national government policies have on ordinary people who live in towns and cities.
Do you consider yourself a social activist?
I feel that everyone’s views on society are different, and the last thing I want to do is force my views on anyone, so I don’t consider myself to be a social activist. I see problems that are happening and want to make everyone aware of them, not just in video work but all my art. I take problems happening on the individual and community level and bring them out in my art to make people aware of them.
What is the significance of the herbal face mask you wear when you are dressed as a military officer in some of the videos in The Empty City?
It’s true that I am present in and am the focus of a lot of my artwork, particularly in the videos. But when I was doing The Empty City it was a difficult period for me in many ways—and I was struggling with the process of creativity. I look back at it as a low point when I lost a lot of hope when I was doing the videos. I didn’t want myself to be in the videos, so I was using the masks to eliminate my sense of self. It’s something that wasn’t limited to the videos at time—I was questioning my whole sense of self.
What is the significance of the balloons you carry in the videos?
They were inspired by story of the little matchstick girl, the red reminded me of the flame on the end of a matchstick.
The colors and composition of your videos are extraordinary. How do you prepare for each video? Do you do storyboards? Choreograph it? Or is it a more organic process?
When I set out to make a video I have something I want to communicate, so I think about how to do that. My regular process is to plan them out in advance. But this one is very different than previous works. I had a clear plan in place, but the videos took on a life of their own—my plans unraveled almost immediately. All my previous videos have been for the audience, but this video is unique in that by the time it was done it was in a lot of ways about myself and for myself. It’s the most intimate and personal of all my artwork. I was going through a period where I was struggling so much, and creating it helped me emerge from the struggle. It’s the most truly revealing of my works. I’ve hidden nothing in these videos.
You were arrested doing one of the video segments, was that scary?
No, because we had already managed to give the video to someone to smuggle the tape out [of the situation]. After all the trouble we went through I was determined that the footage was not going to be caught by the police.
I’ve been arrested several times. If you’re going to make a video in China, you have to be prepared to be arrested. Generally by the time they’ve caught me and the crew, someone has already smuggled away the video, so there’s nothing to charge me on. In the police station they tend to be less aggressive to women than to men, but it can be a little scary.
What are some of the effects of the Three Gorges Dam that you see on your community?
The government first started to relocate people to other provinces, introducing new communities to already existing communities, which resulted in a lot of tensions. That didn’t work, so then they started to isolate newly relocated communities which created even more problems—people would secretly go back to their towns. So the government started to relocate them closer, then Chongqing started to expand on an unprecedented scale. But the housing they were building was an iron cage—it was often poorly designed and constructed. After families were relocated, children would leave and go to big cities for jobs. The traditional family structure has been devastated by relocations. I’ve spoken with many older people, and asked how often they see their children—the answer is usually once a year, on New Years. Once tightly knit families have lost their structure. Some people who worked on the relocation program said for society to advance, sacrifices have to be made. That deeply angered me. Older people who never see their children living in iron cages—that’s a situation that still continues. The sacrifices are too great.
This is your first visit to Hawai‘i, how has your experience been so far?
The air is very fragrant here.