Seeing What Is To Be Forgotten: The Art of Han Bing
Shannon May, University of California, Berkeley, PhD
To gaze into the photographs of artist and performer Han Bing is to have the gift of seeing what has already disappeared, or what is supposed to be out of sight and unthought, in the midst of the present. The rapid transformation of China has turned the world’s eyes to the metropolises of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and in the blink of our eyes these cities have transformed from amalgamations of wood, brick, clay and tile into towering testaments of China’s desire to become contemporaries of the Western states, in both appearance and practice. In Beijing, 5975 out of 6000 neighborhoods of meandering lanes and courtyard homes have disappeared to make way for concrete, glass and steel edifices of modernity. The destruction of the narrow passages filled with bikes, squash vines, and split-bottomed children’s pants in order to create space to construct these palaces of packaged and purchasable desire is a physical manifestation of the political manifesto that has guided the path of the country since the rise of Deng Xiaoping: to become a middle-income, contentedly prosperous people.
Creating a middle class out of lumpenproletariat requires a revolution in thought and practice similar to, but far easier, than creating communists. After all, desire is easier to encourage than sacrifice. New materials create new building designs that shape new patterns of living as space is reconfigured across China’s cities. Leisure time emerges from the drudgery of subsistence work, and pets and tourism become the pastimes of progress. Other artists have captured the opposing poles of this desire to remake the world—the longing for the familiar embrace of what is disappearing and the yearning to immerse oneself in the world emerging. Zhang Dali became famous for his Dialogues of an iconic graffito facial silhouette attempting to speak of the need for human history and remembrance to the Chinese character for destruction, 拆/chai, spray-painted on neighborhood walls about to be bulldozed. Weng Peijun’s photographs capture the 21st century’s version of the German Romantic’s oceanic feeling: rather than an individual facing the powerful, endless surges of the ocean pounding from the horizon to his feet, Weng’s Bird’s Eye View series of photographs capture duos and groups of young school-girls standing on the roofs of buildings, with the manmade world unfolding from their sneakers to the edge of the sky. In a country in which the population of the cities has increased seven-fold in fifty years, and by 2020 will have increased fourteen-fold to a billion urban residents, the sublime of nature is giving way to the reverential wonder and dread of the cityscape that envelops the visible world.
What can be particularly unsettling in Han Bing’s work is his ability to capture both the lost and the found, the deritus and the dream in the Middle Kingdom’s desire for middle prosperity in a single image. While Zhang and Peng’s work respectively captures the nostalgia and grandeur of China’s urban transformation, Han Bing’s performances and photographs attempt to turn our attention away from the broad sweep of societal transformation and back toward the changing mundane practices and experiences of the everyman as an index of progress.
Within China, Han Bing is best known for his on-going series Walking the Cabbage (2000- ). Over six years, Han Bing has walked over 700 cabbages in those famed metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou as well as taken it for strolls along the well-known tourist spots of Suzhou’s waterways, Qinhuangdao’s beaches, and the Great Wall. In this public practice of leisure, consumption, and companionship, Han Bing visually and physically unites the waning role of cabbage as succor and sustenance to generations of urban Chinese with the waxing presence of pet dogs as emotional and financial outlets. To walk a dog—to have the leisure time to play with it and the disposable income to feed it and pamper it with toys—is a sign of a middle class life across the world. And in China, to not rely upon cabbage as the primary food source for survival through the long winter, is to be, at the very least, contentedly prosperous, as well as starkly contrast with the economic conditions of the vast majority of the country only 10 years ago. Neither Han Bing’s walking of cabbages, or the photographs that capture this practice is nostalgic—there is no sense of loss that devours the soul for something that which can never be regained. His critique of the present is not simply that it is transforming past lives, but whether we have paused amidst the transformation long enough to think about how it is affecting us—our own daily practices—and whether we like that change. In this new China, what is it that nourishes us?
In Walking the Cabbage at the City Shopping Market, Shanghai (2005) Han Bing looks back at his cabbage as if to tell it to keep up. The organic shape of the cabbage stands in stark contrast to the aisles of packaged drinks in molded plastics. But how is a cabbage to keep up in an urban world of mass consumption and linoleum floors? It seems that it cannot. When walking the cabbage, Han Bing would often keep a replacement cabbage in his backpack, lest the one on the leash be torn apart by the roads and floors before his travels through the city were over. But t is not sympathy that he evokes, but the satire of a wry smile—a smile of self-recognition, a mildly disquieting mixture of amusement and disturbance. We are complicit in the joke, it seems, as we are each part of this world of changing values and practices, and most importantly, what we accept as the normalcy of the (middle-class) present.
Just as normalcy and nourishment are determined by context, so then is Han Bing’s cabbage. This is what gives this series its vitality even after six years. In Helping the Family Plant Cabbage, Hanhu Village, Jiangsu (2005) the cabbage is on a leash, led from the city back to the farm, laying next to the farmers and the tools of their trade for what seems to be a family portrait: consumptive excess in contact with the back-breaking work of its production. This photograph acts as a Chinese American Gothic, with the generations of its interpretation collapsed into a single frame, at the same time the original and a parody, full of sincerity and pathos for the endurance of the farmer as the bedrock of civilization and the foundation of the bounty of the cities, while simultaneously measuring the farmers’ distance from the current Chinese avant-garde (their son), and the middle-class consumers he is mimicking and mocking through the cabbage, the product of his own parents’ labors. It is in this photo that Han Bing’s urban commentary crosses over the gap between the cities and the countryside and unites the two in dialogue, and in so doing marks that gap as not merely as an economic divide, but as dialectical division of production and consumption that taken together form the generative system of contemporary China.
In the series Love in the Age of Big Construction (2006), Han Bing continues and expands on the themes of intimacy and sublimation through everyday objects of construction and destruction that he began in Mating Season ( 2001- ). Here Han Bing draws our attention to our own intimacy with the edifices and the means of their construction that surround us. In the performance piece, Love in the Age of Big Construction II-1, Multimedia Performance Installation, Beijing (2006), he offers himself up on the altar of the arm of an earth mover, its grasping cup-like hand curved back toward him, as if in a shielding embrace. The buildings that comprise our cityscapes are the offspring of the fertility of our passions and the power of our machines to enact them. Watching this performance disturbs many persons’ sensibilities, as when have we before thought of the physical landscape we inhabit as the product of our own intercourse with machines?
In Urban Amber (2005-2006), Han Bing continues to ask us to question the nature of the prosperity being sought in China today, to investigate how a singular mandate to create a middle income, contentedly prosperous society can blind us to illnesses caused by a wonton, uncontrolled desire to consume the abundance of the modern cornucopia of plastics and industrial products. In the effluent engorged canals of Beijing, Han Bing captures in a single-exposure the promise of modern life, and its burden: the high-rises of dense, convenient living reflected in the waters polluted by convenience. The art of these photographs is in their beauty—they draw in the eye that cannot until too late realize that the content of the image is not clouds or fallen leaves, but garbage. It is in the moment when aesthetic desire repulses and seeks to draw the eyes away that Han Bing has succeeded in capturing the turmoil of progress in contemporary China. The awesome expansion of the cityscape out toward the horizon, the every-increasing density of human life and prevalence of human consumptive luxury comes at the cost of our own waste and pollution becoming the visible record of our progress.
In the New Culture Movement (2001-2006), Han Bing continues his investigations into the value and promise endowed into everyday objects that he began the series Everyday Precious (2001-2004). In this series the common-folk of the countryside, still clad in plain cottons and padded jackets as their work-a-day wear clutch red bricks as the manifesto of their times: to build a private home. Holding on to the promise offered by a material already deemed obsolete by China’s new green guards as environmentally unsustainable, Han Bing’s photographs capture the hopes of people who have not yet experienced the modernity that China’s cities have already surpassed. Han Bing’s affinity for satire is again rekindled in these images. In New Culture Movement, No. 3, Dali, Yunnan (2006), echoing the propaganda images of the Cultural Revolution heydays, an older man in an over-sized uniform clutches a red brick to his chest, standing proudly in front of a wall painted in red characters declaring: “Education is the foundation of the most vital plans!” Again, Han Bing’s work draws forth a wry smile, but who is it to be educated? The farmer who believes that his future is in the brick? Or the new culture of green guards who disparage this man for holding hope that his day of prosperity has finally come in the package of coal-fired brick? Is it the farmers who need education as to the new culture movement sweeping China’s cities, or city residents—those most likely viewing these photographs—who need an education as to the conditions of the countryside and dreams of a people they have already forgotten?
The vitality of Han Bing’s performances and photographs are in the questions his work elicits, in they way that his images question the accepted norms of the contemporary urban world. He asks us to remember what practices we have forsaken, and what practices we have accepted, and upon whom we depend for our bounty—and at what cost to ourselves. His art attempts to make the beneficiaries and witnesses of the transformations at work in China today confront these process of creation and destruction, and realize each of our own complicity and intimacy in the transformation of society through each of our daily practices and judgments. In such a way, Han Bing offers each of us a mirror in which to gaze at a refracted image of one’s contemporary self and life in China today, and upon gazing intently, consciously, at that image to ask “Do I like what I see?”