Experimental Photography of Ruins in China

A review of Building a History of Experimental Photography of Ruins in Chinese Demolition, by Xavier Ortells-Nicolau.



Space, or to be more specific in this review of Xavier Ortells-Nicolau’s dissertation, Urban Demolition and the Aesthetics of Recent Ruins in Experimental Photography from China, the ruin is defined beyond the mere material perspective of architectural remnants at the first place. “For here the cultural past doesn’t count.” Bachelard wrote, to which Ortells-Nicolau responds: “a ruin is not a given, transparent, or immediate aesthetic and cultural object. Rather, a ruin is the result of discursive (textual, visual) constructs that frame rubble, debris, and architectural waste, and transforms it into a significant emblem of personal and collective memory and identity” (p. 19).


The first three chapters in Part 1 describe the socio-historical background and narrate the theoretical frameworks of the dissertation. Chapter 1 describes the nation-wide demolition project across China which results in a sharp increase of remnants and rubble and lays down a solid material basis for photographic endeavours. Some important artists and their works, which will be discussed in detail in the second part, are introduced here, such as Ai Weiwei, Rong Rong, Zhan Wang, Sun Yanchu, etc. In Chapter 2, previous discussions of theoretical engagement with ruins as a research subject are presented in comparative tension between the Chinese and the Western traditions. These discussions draw heavily on Wu Hung’s theoretical contributions to the study of Chinese ruins, the outcomes of which have been rigorously articulated in his monograph A Story of Ruin: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (2012). Though Ortells-Nicolau writes that Wu Hung is the “most influential academic reference for this dissertation” (p. 11), he also points out that Wu Hung’s work treats China as a passive recipient of the Western ruins discourse, failing “to address the possible continuities of ancient, local concepts and practices in modern artworks” after Shitao, an artist who was active in 18th Century China. (pp. 880-881) Thus the author emphasizes contemporary Chinese artists as active subjects who embrace the discourse of ruins derived from a demolition social movement. Unlike a pure Western invasion, such discourse for the author is an integration of ruins discourses from both Western and Chinese sides. In Chapter 3, the author analyses the entanglements between photography and ruins from a historical point of view, which leads to deeper biographical studies in Part 2.


Overall, this excellent work provides readers with an anthology of Chinese experimental photographic practices since the 1990s. The sophisticated theoretical discussion nd effort to ground theories and qualitative studies within a concrete social-historical background of Chinese demolition progress are indeed impressive.a

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Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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