The old town of Fengjie

Normal Pool Level

Normal Pool Level: “Height in meters above sea level at which a section of the river is to be maintained behind a dam.” 

The Three Gorges Dam is China’s most ambitious construction since the Great Wall. In July 2012 the largest Hydroelectric project in the world was fully functional for the first time. 

The project and its new 660 km long reservoir generated a huge environmental and human impact in the Yangtze valley, flooding 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,352 villages, submerging thousands of years of Chinese history. It has so far forced 4 million people to relocate. New and bigger cities have been built on higher ground, keeping the same names from the ones that disappeared. The Three Gorges reservoir has been turned into one of the top touristic attractions in China, and every season thousands of western visitors sail along the Yangtze in luxury cruises enjoying “cultural parks” that bring together new buildings or manufactured relics put together for the sole purpose of entertaining foreigners. 

In January 2013 artist Jorge Mañes Rubio decided to travel off-season along the Yangtze river to collect and transform a series of objects that depict the complex changes that have occurred in the area. The dislocations between both past and future, tradition vs. modernity, and memory vs. progress are crucial to understand a journey where the artist presents us an alternative narrative. Through his shocking photographs and fictional souvenirs a more accurate experience of the area’s transformation is thoroughly revealed. 

During his trip Rubio managed to visit some of the areas that got partially or fully flooded by the Three Gorges Reservoir. On some occasions being one of the very few western individuals if not the first one who has photographed some of these places, his efforts to recognise such locations and their inhabitants turn upside down our preconceived notion of touristic souvenirs as consumer objects. In Normal Pool Level, fictional keepsakes and mementos are linked to their original locations, opening a new space for the public’s interpretation. His objective but creative perception of the reality that surrounds the Three Gorges Project engaged with the local audience in the project’s first exhibition in China, telling a story they already knew, but somehow in a completely new way.

The exhibition comprises a collection of objects, photographs, drawings and installations that become the narrators of the artist’s journey. By travelling off the beaten track and engaging with the locals Rubio manages to create an array of symbols and memorials that don’t seem to belong to Eastern nor Western culture, portraying the identity clash that the area has been going through in the past few years and the cost the region is paying for the country’s development.

 After taking a picture of a man swimming across the Yangtze at the exact point where the old town of Fengdu lays underwater, Rubio decided to collect some water as a souvenir from the submerged city. Later on he decided to decorate the two industrial jerry cans that he used as containers with traditional Chinese motifs. The object’s content becomes a precious memento while its container symbolizes the conflict between tradition and progress that the city’s recent development represents. Fengdu was an important tourist spot thanks to its Ghost Town, but most of it has been submerged together with the old Fengdu. A new relic park is being built for touristic purposes but the meaning of this sacred place, more than 2000 years old, is lost to the locals.

 

Fengdu Jerry Can #1

Rubio collecting water at the Yangtse River

The Three Gorges Dam reservoir has submerged thousands of years of Chinese history. Some 1,208 archaeological sites were identified before being flooded, including 30 Stone Age sites between 30,000 to 50,000 year old, but archaeologists only managed to excavate around 80 sites before the rise of the river. The Yangtze Vase is a replica of an ancient Chinese vase with a hydrometric graphic embedded on it, representing the water level increase from the original up to the normal pool level of 175 meters above sea level, merging together both past and future of the Yangtze River.

Yangtse Vase

In what’s left of a suburb near the old town of Fengdu, Rubio met Mr Zou & Mrs Qian, a couple of farmers who had to become carpenters overnight after their land was flooded. They manufacture simple furniture in a small workshop, assembling prefab pieces of wood. Rubio took four pieces of discarded wood from the workshop as a souvenir from this encounter, and later combined them into a small stool using the popular Chinese nail-less carpentry. This kind of small furniture is typical from rural areas of China but like traditional carpentry is now vanishing, being replaced for cheaper mass-produced furniture. Fengdu Stool merges both techniques in one piece, resulting on a bizarre hybrid between craftsmanship and mass-production.

Fengdu stool

The new town of Fengdu

The old town of Fengdu

The abandoned construction site of a 5 star hotel in Fengdu

The abandoned construction site of a 5 star hotel in Fengdu

The abandoned construction site of a 5 star hotel in Fengdu

Concrete manufacturing plant in Fengjie

Concrete manufacturing plant in Fengjie

Concrete manufacturing plant in Fengjie

The Three Gorges Dam is the biggest concrete structure on Earth. Concrete was key not just for the construction of the dam, but also for building hundreds of cities, bridges and basic infrastructures along the Yangtze, replacing those that were flooded. Rubio managed to visit a concrete manufacturing plant just outside Fengjie, a key location for the industrial development of the area. During his visit he took a few small concrete samples from the laboratory and later displayed them as rather fragile souvenirs, showing concrete in a much more accessible and human scale.

Concrete samples at the laboratory

Factory on the outskirts of Fengjie

Industrial weaving machines 

Rubio extensively documented the manufacturing process behind the cement sacks’ production as well, capable of holding more than 50kg. Later, the artist scrupulously displayed the production process of this simple but highly engineered item and ironically transformed it into a flying kite, capable of holding nothing but air, a weightless but nevertheless meaningful symbol of Chinese ancient culture.

Plastic threads used to weave cement sacks

The old town of Yunyang

An abandoned construction site in the old town of Yunyang

A group of locals waiting for the ferry, the only mean of transport capable to reach the old town of Yunyang

The old town of Yunyang 

The old town of Yunyang

When the old town of Yunyang was demolished and almost completely submerged, some of its inhabitants refused to leave. Today, its architectural landscape is an appalling mix between ruins and unfinished new constructions; a disheartening and tragically stunning landscape. A small coal briquette factory operates in the Yunyang, producing one of the most basic items in the area. Ironically, despite all the energy generated by the Three Gorges Dam, these small towns still rely mostly on fossil fuels. Amazed by the beautiful and extremely functional design of these little briquettes, Rubio was invited by the owners to produce one on site, which he deliberately elevated to the category of sculpture. The piece aims to represent the inner conflict the artist went through while visiting this abandoned town.

Zhang Fei’s Temple, built more than 1700 years ago and classified as national heritage, was flooded together with most of the old town of Yunyang. A new temple was rebuilt next to the new town, 35 km away from its original location, being presented as a museum for tourists. Most of the locals, unable to pay the new ticket fees, have set up an improvised ritual outside the building, where they burn incense and firecrackers to worship Zhang Fei, creating a surreal red ocean of pyrotechnic debris. After talking to the local vendors, the artist recognised this ritual as the only authentic thing left from the old temple. Refusing to get into the museum, Rubio decided to create his own firecrackers, removing any decoration from them, representing an invisible, non-official ad hoc temple.

Pyrotechnic debris at the entrance of Zhang Fei’s temple

Zhang Fei’s firecrackers

Orange crates in the village of Cao Tang before being shipped through the Yangtse River

Workers replacing telephone poles in Cao Tang

Named after the Cao Tang River, a Yangtze tributary, this small farmers village will be soon transformed into a vast industrial complex. The riverbed has already been dried up and construction work was taking place the moment Rubio passed by. After bumping into some workers replacing the old telephone poles, the artist asked them to keep a couple of ceramic insulators as souvenirs from the village. The pieces are symbolically used in the exhibition space to hold a cable from which statements have been printed and hang on big posters. These quotes were taken from several interviews filmed on video by Rubio during his trip. Instead of showing these films, he decided to transform the most challenging remarks into big headlines, even if just symbolically, giving a space to workers and farmers to express themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this installation Rubio displays 48 photographs he took during his journey as touristic postcards. By sharing them with his audience, the artist invites us to take a closer look to the locations that he visited during his journey and that inspired him to create the project. Cities that have no name, that don’t appear on any map. The installation makes a perfect fit with the souvenirs that form the project, transforming the exhibition in some sort of fictional holiday brochure, in what seems to be a reference to the late commercialisation of the Three Gorges as a popular touristic destination. But the truth is that these postcards aim to document and recognise these forgotten places.

The new town of Fengdu

The old town of Fengjie

The Yangtse river in Chongqing

Since ancient times Chinese lanterns have been widely used for celebration purposes; each of them being individually lit and decorated mostly with bright red colours, symbolising good fortune and joy. They are widely used during Chinese New Year, which happened to be a few days before the project’s first exhibition in China. Rubio decided to decorate the gallery space with them, but reducing them to plain white paper lanterns and assembling them all together, in what resembles more of a western chandelier. The artist intentionally transformed these individual entities into a bigger abstract unit, stripping them of their individual purpose. Hanging simultaneously around a single light source, this installation seems to symbolise the dislocation between individual and collective identities in the Three Gorges Area.

Yangtse Light Installation

Exhibition view at 501 Contemporary Art Space, Chongqing

Exhibition view at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester, UK.

Exhibition view at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester, UK.

Exhibition view at LASEDE, Madrid, Spain.

Exhibition view at LASEDE, Madrid, Spain.