Yumen 2006-2009: A Photography Project by Zhuang Hui and Dan'er

26 September - 22 November 2009

The history of humanity is also the history of the use of natural resources. The drilling and exploitation of coal, oil, and natural gas drove the increase in production capabilities and the development of industrialized civilization. Fossil fuels are the result of the decomposition of animal remains over hundreds of millions of years. As such, they are natural resources that cannot be replenished. Their drilling and exploitation are equivalent to using deposits of the sun's energy stored underground since before the birth of humanity. The utilization of these resources has given Man the capacity to surpass the limits imposed by nature and increase the speed of civilization's development. While the development and technical innovations of industrial civilization have advanced humanity a great deal, the unrestrained use of fossil fuels has also broken the ecological balance, causing environmental pollution, climate change, and many other problems that can affect humanity's very existence. Humanity's complete dependence on fossil fuels creates a grave dilemma since this natural resource will eventually be exhausted. Mankind is now beginning to think about ways to adjust the use of natural resources as well as reconsider the relationship between men, nature, and the advancement of civilization. Nations are increasingly trying to incorporate sustainability and healthier development models into everyday life. Today, this is no longer only a technological and economic question – it is also an avenue for focused though in the realm of arts and culture.


In the 1930's the Yumen oil fields contributed their precious resources to a barren China. Once they were exhausted, however, many social problems came to light. Serious concerns within institutions, social classes, nationalities, and values became entangled, turning the abandoned city of Yumen into a stage for many complex social crises. Differences between governmental decisions, regional economics, ordinary people's lives, and natural ecology led to sharp conflicts. The self-destructive oil production methods, the shadows of institutional changes, the deserted streets and buildings, and the uncontrollable situation in the city after sun-down have made Yumen into an urban synthesis of the 'Wild West' and industrial degeneration. Yet, today still, people continue to live in this high-altitude metropolis, carrying out their everyday lives and eking out an existence while pursuing their hopes and dreams.


Zhuang Hui, an important Chinese contemporary artist, was born in the city of Yumen, 70 kilometers away from the oil fields. Unlike many contemporary artists, he did not follow the usual path, attending high school then university. Rather, he started to work as an operator at a heavy machinery factory at the age of 15. He became an artist through an unusual route, prompted by his love for art. His experience as a menial worker and his unique perspective on an artist's identity infuse his works with a direct connection to social realities. He always turns his gaze toward the ordinary person, especially the working man.


Zhuang Hui garnered international attention with his 1992 work 'Serve the People', his 1995 photography work 'One and Thirty' (self portraits with 30 farmers, workers, artists, and children), and his 1996 group photographs which show more than 100 members of the same profession (workers, farmers, soldiers, students, doctors and nurses) in one single frame. In 2000, he created several large installation pieces that emphasized both social problems and ordinary people's existence.


 Dan'er, a female artist born in Shanbei, started to work with Zhuang Hui in 2006. Together, they created 50 large oil paintings about popular online news stories that reflected the changes in Chinese contemporary society, and which were consistently blocked by the mainstream media.


In 2006, Zhuang Hui and Dan'er began planning the Yumen project. They surveyed the area and recorded their observations in photographs and videos. As they explored, their focus shifted from changes in the area's history, inhabitants, and society to the history of oil drilling, the conflicts and interactions between East and West based on oil issues, and finally to reflections on humanity's existence. Though their work is not strictly based on sociological research methodology, their first-hand accounts and impressions remain very valuable.


This research gradually gave shape to the concept for an art project: a photography studio in Yumen that would be in existence for one year. While this does not directly reflect the grave social problems brought on by the depletion of oil supplies, it does highlight the life of ordinary individuals living in the area. Zhuang Hui and Dan'er opened a real photography studio in Yumen, providing all the services to be found in any other studio of the kind, such as identification photos, art photographs and group portraits. Makeup, clothing, props, set, and lighting were carefully chosen in order to reflect the popular styles and aesthetic preferences in the area.


The gaze of these people makes us see that what happened in their lives can happen in anyone’s life – that the problems they face are no different from those we all face. The desire to both advance in life and preserve the environment for mankind comes from one shared point of origin.


Zhuang Hui and Dan’er transplanted the photography studio and its results into the context of the art space. One year of real life was compressed into one defined area; artwork and functional images fused into one.


At the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Zhuang Hui and Dan’er’s project addresses the many explicit and implied connotations of photography art. The presentation of background information works with the installation of these functional photographs to organically create this art piece. Art and function interact, allowing people to look differently at simple photographs and comprehend the significance of people’s aesthetic choices. Thus, the meaning of photography art expands and becomes richer.