By Kim Geheb
When they plan dams, the Chinese like to bring in their artists. Who these nameless men and women are is unknown, but their task is clear: to present dams as things of beauty; as harmonious with nature; and as benevolent. These curious images are usually devoid of people, focusing strictly on the dam and other associated infrastructure; and, of course, on nature. Waters are depicted in brilliant blues, while forest or grass in verdant greens. Most show dams in operation, but occasionally we see ones where the turbines are silent. Dams are seen as paternal to nature, taming it as if it were an errant child. I’m no art critic, but what follows below are my reactions to some of this work.
The Huangdeng Dam (above) rests snugly in a cleft wrought by nature. Wispy clouds pass overhead, perhaps generated by its munificent reservoir. Carpets of dense, soft, tropical forest flank the dam, caressing its hard edges. While the waters of the Mekong are usually brown, here they are shown as a deep blue, pouring through the dam’s turbines as water would from a jug.
On Tuoba Dam’s kindly reservoir, sailboats frolic in the in the gentle light of a morning. There’s even a cruise ship, filled with contented sightseers, snapping memorable photos to share with their families back home. Oh, it will be a holiday to remember! Verdant pasture flanks the dam. Nothing bespeaks the immense hydraulic pressures forcing water through its turbines. Rather, these waters tumble into the Lancang like a small waterfall on a brook. To either side of the dam, tree-lined avenues lead up to the dam site.
Above Laos’s Nam Leuk 5 dam (below), large birds spiral. These are surely not vultures attracted to nature’s carcass, but perhaps storks, drawn by the dam’s reservoir. Stretching away into the haze, mountains cradle the dam. Interestingly, this rendering has the dam’s sluices closed – most Chinese dam art likes to show the dam working. As always, nature – represented by dense forest – presses up against the dam, unconcerned by its presence. The dam’s graceful wall contrasts with the rough texture of the rock that embeds it.
The artist who imagined the Nam Tha 2 (also in Laos) was challenged (below left). It is a staggeringly ugly dam, after all. But s/he compensates with celestial shafts of sunlight that reflect as white light off the water cascading down the spillway. Note also the charming park constructed below the powerhouse, perhaps intended for the operating staff and their families to stroll in. This image is also unusual in that it shows transmission lines.
What the artist was thinking as s/he set out to depict the Nam Lik 1-2? Like a portrait artist confronted by a subject for whom nature has been less than kind, this artist has employed more artistic license than is usual in these paintings. The dam is celestial. The observer approaches its facade as if on board a small aircraft. As the clouds part, the dam reveals itself, bathed in early morning sunlight, which glitters off the water below the dam wall. Two immense, concrete-covered, spillways fringe the dam. As hundreds of cubic metres of water pour from them, barely a ripple appears on the surface of the river below. To the right, the sunlight appears to have happened upon a a small, exposed cliff, lighting it up like a gold ingot. On the dam’s reservoir, what appears to be a luxury yacht its way across its surface, while in the skies above, a small flock of white birds make their way across this heavenly depiction.
The mountains that form the backdrop to this rendering of the Three Gorges Dam are intended to evoke the work of Tang Dynasty artists. A flotilla of large ships leaves the dam’s gigantic lock systems, and the image presented here tries to do justice to the sheer scale of the dam. It seems bigger than the mountains themselves, and it is only from this vantage point, high up above the cloud line, that the stupefying size of the dam can be captured. Nevertheless, the artist is still subservient to the benevolence idyll: the forested slopes of the mountains, the wispy clouds, and azure blue of the waters.
But not all dam art is commissioned by the companies that build them. Liu Xiaodong’s astonishing Three Gorges Project, was painted in 2003 before the dam was completed. Many of the images in this collection were painted in towns alongside the rising reservoirs, in buildings condemned to flood. Perhaps the most famous painting in the collection is ‘Three Gorges: Newly Displaced Population’. It is the only painting in the series that actually depicts the dam.
The painting (which comes as a series of four immense panels) starts with the dam itself. Intriguingly, the head of a flying duck can be seen entering the painting from the left. A small town sits on a knoll overlooking the dam, and in its centre, something explodes, like a huge boulder tipped into water. In the second panel, the reservoir – which dominates the entire series – begins to open up. In it, three small boys in bright clothes rush at the observer who might be excused for not immediately noticing the pistol in the first boy’s hand, or the cleaver carried by the second, or their grotesque (perhaps masked) faces. Is the gun real? What do the boys intend to do with the cleaver? Have they run amok because their parents and communities are broken, no longer able to parent their children? In the third panel, two men stand staring at the reservoir. Perhaps they are trying to figure out where their houses once were. Their shoulders slouch, as if burdened by the sheer weight of all that water out there, grey and slick in a light forced through dense cloud. Inexplicably, a duck – presumably from the same flock as the duck encountered in the first panel – is falling from the sky above them, as if it has been shot. The slope that provides us with our vantage point is beginning to reveal itself. It is littered with garbage and detritus. In the final panel, two men stare at the observer. One imagines that their expressions are probably the same as those of the men staring at the reservoir. They seem to be looking at us for no other reason but to look. They don’t seem curious, but rather, deflated and spent, as if no more emotions exist to show. To the right of the men is an absurd group. A teenage boy smiles at us nervously; his accomplice has raised, inquiring eyebrows. One senses that we have interrupted them as they negotiate for sex with the two young women, whose painted faces suggested geishas who got their makeup wrong. One of the young women wears a pair of pink, fluffy, sandals. The sequence reveals immense discord, of people whose who have become unanchored from their understanding of life and their places within it. Perhaps the dead duck symbolises this: where a moment ago, it was flying through the sky minding its own business, now it has been shot from it, suddenly and cataclysmically.