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The Three Gorges Project: Paintings by Liu Xiaodong

A Dam Shame

Are dams evil? Are they necessary? What are their “hidden” costs, and, even if these costs turn out to be much greater than the supposed benefits (as is usually the case), why do we keep building them? The answers to these questions are as varied as the groups that conceive, approve, finance, construct, and operate dams, and the groups that oppose them, fight them actively, or lose their land, livelihoods, and cultures to them.

One group that doesn’t get much play in the process is artists, especially in China, especially if they’re critical of dam projects. Liu Xiaodong, China’s leading figurative painter, has prepared a small, yet haunting collection of very large paintings that address the human cost of the world’s largest dam project, the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangzi River. The show is now on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and is curated by Jeff Kelley, the Asian’s consulting curator of contemporary art, and Bill Fox.

Our awareness of dams and their potentially devastating environmental and social impacts has been intensifying in recent years and is thoroughly and dauntingly chronicled in Bay Area author Jacques Leslie’s recent book Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, (Farrar Straus Giroux, August 2005). Leslie points out that there has been a lull in major dam projects all over the world, (almost as if we have run out of major rivers to destroy), but that there is a danger that large dam projects may be on the rise again, especially in countries like India and China, where newfound industrial strength provides the capital (and the greed) to fuel their development.

Indeed, the Three Gorges project, despite international outcry, may represent some kind of turning point in this direction, which makes this exhibit particularly important. Cogent economic analysis on dam projects is beyond the grasp of the public (and, evidently, most economists and governments), so a glimpse into the lives of China’s displaced population through the eyes of one of its most eloquent and prominent artists can tell a story that won’t be told through other media.

Mr. Xiaodong’s voice as a painter pays homage to the Chinese masters, in its command of the brush ( reminiscent of the American painter Eric Fischl), its sense of composition, use of color, depiction of motion, and understanding of man’s place in nature. It’s just that in these works, “nature” is no longer something that man is in balance with. Rather, the environment created by the blank mile long structure of the Three Gorges Dam, conceived by Chairman Mao as the pinnacle of technological achievement for the glorious People’s Republic, telegraphs nothing but displacement, devastation and despair.
How much displacement? According to most reports, close to 2 million people will lose their land, homes, and livelihoods as a direct result of the dam. Unfortunately, in China, that’s only a hair over one tenth of a percent of the population, evidently a tiny price to pay for Progress.

There are only five works in the show, but what they lack in number they make up for in size and impact. The largest piece, the aptly named "Newly Displaced Population, 2005", is thirty-three feet long and nine feet high. It features vast stretches of cement colored water, bearing down on the viewer from the top of the frame in a wide wedge that seems bent on crushing the life out of the motley crew of characters in the painting, whose varying reactions cover the gamut of resignation, fear, alienation, dismay, indifference, and defeat. The next largest piece, "Displaced Population, 2003", is almost as large, and features a ragtag group of laborers carrying on their shoulders a long metal rod, which ticks upwards from left to right across the painting’s four panels in a disturbing reference to rising water levels. The background in this painting is one of vast ruin, but is exquisitely rendered by the superb hand and eye of Liu Xiaodong.

Also included in the show is a thirty-foot long by twelve inch horizontal scroll that serves as a chronology of the various individuals of every ilk who make their way into the paintings in this show and others by Mr. Xiaodong. Done quickly in acrylics, they are cartoons for the larger pieces, and display a delightful eye for character, gesture, and feeling and a lyrical calligraphic style.

Wonderful art, depressing subject, critical message about environmental impacts. Don’t miss it.


The Three Gorges Project: Paintings by Liu Xiaodong
at the Asian Art Museum
Through Sun Jul 16
Tickets: $10 adults, $7 seniors, $6 for youth 12-17, free for children under 12