When the Countryside Is the Art
I was closing in on the largest art exhibition in the southern province of Guangdong when a shut irrigation sluice brought my trip to a sudden halt. “It’s probably because of the heavy rains last night,” my boatman explained as he helped me jump ashore, “but you’re almost there.”
As I trekked through villages and over watery fields looking for the first artwork listed in the exhibition guide, I reflected on the truth of the boatman’s words. He had a point: The exhibition had arguably started the moment I stepped aboard his boat.
Welcome to Art Field Nanhai. A relatively recent innovation, art fields first captured the public imagination in 1990s Japan, as artists and curators like Fram Kitagawa saw in them a way to rebuild urban residents’ emotional ties with the countryside and reclaim the latter’s prosperity, which was threatened by industrialization and economic recession.
Now, contemporary Chinese curators — and local governments eager to boost rural incomes — are embracing the concept. Sponsored by the government of Foshan, a mid-size city outside Guangzhou, and featuring an all-star team of consultants, directors, and curators, including Kitagawa himself, Art Field Nanhai — the name comes from Foshan’s Nanhai District — represents the latest attempt to bring this internationally successful model to rural China. Covering an area of 176 square kilometers and featuring 73 art projects in total, it’s the largest art field in China to date.
The works on display invite visitors to explore the lost stories of Nanhai’s once-vibrant business and cultural scenes. The architect Ma Yansong’s “Timeless Beacon,” for instance, is located atop an abandoned building in Taiping Hui, a once prosperous rural marketplace during the 1980s and 1990s. Consisting of a glowing, beacon-like lamppost surrounded by colored nets and reflective materials, the installation showcases the old street’s beauty.
Five more artworks can be found in the now-abandoned Huanggang Village. In “The Leopard and Its Friends,” artist Wu Jian’an depicts a land returned to the wild: Animals haunt the grass, trees, and roofs of the village, while a leopard — an animal closely tied to Foshan in the popular imagination — invites them to party in a post-human world. The resulting scene is mysterious, imaginative, yet wholly natural.
But Art Field Nanhai is not merely a nostalgic effort to reclaim the area’s past. Indeed, it has plenty to say about the area’s present, especially its people.
“They Live on Pingsha Island,” by photographer Dai Xianjing, records the everyday lives of four women from the same family, each representing a different generation of Pingsha residents. The installation calls to mind nothing so much as the experience of randomly opening a neighbor’s family album and tracing the faces through life, from a five-year-old kindergartner playing with her pet turtles to the family matriarch riding the ferry to a nearby town for groceries.
While I was there, I was lucky enough to have a cup of coffee made by the kindergartener’s mother, who was volunteering with the art field. Nanhai residents aren’t passive objects in the exhibition, but active participants, and my interactions with them helped breathe life into the works on display.
Take “XUZHEN Supermarket,” located at the original site of the now demolished Taiping Grocery Shop, for example. Sometimes likened to Andy Warhol, Xu Zhen is famous for his readymade art poking fun at consumerism and global capitalism. At the counter, the cashier — another local resident — congratulated me on purchasing “a real piece of art”: a pineapple beer can. “I don’t really understand art,” she admitted as she recorded the sale in a notebook, “but it’s actually selling well.” She then reminded me to take care of the empty can when I went back to my hotel because it could be easily mistaken for trash and thrown away.
Many of the volunteers I met were retired workers at a nearby factory. “For me, this is a way to spend time and do something new after retirement,” one of them explained. Another auntie said she was proud to “introduce my hometown to others.”
Indeed, economically speaking, the art field is already a success, increasing local employment and boosting Nanhai’s national profile. In recent years, the Chinese government has repeatedly called for “rural revitalization” to address the imbalance between the country’s rural and urban areas. A key part of the campaign is to attract urban residents back to the countryside. Often, that means investing in new businesses; Art Field Nanhai opted to try art-driven tourism instead.
As someone who researches art museums and curatorial practices, I found myself struck by the possibilities of art fields for exhibitions elsewhere in China. Over the past several decades, Chinese urban areas have been inundated with sleek “white-cube” art spaces, often mimicking those found in London and New York. The art on display is carefully curated, with soft ambient lighting that serves to divorce it from its original context.
Art Field Nanhai is not immune to social media influencers who use the art installations, villages, and surrounding landscape as nothing but a background for selfies, but its contingent nature complicates standardized itineraries and welcomes visitors to explore the region and interact with its residents. Perhaps this is where the real promise of “art fields” lies: in sowing seeds and letting them grow.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: An art installation at Art Field Nanhai, Foshan, Guangdong province, Nov. 18, 2022. IC)