Selected Reviews

San Yuan Li Project”, along with other initiatives involved with Canton Express, is clearly anchored on the shore of the society. Social engagement is at the heart of its artistic and intellectual conception and action. Chinese contemporary art has gone through a rather interesting but contradictory process in the last decade. While the changing social, economic, cultural and political realities incite more and more artists to utilise signs and images of the immediate reality, especially images of consumer goods and mass media, real engagements with social reality become considerably reduced. The usage of social images are often aimed to meet the demand of a “globalised” market instead of genuinely questioning and criticising the reality itself. This, in fact, make social engagement of contemporary art and culture in China today an increasingly emptied domain. “San Yuan Li Project”, appears in such a climate, chooses to engage itself in the opposite trend: to merge itself in the urgent reality of the urban transformation and social mutation. It’s solidly proven that this project has been firmly rooted and entirely engaged in the process of witness, analysis and critical interpretation of social problems. criticality and intellectual intervention in the remaking of social, cultural and political structures.

—— Hou Hanru, Introduction: The San Yuan Li Project, May 20, 2003

Du bruit après ce pôle de repli et de silence, avec ZOU (Zone d'urgence), section d'un commissaire tout feu tout flamme : Hou Hanru, Chinois de Paris, qui a rassemblé là une trentaine d'artistes, sans compter les collectifs bien fournis eux aussi. On ne doute pas du dynamisme de la scène artistique chinoise en faisant le tour de sa section, bric-à-brac d'objets, de vidéos, des photos, de peintures, d'images portées souvent par une bonne dose d'humour. On y découvre un beau travail de fauchés : celui d'Ou Ning et Cao Fei, du Guangzhou, dont les petits films en noir et blanc montrent simplement les gens et les ruelles d'un village en marge des lois urbaines.

—— Geneviève Breerette, Le Monde, France, June 16, 2003

Les titres des expositions réunies à l'Arsenal sont éloquents : « Clandestins », « Lignes de fracture », « Systèmes individuels », « Structure de survie »... Confiée au Chinois Hou Hanru, « Zone d'urgence » tire son épingle du jeu, avec les interventions vivaces du collectif Canton Express, ou de U-thèque (Cao Fei et Ou Ning) qui signe une vidéo poétique et sombre sur l'urbanisation impitoyable d'un vieux village.

—— Jérôme Coignard, Le Figaro, France, June 20, 2003

Kurator Hou Hanru spricht über "Dörfer in der Stadt" wie San Yuan Li als "Extraterritorien" mit "neuen Formen urbaner Konstruktionen, die aus der Dringlichkeit des Lebens" heraus geschaffen werden. "Do-it-yourself ist die zentrale Kraft, um die Veränderungen voranzutreiben. ,Alternativen' sind keine Alternativen mehr. Sie sind zentrale Elemente, die den ,Mainstream' bestimmen", so Hou Hanru. Diese Entwicklung in einer Art Stadt-Sinfonie filmisch festzuhalten, ist der wesentliche Beitrag von Gruppen wie U-thèque. Wo das offizielle China die Erfolgsgeschichten anpreist, verfasst U-thèque "eine alternative Geschichte" des Urbanisierungsprozesses.

—— Brigitte Voykowitsch, Die Presse, Austria, July 3, 2003

Wohin wird sich Guangzhou entwickeln? Was wird aus San Yuan Li werden? Nachdem die Stadtverwaltung in den 90er Jahren, als San Yuan Li zu einem Zentrum der Prostitution, des Drogenhandels und Verbrechens zu werden drohte, harte Maßnahmen einleitete, hat sie in jüngster Zeit eine Reihe von Sanierungsplänen ausgearbeitet. Da ist die Rede von der Schaffung von Grünanlagen, der Erweiterung von Straßenzügen, der Errichtung historischer Gedenkstätten, vom Abriss nicht mehr renovierbarer Häuser und von gut geplanten Neubauten ebenso wie von Um- und Absiedlungen. Sollten diese Pläne umgesetzt werden, dann wird es eines Tages das heutige San Yuan Li und wohl auch viele andere Dörfer-in-der-Stadt nicht mehr geben. Aber es wird, sagt Ou Ning, die Filme von U-thèque geben "als Archiv einer alternativen Geschichte, die den Urbanisierungsprozess in der Stadt von Guangzhou festhält".

—— Brigitte Voykowitsch, Die Gazette, Germany, July 16, 2003

Canton Express - a loose collective of four separate groups comprising 18 artists in total - explores precisely this issue: the group has been closely following the urbanization of the Canton-Pearl River Delta in China, an area rapidly swelling through internal migration. The most successful of the collective's contributions, which take up almost half of 'ZOU', is The San Yuan Li Project by Ou Ning and Cao Fei of the U-theque group. This moody, black and white quasi-documentary on the daily life of the region is an enigmatic video work that sucks you in at the time, and then returns to haunt you later.

—— David Barrett,Art Monthly, UK, Issue 268, July/August 2003

A égale distance du documentaire militant, du relevé topographique et de la vidéo expérimentale, San Yuan Li Project invente une forme singulière, née du travail durant des mois de neuf opérateurs et deux preneurs de son. Cette pataphysicienne entreprise est servie par un sens de la composition des plans et du rythme - parfois frénétique et parfois contemplatif – qui mène à bien une « tentative de description d’un lieu » dont l’existence et la disparition sont chargées de résonances politiques et mélancoliques.

—— Jean-Michel Frodon, Cahiers du Cinema, France, January, 2004

San Yuan Li has just about every graphic angle cut to cut so that nook to cranny soars past specificity. The terrain of high-rise--economic thrust and colonization, the swoops down on life in the crags close to the earth, life as survival economy, economy as relationship, economy everywhere--emptiness, narrow spaces, endurance, bleakness, advancement and decay, and of course--light, wind, success, to see it all. A continual wave at harassing fast pace blows and catches the between--this is how it is recorded and how it is seen. This is the window from which a fresh gust of wind might be felt. This is one more story told with the camera, one that we re-record as direct experience, again with the eye, forty minutes, via multi-angled vigilance, defiance, singularity, and deep camaraderie. This is but one wind.

—— Brent Hallard, Tokyo Note, Japan, January 2004

MIDDEN in een stad raast een vliegtuig over een stuk rijstveld. Het is het begin van de film The San Yuan Li Project (2003) van Ou Ning en Cao Fei. Hij gaat over het dorp San Yuan Li in de Chinese provincie Guangzhou. Maar San Yuan Li is allang geen dorp meer. Een stad heeft het dorp ingeslikt.

——Lars Kwakkenbos, De Standaard, Belgium, February 5, 2004

San Yuan Li, directed by Cao Fei and Ou Ning, is black and white documentary, divided into sequences, extremely well filmed and brilliantly edited. Rather than simply accompanying the images, the bewitching sound track actually seems to carry the film forward…It was a great success at the Venice Biennale when it was shown at the press launch on June 12, 2003.

——Michel Nuridsany, China Art Now, Flammarion, France, 2004

Shot in black and white by an extensive team of camera operators, the 40-minute film whips through the city of San Yuan Li, site of the outbreak of the Opium War of 1841, an urban center that ironically became plagued by drug abuse again in the new China of the 1990s. The film begins on a river, showing the development of factories and high-rise apartment houses along its banks, then quickly speeds up to traverse the streets and highways of the urban sprawl. The camera work is acute, piling image upon image of individual buildings or select street corners with the specificity of a photograph by Bechers.

Later, the film shows the human side of the city with a similar technique—close-up views of vendors, clerks, shoppers, schoolchildren, team bowlers, restaurant staffers, parade performers and countless other citizens. Its most effective moments, however, come during a section that shows nothing but the sky—actually mere slices of the sky—as the camera turns upwards from the street, capturing the cramped spaces between the closely packed buildings. The soundtrack’s throbbing techno beat underscores the headlong rush of development and was a refreshing change from the Chinese instrumentals that dominated so many videos and films in this series.

San Yuan Li encapsulates the core issue that many of these artists are examining, i.e., the urbanization and economic development of China, taking place at a pace too rapid to assimilate. These changes have been attended by liberalization of government censorship policies, allowing this generation of artists to test the waters of individual expression.

—— Barbara Pollack, Art in America, USA, No.6, June/July, 2004

San Yuan Li, an experimental video by Cao Fei, Ou Ning and U-thèque Organization, documents the particular case of San Yuan Li, a village on the outskirts of Guangzhou that is coming under increasing pressure of the larger city’s encroaching culture. The artists sensitively capture the process by which China’s urban culture becomes the epitome of advancing modernization. This is China’s special circumstance in East Asia, and there are several scholars who feel that this is a postmodern phenomenon. However, I would argue that the process of globalization and modernization is leading to the destruction of the original values of Third World Culture. After satisfying short-term utilitarian needs and choices, every shattered piece of culture is heaped together in the same place and time, making China into a big garbage bin: clumsy knock-offs of European amusements and vestiges of China’s traditions; Coca-Cola, literati tea ceremony accoutrements, and medicine cure-alls-secret remedies passed down through generations. Sinking into the dregs or rising above the scum, the new, the old, the good, the bad- it all surges chaotically toward us. But there is nothing of value in them. We are left only with insatiable, ever-expanding individual desires. Daily life in every city is seething with crime, drugs, sex, and violence, creating a debauched human farce. All of this is ironically implied in San Yuan Li, which is set in a village that was once the site of spontaneous mass resistance to the importation of drugs(opium) from England.

——Li Xianting, Past in Reverse: Contemporary Art of East Asia (catalogue) , San Diego Museum of Art, USA, 2004

In the work San Yuan Li, directors Ou Ning and Cao Fei give a voice to the people’s chatter, to their comments and grievances about the uneven progress that reform is making in urban and rural areas, revealing the underside of life on the fringe of a forward-striding metropolis. The artists here present an accurate physical reality of city life that most pure artists eschew -both Ou Ning and Cao Fei come to contemporary art from backgrounds of graphic and film design. Perhaps this is what makes their vision so powerful, for it does not pretend to be anything it is not: all artiness is left on the cutting room floor.

——Karen Smith, The Chinese: Photography and video from China (catalogue) , Wolfsburg Museum, Germany, 2004

Cao Fei and Ou Ning’s San Yuan Li(2003) is one of the most powerful works. Exploring the particular process of urban transition in San Yuan Li, a village in the city of Guangzhou, it reveals fundamental contradictions and comes up with some highly inventive and alternative solutions for facing the violent homogenization of architectural forms. It is a wonderful visual construct of an exciting urban zone, a veritable urban poesy.

——Hou Hanru, Flash Art, Italy, No.241, March-April 2005




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