New frontiers in rural art scene
By Hou Wenwen  ·  2022-05-27  ·   Source: NO.22 JUNE 2, 2022
The Qiong Kiln Archaeological Park in Chengdu, Sichuan Province (XINHUA)

In recent years, a growing number of urban artists have been fixated on the countryside, drawing inspiration from the vast fields and rustic life for their artistic creations. Their interest is not only enriching cultural institutions in rural areas, but is also bringing new vitality to contemporary art and expanding its frontiers.

Artistic innovation 

With the implementation of strategies including promoting the development of a new countryside and rural revitalization in the 21st century, architects have been setting their eyes on how to integrate elements of tradition and youth into rural buildings. In the drive to develop and modernize rural areas, the modern concrete buildings typical of the city should not be blindly copied. Instead, local cultural characteristics should become part of new art spaces in rural areas.

Xu Lang, based in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, is one of the first young architects who has dedicated himself to rural construction. He has won several national and international architecture prizes, and his works have been featured in numerous art and architecture exhibitions. In 2017, he launched an architecture studio in Chengdu, focusing on modernizing the techniques used for building rammed earth structures.

Adobe houses in China date back to the Shang Dynasty (roughly 1600-1046 B.C.). Archaeological research shows that ancient builders had mastered this method by around 4,000 years ago. The traditional technique featured easy accessibility to building materials, low cost, a simple building process, and minimal impact on the environment. Many city walls, palaces, fortresses and mausoleums in ancient times were built using this method.

However, with the progress of modernization and urbanization, the traditional building technique has been gradually abandoned by rural residents, and is now in danger of disappearing.

In the Qiong Kiln Archaeological Park, located approximately 60 km from downtown Chengdu and touted as "the birthplace of colored porcelain in China," Xu's team set up an architectural and artistic innovation laboratory. "The building is made of adobe, a traditional material, but we wanted the space to meet the demands of modern use: It is safe, comfortable, fully compatible with modern equipment, and above all, environmentally friendly. Our construction and research work are experimental, which is one of the reasons why we call this space a laboratory," explained Xu.

Since the mechanical properties of soil are changeable, it is impossible to apply structural calculations directly to the building of Xu's project. All construction processes needed to be based on experimental data. Xu invited a research team on rammed earth from the Chinese University of Hong Kong to Chengdu, which brought the latest research to Xu's project. The research team also provided technical support throughout the project.

As the project was based on an entirely new technique, the construction drawing was very elaborate, with the entire process modeled. After demolishing the previous buildings on the site, digging the foundation pit, grouting the foundation, training masons, testing the ramming and improving the techniques, architects, artists and the research team successfully completed the project.

What is important, according to Xu, is that all the participants, including researchers, designers and craftsmen, gained real experience of new adobe structural construction and the development of the countryside.

Bright future 

The countryside has traditions different to those of the city. It preserves ancient intangible cultural heritage from which artists can draw inspiration. Ancient rural crafts acquire a new meaning as part of modern artistic creation. They not only record a snapshot of the past, but also carry infinite potential waiting to be tapped.

The kiln in Mingyue Village in Chengdu is a case in point. Originating in the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, it is one of the few still operational Qiong kilns in Sichuan. The kiln, the largest folk celadon kiln in Qionglai since Sui, preserves techniques for making pottery in the ancient times.

After the kiln collapsed during the Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008, the local government decided to restore it, and the restoration was completed in May 2014. One month later, the Mingyue International Pottery Park was officially opened. Its purpose is to revitalize Sichuan ceramics and develop creative ceramics based on the Mingyue kiln's heritage.

In December 2014, Li Qing, Deputy Director of the Ceramics Committee of the Sichuan Artists Association, visited Mingyue Village and decided to stay to promote the development of the pottery park. In January 2015, he opened his workshop there under the name the Kiln of Shushan.

Li delved into the history of traditional pottery-making in the region, and came up with the idea of developing "agricultural pottery." Putting the idea into action, he launched free training sessions for local residents and dedicated himself to commercializing local traditional techniques. The participation of local people is a change to the usual profile of creators, and therefore diversifies the works that is produced. In 2018, ceramics created by villagers who attended Li's training sessions were exhibited in Seoul and proved very popular.

Li has been working in the village for seven years. During that time, his workshop has launched a series of souvenirs and ceramic products, and established partnerships with the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute and the Jingdezhen Ceramics University for student training and internships. It also helped the village's tourism cooperative establish a training center and develop three programs of pottery-making experience as a source of income for local residents.

In addition, Li built a bridge connecting research institutes, businesses, and rural craftsmen, enabling them to cooperate in a productive manner and tap into the potential of rural art.

Leaving a legacy 

Artist-in-residence programs, popular around the world, aim to draw attention to issues of public interests through artistic creation. In China, early artist-in-residence programs were often a collaboration between foreign and Chinese artists. For example, in 2013, two French artists and two Chinese artists spent a month in Bailu Town in Pengzhou City, close to Chengdu. 

Depending on the theme and scale of the program, artists spend a period ranging from a few days to several months in residence. Both the public and commercial values of the countryside are reflected in artists' works. When the artists leave, their art installations are either kept as works of public art or dismantled. Thus, one question is often asked: What remains in the countryside once the artists have left? In a cost-to-output analysis, a wiser way is to keep artists in the village rather than pay them a handsome amount of money for a few days' stay. Mingyue Village is undoubtedly an ideal place for artists to stay.

Ning Yuan moved to Mingyue in 2015, and was one of the first "new villagers" just like Li. At first, she transformed an old courtyard into a dyeing workshop. Since then, she and her fellow artists have planned a larger space. After five years of design and construction, the Mingyue Yuanjia Art Space was unveiled in 2021.

The 9,000-square-meter area is a space of poetic and scenic beauty. There is a dye house, a garden, an exhibition venue, and clothing and book stores. Ning saw many friends come to the village with their creative ideas, opening homestay facilities, cafes, workshops and creative spaces. The village is now a dynamic artistic community, and people here, former residents or newcomers, are all one family, said Ning.

By 2021, over 100 potters, artists and designers had settled down in Mingyue Village. For them, the elements of rural intangible cultural heritage are sources of creativity. The experience of living in the village has enabled artists to better cooperate with local residents and translate rural themes and cultural legacies into creative works and products.

This article was first published in the China Today magazine 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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