Old Garden 故园
exhibition, En Lai Art Gallery, Songzhuang, Beijing
Old gardens, once their master has passed, become tangled webs of growth. Thought and structure which formerly shaped and defined the garden becomes obscured by weeds. We can trace the bold outlines, but the clarity and nuance is gone. Forces which had been lovingly coaxed into submission spin wildly out of control. After years of neglect an old garden, the one time embodiment of paradise, hope and promise, becomes a place of melancholy. For the passing traveler who happens to gaze upon its ruin, it is a momentary pause to reflect on the fragility of all that surrounds us.
Christopher Pelley "Old Garden" trees, printed fabric, coal dust, rice
Since the communist Liberation of China in 1949, land has belonged to the people (meaning government) and is exploited as the government sees fit. Almost no family has escaped seizure or appropriation of their land. Generational family homes are swept away by the truckload as the country races to modernize. When you talk with people, there is a palpable sense of loss when the conversation shifts to one's home.
In the gallery I prominently hung a political style red banner that translates to "Little Sparrow Fly Away" alluding to Mao's 1958 campaign to eliminate sparrows, one of the "4 pests". Paintings of sparrows and flowers covered in coal dust surround a forest of dead trees. Flying mechanical toy birds flap inside a bamboo cage mounted on the back of a tricycle, the favored mode of transportation of the poor and elderly. The building / rebuilding of the urban infrastructure has always been a pretext to demolish artist enclaves and "low end population" communities. They may stand for decades, then suddenly are declared illegal and demolished with only a few hours notice. The destruction of Ai WeiWei's studio outside of Shanghai in 2011 was probably the most high profile forced demolition (and ironic because it was built at the invitation of the Shanghai municipality). Over the summer, friends posted video clips on Wechat, the Chinese social media platform, of artists being forced from their homes in the Beijing suburbs, carrying what possessions they could in what appeared to be a new round of demolitions. These social media visuals heightened not only my awareness as I crafted the exhibition, but also the awareness of the viewers entering the exhibition. To further add to the idea of chaos and personal narrative, the exhibition opened completely dark and visitors entered the gallery with small flashlights.
Demolitions reached a climax in Beijing the last weeks of December, 2017. More than 100,000 people were made homeless in the "low end population" or what we would call "working class" neighborhoods that were destroyed. The little sparrows were told to just fly away.