This bulk of artistic research features a series of problems brought about by radical changes in agricultural production methods, industrialization, and social change. Immersing themselves into the coalmining world, Yang Shaobin and the Long March team addressed key problems caused by modernization – calling on geographical, environmental, ecological and ethical issues, as well as rapid industrialization, manufacturing economics, the collective consciousness and human rights.
The first stage of this project is titled 800 Meters Under and focused on the Kailuan and Tangshan coalmining districts. The second stage, X – Blind Spot continued Yang Shaobin’s visual exploration of the coalmining industry, covering a larger proportion of China’s coalmining world by visiting mines in Hebei Province, Shanxi Province and Inner Mongolia.
The project delves into the collective memory that sprung across the industrialisation and social growth in China. As part of the Long March Project, the research contemplates the nodes that connect contemporary Chinese culture, social development and the sense of history.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, contemporary Chinese artists were focused primarily on collectivism, with artistic production organized around specific social bodies such as workers or the military. Artistic resources were distributed among the different collective organizations, leading to a particularly vibrant social life. For example, coal miners would have their own exhibition of works, with each coal mine having a dedicated art production team. Additionally, the artists from the National Arts Association had a close relationship with the coalminers, working with them to produce works. During the period of the Cultural Revolution, several works were produced collectively by these groups.
China’s attempt at building a market economy with socialist characteristics and its historical experiences of collectivism have undoubtedly contributed to the ideology of the post Cold War era. However, what do those previously experienced memories of collectivism, society, production, and the livelihood of the people mean today when the market has become so prevalent in society? Today, the question of the value of the individual in relation to older forms of production emerges as a common, and at times overt motif in contemporary Chinese artists’ thinking, as they encounter and confront the relationships present in their social realities.
Yang Shaobin was born in the Kailuan coalmining district in the 1960s to a coal mining family. The memory of this period left a distinct impression on him, as from an early age; growing up within the coalmining community he witnessed firsthand the lives of the coalminers. Inspired by works of art made by coalminers that he had seen at primary school, Yang Shaobin decided to become an artist. However, after graduating from art school in 1983, he returned to his hometown, Kailuan, Hebei Province, to become a policeman. Through archival and artistic portrayal, Yang Shaobin’s work shines light on an underground world rarely seen, and brings individual experience to its audience, highlighting coal miners’ lives; a juxtaposition of hardship and happiness, despondency and courage.
Project dates: January 2004 – September 2006
Subject focus: Kailuan Coalmining District and Tangshan Area, Hebei Province
(The following text was from the then press release)
Exhibition dates: September 2 – October 13, 2006
Shuangyang – Changchun, Qitaihe – Heilongjiang Province, Liguandun – Tangshan City, Xinan – Henan Province, Weixian – Hebei Province, Liupanshui – Guizhou Province, Fanchang – Anhui Province, Xiangfen – Shanxi Province, Wuhai – Inner Mongolia, Beitashan – Xinjiang, Fuxin – Liaoning Province, Fuyuan – Yunnan Province, Xingning – Guangdong Province
––The incomplete list of coal mining accidents throughout China in 2005
This is both a historical and prescient issue concerning political regime, rapid shift in social system, survival, and power. The project re-examines the history of industrialization and urban spaces, socialist memory and their connection to contemporary Chinese art history. What the decline of industrialism narrates is not a memory, but a linkage with history.
800 Meters Under enters directly into the collective memory of industrialism and socialism. As a Long March Project, the project dialectically thinks about the linkages between Chinese history, culture and social development, using the public nature of art to engage with a particular segment of history.
China’s attempt at building a market economy with socialist characteristics and its historical experiences of collectivism have undoubtedly contributed to the ideo-scape of the post Cold War era. However, what do those previously experienced memories of collectivism, society, production, and the livelihood of the people mean today when market society has become so prevalent? Today, the question of the value of the individual in relation to older forms of production emerges as a common underlying and at times overt motif in contemporary Chinese artist’s thinking as they encounter and confront the relationships present in their social realities.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, contemporary Chinese artists were focused primarily on collectivism, with artistic production organized around specific social bodies such as workers or the military. Artistic resources were distributed among the different collective organizations, leading to a particularly vibrant social life. For example, coal miners would have their own exhibition of works, with each coal mine having a dedicated art production team. Additionally, the artists from national arts association had a close relationship with the coalminers, working with them to produce works. During the period of the Cultural Revolution, several works were produced collectively by these groups.
Post 89 Chinese oil painting artists, among which artist Yang Shaobin is a leading representative, emphasized the return of the individual as a critique against socialist realism. Entering into the 21st Century, Chinese society has entered into a new stage of development, and artists have sensitively begun to utilize the new relationships between the realities of society and the expressive power of art, attempting to hold onto Chinese historical and social praxis. What is obvious is that this is not merely a issue regarding form and style, nor is it merely an artistic question, rather its thrust is aimed at the dialectic thinking of the linkages between Chinese history, culture and social development.
When most of today’s international artistic production and exhibitions are focused on the issues revolving around urbanization and immigration, these understandings prove inadequate in the Chinese context due to the interlinked relationship between the urban and the countryside, immigration and industrial decline. The economic restructuring of industry, the conflict between urban and rural, and issues regarding human rights and lifestyle that are currently occurring in China right now, have either already occurred (England), or is occurring in countries throughout the world. Coalmining is a particularly salient point of this development, expressing the decline of industrialism, urbanization, rural, life and lifestyles, and the flow and re-distribution of capital.
Taking his own body and experience as an entry point, the Yang Shaobin re-examines the relationships between China and the West, revolutionary memory and historical memory, and industrial civilization and agrarian society. What is brought out is not only the problem of individual in today’s society, but more importantly, the work clears a new direction and site for human development and the concept of collectivism in contemporary social life.
Kailun coalmine is located in the northeastern Chinese city of Tangshan. Established in 1878, historically, it was the first Chinese company to use modern Western production techniques and equipment. Its’ historical experiences is representative of Chinese modern history. In 1901, control of the mine was given to England as part of the Boxer Indemnity. In 1922, there occurred the famous workers strike, which ultimately ended in defeat. The mine was taken over by Japan in 1941 during the occupation. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, control was given to the KMT Nationalist Government who subsequently reverted control back to England. Finally after the liberation in 1948, control was finally given to the Chinese people.
Yang Shaobin was born in the Kailuan coalmining district in the 1960’s to a coal mining family. The historical resources and memory of this period has left a distinct impression on him. Since studying works by coalminers in elementary school, Yang Shaobin decided to devote his art to life. However, after graduating from art school, he returned to work as a policeman in Kailuan. Today, he is one of the most renowned Chinese artists. From 2004-2005, the artist traveled with Long March chief curator, Lu Jie, revisiting, living and experiencing the coalmine and area of his birth.
Black and white video
Series of 19 oil paintings, oil on canvas
Project dates: January 2007 – September 2008
Subject focus: Hebei Province (Tangshan and Qinhuangdao), Shanxi Province (Changzhi, Shuozhou and Datong), Inner Mongolia (Baotou and Dongsheng)
(The following text was from the then press release)
2008.9.4 – 10.18
Since 2004, Yang Shaobin and the Long March team have been on the road, working deep in the coalmining communities of rural China. This exhibition ‘X-Blind Spot’ is the final showcase of this four year, two-stage collaboration following ‘800 Meters Under’ which was presented at Long March Space in September 2006. ‘800 Meters Under’ took Yang Shaobin and the Long March team to the coalmines of Tang Shan in Hebei Province, experiencing the hardships of coalmining life first hand. Following the presentation of new works resulting from this first investigation, the team returned to the road in May 2007. Examining, documenting, sharing meals and drink, visiting chronically ill patients in local hospitals, witnessing the oppressive conditions of the enduring and persisting communities of Chang Zhi, Shuo Zhou and Da Tong in Shanxi Province, extending further to the areas of Hebei, North East China and even the plains of Mongolia. While on the road, the conceptual motivations for ‘X-Blind Spot’ and its differentiation from ‘800 Meters Under’ were extensively debated, spurred by the strength of the people they met and the hard reality of their lives.
‘X-Blind Spot’ attempts to articulate the psychology of those who endure, enact, and persist with the toil of coal mining life in these communities. This complete body of new work presents the introspective and at times disturbing cruelties observed in the social transformation of farmer to laborer – the reality of many coal miners today in China. While Yang Shaobin acknowledges the harsh conditions of this toxic life, his works also illustrate certain resilience, an unfathomably human desire to persist, and it is this highly subjective psychological realm that Yang Shaobin’s new works evince. Whereas ‘800 Meters Under’ took the idea of darkness as its frame, exploring the physicality of being underground, ‘X-Blind Spot’ takes the idea of contrast, artistically visualizing the differences between living in light and shadow, which he here manipulates through ideas of positive and negative, white in black, black in white.
The ‘X’ in the title of this exhibition refers to the process of x-ray, a medical pr ocess used to diagnose illness via electromagnetic radiation. This noninvasive treatment gives image to our internal organs, the surfaces of these structures
given color from the ability to absorb certain levels of radiation. ‘X’ also expr esses a warning, a caution, or alternatively a potential rejection or suspicion.
The project casts an eye back towards history, linking relevant scenes of the past with the conundrum of what is happening today. At the same time, ‘Blind Spot’ is a warning, a questioning, an investigation, a testimony. Referencing the large-scale mining equipment used in these geographical areas called ‘ KOMATSU 170’. At either end of the machine, there is a blind spot – 50 meters in diameter at the front, and 60 meters in diameter at the back. Within the boundaries of this ‘blind spot’ is plausible potential ruin.
‘X-Blind Spot’ focuses on the experience of open pit coalmines, examining social geographies and corresponding economies that are related to the production of coal in China. This collaborative project, culminating in the presentation of a major body of new work that extends Yang Shaobin’s practice in significant technical and conceptual directions, responds to the high-tech, super-scale environment of these seemingly hyper-realistic open-pit mines, calling into question the meaning of urbanization and education in the face of a destroyed local ecology and limited civil services. In ‘X-Blind Spot’, Yang Shaobin’s signature figures remain hidden or shaded, their bodies’ presence in each image signified by a transparency, their forms taking on the marked contrast of an x-ray. This method of illuminating the body to reveal the fragile nature of its functions is a deliberate metaphorical reference to the contemporary reality of China’s rural social body, Yang Shaobin exposing and questioning why such coalmining communities continue to live in such a state of existence today.
In ‘X-Blind Spot’ these ideas are powerfully provoked through painting, video installation, sculpture and photography.
4 channel video installation
Series of 3 sculptures
Light box installation
Series of 16 oil paintings, oil on canvas
“Yang Shaobin Coal Mining Projects” (2004-2008) delved into the collective memory of industrialization and social growth in modern China. As part of the Long March Project, this artist-led research program was a meditation on the intersecting nodes between modern Chinese culture, the country’s recent social development, and an evolving historical consciousness among the working class. Titled “800 Meters Under,” the first stage of this project focused on the coal mining districts in Kailun and Tangshan. The second stage, “X–Blind Spot,” saw Yang Shaobin continue his visual exploration of the expanding coal mining industry in China and its effects on the miners by visiting the mines in Hebei province, Shanxi province, and Inner Mongolia.