CHENGDU, China — The first public parks began appearing in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it wasn’t until after the Communist revolution that they became centers of urban life. People’s Park, an exhibition of contemporary Chengdu-based photographers organized by A Thousand Plateaus Art Space for the Xiamen Jimei Arles, focuses on one specific park, Chengdu People’s Park, but uses this site as a lens through which to examine the parks that continue to serve as important community spaces.
The Chengdu People’s Park takes up only a few blocks, but is one of the most active recreational areas in the city. Inside the park, everything — from the artificial mountains which greet visitors to the gray-green lakes — has been extensively landscaped. People’s Park hosts thousands of visitors a day, many of who come to the park regularly to practice martial arts or play in volunteer orchestras. Although the central areas of the park can be hectic, there are also quieter corners where retirees sip tea and chat for hours.
Art photographers Zhang Kechun and Feng Li both bring their practiced styles to their depictions of the park. Zhang’s scenic photos feature the same hazy light — the product of some combination of air pollution and cloudy weather — that often appears in his landscape photos. Feng, in contrast, focuses on people in the park. Whether dancing, performing, or just posing for the camera, the park-goers he photographs wear strained expressions. When I asked his thoughts on the park, he said, “It’s more beautiful than it was before. There’s more to do and more to eat, but the feeling of pleasure is gone.”
Muge, another participating artist, uses black-and-white photos to capture a more intimate dimension of life in the park. The subjects who appear in his work are strangers, but the close angle and natural expressions in the photos make them seem as if they were taken from family archives. Although shot only a few years ago, the photos evoke the fond memories many adult audience members have of visiting the park with their parents.
In recent decades, People’s Park has changed dramatically as theme park attractions have been installed and successive waves of construction have renovated most of the buildings on the park grounds. Several artists in People’s Park present work focusing on this upheaval. Chengdu-based photographer Chen Xiaoyi uses studio photography to preserve some of the physical details of the park, such as tea mugs and landscaped stones, that have survived to the present.
Chengdu artist Chen Qiulin also examines the changing landscape of the park. Following her transition in recent years from photography towards sculpture and installation, Chen uses scented humidifiers to disperse the smells of People’s Park. Ranging from bamboo and gingko to cigarettes and hair, the distilled smells capture the spectrum of life in the park. When I asked about what had changed in the park, she wrote, “Everything in the park changes, but the smell of it does not.”
Like many parks in China, the Chengdu People’s Park has a designated area where single men and women post personal ads. The suitors range in age from early 20s to 80-year-olds, and their simple typed or handwritten messages can be extremely affecting. One 59-year-old man describes himself as “healthy but not good-looking,” and writes, “I’ve come to treasure life after the death of my partner.”
Zhang Xiao photographs these ads and places the images in pairs on the gallery floor. Just as in the park, the photos are held in place by small stones, and Zhang pairs the photographs according to the stipulations they describe. For example, the 59-year-old man is paired with a 58-year-old woman who wants to marry a man who owns his own apartment. The artist wrote to me, “I did my best to match their requirements as closely as possible.”
Artist Zhang Jin’s work is based on the investigation of the strange, almost unusable official website of People’s Park. In a photo of the park that is so heavily edited that it becomes a mass of colorful blobs, he attempts to recreate the attitude of park officials who see the area less as a lived space than as a symbolic tourist attraction.
The greatest strength of the exhibited works is that, taken together, they communicate the difficult-to-define nature of the park. At once vibrant and exhausting, it is shaped by a feeling of nostalgia. Much has changed since the years when parks were the central leisure sites in the city. They now compete with gaudy coffee shop chains, malls, and internet cafes, and if the elderly demographics of the park are any indication, they may be empty before long. The works on view do not engage directly with the people in the park, nor do they make any attempt to reverse the trends that are shaping it. Exhibited thousands of kilometers away in Xiamen, none of the subjects in these photos will even see the final photographs.
Instead, the exhibition provides a record of the park at this moment in time: set apart from the glittering aspirational China, People’s Park remains a sentimental landmark for the people of Chengdu.
People’s Park continues at Three Shadows Xiamen Photography Art Centre (476 Xinglinwan Road, Jimei District, Xiamen, Fujian Province) through December 16.