How do we make visual stories when reality is increasingly made up of propaganda and sanctioned spectacles? In China, for example, progress is often synonymous with a particular vision of urban modernity. An evidence of this is the prevalence of urban billboards and hoardings that promise a utopian future with spectacular skyscrapers and happy citizens. Yet, this desire of having a harmonic and dreamlike future collides constantly with the precarious conditions and dystopian reality that have become a common sight in China and elsewhere. In the city of Guangzhou, the precarity of life is epitomized in the surreal landscape of Xian Village, an urbanized village inside the Central Business District. As a legacy of socialist collectivization of rural lands, urban villages are collectively owned enclaves progressively engulfed and erased by the hyper-expansion of China’s megacities. In the contested space of Xian Village, while the government-backed developer uses violence to evict residents, resisting owners resort to bygone socialist symbols to fight for greater compensations from the developer. Caught up in the middle are migrant renters who made up of the overwhelming majority of Xian Village’s residents. Like migrant peasant workers elsewhere, they moved to the city in search of their dreams. The precarity of their existence is best summed up by the suspended state of ruination that they have endured for nearly a decade and counting.
Therefore, it may be a romantic cliché to imagine that each flickering window of the urban skyline has a hidden story, and yet, amid the darkness, there is no room for fiction in Xian Village aside from the sanctioned narrative, literally or metaphorically. As soon as an apartment is vacated, all its window frames and even some exterior walls will be removed violently by demolition workers even though part of the building is still being occupied. This practice—common throughout China—is to maximize pressure on resisting owners and to ensure that vacant apartments will not be reoccupied by migrant renters and squatters.
Instead of simply documenting the urban landscape that is already mediated by the state and corporations, my project explores the possibilities of an aesthetics of resistance by not only capturing China’s uneven urban development, but also by projecting images of the urban village’s everyday life onto its ruins at night in order to ask the classic question of figure and ground in the context of urbanization and gentrification. What does development mean in the so-called “China Dream” propagated by the government? Who and what should be foregrounded and made visible in China’s relentless high-speed growth? Should it be the dazzling skyline that symbolizes conspicuous consumption or the people who are being dispossessed? Similarly, by casting light literally on the city’s spatial ruptures using common darkroom techniques such as dodging, burning, and masking, I put the practice of photographic manipulation in dialogue with the sanctioned spectacle created by the state and capital. And I suggest that in societies where state-sanctioned facts are inseparable from spectacle, critically constructed fictional images may in the end come closer to revealing the truth. Finally, whereas light boxes are frequently used to display real estate commercials in Chinese public spaces, the final products of this project are light boxes that “advertise” the unreal estate of Xian Village’s dystopian present.