Léo de Boisgisson

Thomas Sauvin

China, the great power of our century, evokes gigantism and speed in every respect. The "Zeitgeist" - the spirit of the Chinese times - is undeniably that of a nation turned towards the future. Under the impetus of the central government, the country has undergone dizzying changes at a dizzying pace since the 1980s. Is not mobility in all its forms at the heart of this process of transformation? Motorization, urbanization, population movements, "transhumance" during holidays, and the development of the rail network: the monolith that was China just a few decades ago has fragmented and become more complex. As a key stakeholder in world affairs through political and trade alliances, China, now part of the multitude of new networks, is set on conquering the West by building new silk roads.

It is in this context that Mobility in China: A Chinese View of 50 Years of Acceleration project has emerged. The project aims to investigate the relationship between modernity and mobility in China. Led by Jérémie Descamps, an urban planner, and a Franco-Chinese team comprised of a sociologist, a geographer, an art critic, a collector and an artist, this project questions Chinese urban dwellers’ imaginaries, memories (collective and individual) and aspirations relative to mobility through an approach combining scientific and artistic tools. How do Chinese urban dwellers fit into this permanent movement when the reforms that are shaping the city and countryside follow a blueprint, rather than the organic realities of human affairs?

To address these questions and establish an overview of these representations, the research proposes a three-part transversal work in which images serve as the common thread of the research, a memory reserve, research material and a support for creation.

The first part involves the creation of an iconographic collection assembled from the photographic archives of collector Thomas Sauvin, who reviewed more than a million images for the project; in the end, the research team chose 82. With extremely varied sources ranging from propaganda publications to photos taken in studios before the birth of popular film, to the work of contemporary photographic works and photos of everyday citizens (Silvermine archive), this selection is a visual retrospective of the mobility of the past 50 years. It includes the great figures of Chinese mobility in the mythological, "Barthesian" sense of the term: “red” mobility at a time when young people were embarking on "political pilgrimages" to Beijing, masses of cyclists before the arrival of the automobile, the great train journey at Chinese New Year, etc.

The second part is a sociological survey conducted by sociologist Zhou Le, who uses the collection to activate the memories of the people she interviewed. What better than images to summon up the past, memories and associations of ideas? The evocative power of these photos, gathered in an album for the project, played a key role in the survey of roughly 50 people in five Chinese cities.

Memories are conjured up through familiar subject, allowing people to speak freely and openly. Among the selected photos are recurring images that are part of the Chinese collective unconscious (the two-tone buses, the first bicycle, the traffic jams, etc.) as well as more intimate shots (for instance, a subway platform that brings back memories of stolen teenage kiss). It is the experience of mobility that is showcased here, by virtue of an approach that reveals the intrinsic ambiguity of modern Chinese life, torn between the desire for increased mobility and an aspiration for greater stability.

This part of the survey was the object of a report and a synthesis report, downloadable here.

Translating this tension between stability and mobility, slowness and speed, the past and modernity is the crux of the work of video artist Wang Gongxin, who led the third part of the research. In addition to his participation in all the debates that punctuated and fueled the project, his work consisted of capturing the study’s main themes in a sensitive form. The result is a moving mural entitled Yi ("transplant," "set in motion" or "move" in Chinese) designed to be presented as an installation. This visual and sound work consists of sequence shots taken in various places - urban, peri-urban and rural areas - in China. Nature, crowds, people in movement and urban landscapes telescope across temporalities. By playing with image speeds – speeding them up or slowing them down, and coupling them with soft or piercing sounds, or macroscopic or microscopic scales – this intense, four-minute piece translates into a sensitive, visual language—the inflection point where the Chinese are today.

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