Of dams, displacement and the ripple effects

Yun-Fei Ji in front of an artwork in his new exhibition, “Rumors, Ridicules and Retributions,” on Grand St. Photo by Bill Weinberg

BY BILL WEINBERG | There is a sense of history repeating itself in artist Yun-Fei Ji’s new exhibition, “Rumors, Ridicules and Retributions,” running through June 17 at the James Cohan Gallery, at 291 Grand St.

Ji’s 2008 work explored in watercolor the impacts of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the world’s largest hydroelectric complex. A million and a half people, mostly small farmers, were relocated from their homes as the waters rose, images Ji interpreted in his paintings.

Much of his new work concerns a new megaproject now displacing some quarter-million Chinese — the Nan Shui Bei Diao, or South-North Water Diversion, planned to pump water from the Yangtze hundreds of miles across China through three massive canals, to serve agriculture and urban expansion in the country’s arid north.

For his new work, Ji traveled to what is now the Dan River Reservoir, at the confluence of the Dan and Han Rivers in Hubei Province — Asia’s largest reservoir. The valley’s residents were relocated to new lands hundreds of miles away.

His images capture peasants with their meager belongings on their backs leaving their homes forever, sometimes wading through rising, rainy-season waters to reach government-chartered buses in areas with no paved roads. It evoked for this viewer the exodus from Anatevka at the end of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Other of his works depict grotesque supernatural figures, ghosts and demons, haunting the countryside — some from Chinese folklore, some from Ji’s own imagination. Counterintuitively, it’s these more-ambiguous images that Ji says were banned for display in China by official censors.

“Migration is a theme I’m very interested in, as an immigrant here in the U.S.,” Ji told this writer. Although he now lives in Ohio, and has spent much of his life in New York since first coming to America in 1990,  he returns to China, and is alarmed at the changes there.

“In the cities, everything looks so new,” he said of his native land. “But the countryside is paying a big price. There are big pits from gravel mining for construction in the cities. Factories are polluting the water. And there is a flight of youth to cities. Children are being raised in villages by grandparents, while the parents work in cities and send money home.”

This flight to the cities necessitates projects like the water diversion, which destroy rural lands.

“Beijing’s population is exploding, and its reservoirs will soon be exhausted,” Ji said.

China’s breakneck urbanization is a reversal of the displacements that impacted Ji’s childhood. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, urban youth were sent to the countryside to work on collective farms, also known as “re-education camps.” This was the fate of Ji’s mother. He was left to be raised on a collective outside Hangzhou. There, with no TV or radio, he was entertained by his grandmother’s folk tales and ghost stories.

At Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, Ji later studied classical techniques of Song Dynasty landscape painting. His contemporary work exudes a tension between that time-honored form and his critical, even heretical themes.

Finally, when Ji first came to New York in the ’90s, he had a studio above Tompkins Square, from which he witnessed the park’s occupation by the homeless, and their later eviction by the police.

Touching on this, he recalled how Beijing saw a similar episode in December, as squatter camps of migrants from the countryside were cleared by security forces, sparking protests.

“Everybody is always moving,” Ji observed. “It is a very important part of contemporary experience.”

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