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Social Design in China

A comment on tourism and mass-consumption lies at the core of Jorge Mañes latest project “Normal Pool Level”.  In it he presents a series of souvenirs he designed for the area around the Yangtze River in China that has been transformed by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 28-03-2013

When Amsterdam-based artist/designer Jorge Mañes landed in China for an Artist in Residence programme, he had no clue what would inspire an idea.

“I wasn’t inspired by the city of Chongqing where I was based, but became fascinated by the cities that had been lost to the dam along the Yangtze,” he says.  “I was very drawn to stories I heard about the impact the Three Gorges Dam had had, and how entire cities had been rebuilt. Cultural theme parks were also erected for tourists to see replicas of the monuments and temples that had been destroyed. They sailed the river in luxury yachts seemingly oblivious to how thousands of years of history had been literally submerged to create the dam.  I wanted to create souvenirs that told a different story - one that truly revealed the area's history.”

Building the dam dramatically changed the lives of millions.  Entire cities and villages were swallowed whole by the project which was supposed to be about creating clean energy, but which ultimately became about building the biggest dam in the world.  That mission was accomplished, but despite the extraordinary toll on the natural and social environment, it still only produces 1.7% of China’s energy needs.

“Four million people were relocated and often to provinces where different languages were spoken,” Mañes says, “but I didn’t want to start with any judgment.  I don’t like it when artists and designers enter a project with a preconceived idea, do the work and then leave again – like it doesn’t matter. I wanted to do something more honest.”

During off-season and with only a translator Mañes set out to talk to as many people as he could in villages, and factories.  Some of the people he found had defiantly stayed behind even though the rest of their communities had relocated.  In some places he visited he was the first western face the locals had ever seen.

“The proportions and dimensions we are talking about are almost unimaginable,” says Mañes.  “13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,352 villages were wiped out destroying nearly 8000 years of Chinese history.”

Mañes’ final project “Normal Pool Level” entailed designing and manufacturing souvenirs that capture the transformation of the area.  “It is about the dislocation between the past and the future, between tradition and modernity, and between memory and progress,” he says. “The souvenirs and mementos are elevated to an unusual category because they are linked to their original locations but at the same time open new meanings and a deeper relation with the public.”

In Yangtze Vase, Mañes creates a replica of an ancient Chinese vase with a hydrometric graphic embedded on it to represent how the water level has increased.  It merges together the past and future of the river.

In Fengdu Jerry Cans, Mañes collected industrial jerry cans and filled them with water from the river.  He covered the outside of the cans with traditional Chinese motifs.  The city is now submerged.  The content of the cans is the souvenir, but the vessel is a reminder of the conflict between tradition and progress.

In Fengdu Stool, Mañes obtained some wood from two former local farmers who lost their land to flooding.  Now they work as carpenters in a pre-fabrication factory.  Mañes designed a nail-less stool from the wood – a traditional Chinese seating solution, but one threatened by cheaper mass-production techniques.

In Fengjie Concrete Kite, Mañes made a traditional Chinese kite from the sacks used to store and sell concrete.  The Three Gorges Dam is the biggest concrete structure on Earth.

“Normal Pool Level” was exhibited at 501 Contemporary Art Centre in Chongqing, China.  More objects from the exhibition can be found here.

“I like it how design is not just about objects,” Mañes says.  “ We can also create experiences for people so that they feel like they belong somewhere.”



Images: small from top Yangtze Vase, Fengdu Jerry Cans, Fengdu Stool, Fengjie Concrete Kite, Yangtze Chandelier, YunYang Fei's Firecrackers.

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