Yun-Fei Ji, The Three Gorges Dam Migration, Fall 2009
Yun-Fei Ji’s Three Gorges Dam Migration, the seventh in the series of artist’s books inaugurated in 2002 by the Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art, is a hand scroll, the traditional “book” form of old China. This ten-foot-long horizontal image, hand-printed in China from over 500 hand-carved woodblocks, depicts the flooding and social upheaval caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze River in the central part of the country.
A gradually unfolding narrative, Ji’s scroll records the sometimes banal, sometimes dramatic effects of social and environmental engineering. The work reflects Ji’s ongoing study of the human and environmental loss associated with one of the largest civil-engineering feats of recent times: scheduled for completion in 2011, the Three Gorges Dam will be the world’s largest hydropower plant, generating enough electricity to serve four cities the size of Los Angeles. Meanwhile its immense reservoir has displaced at least 1,200,000 people and has submerged thousands of villages, aesthetically resonant landscapes, and valuable archaeological sites.
Ji was born in Beijing, in 1963. Both of his parents were absent for much of his childhood—his father was a traveling army doctor while his mother underwent reeducation in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution—and he was raised by one of his grandmothers in Hangzhou, a capital city of China during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279 A.D.). Visually Ji’s work recalls traditional Chinese landscape painting, especially that of the Song period. Even as he mines centuries-old artistic forms, however—forms that fell out of favor during the Communist era of his childhood and teenage years—he confronts contemporary issues: the carefully observed landscape of The Three Gorges Dam Migration is rendered in the early style but includes compassionate images of those dispossessed by the dam project. In Ji’s work past and present are continuous; the theme of dispossession appears in historical scroll paintings, and Ji’s images feature both naturalistic and symbolic images of “floating weeds”—his term for the displaced, adapted from an ancient Chinese phrase. We also see phantasmagoric depictions of inauspicious beasts, people dancing “loyalty dances” (Cultural Revolution–era replacements for traditional folk dances) expressing allegiance to the government, and officials toppling into high waters. To either side of the image, texts written by Ji in Chinese calligraphy describe China’s longstanding ambitions to tame the Yangtze and their present-day outcome.
Ji’s best-known work is drawing, executed in traditional Chinese watercolor inks and on traditional papers. His art therefore lends itself to the classic Chinese techniques of woodblock printing, which use many of the same inks and papers, in a way that few paintings do. It has been Ji’s dream to work with the printing and publishing house of Rongbaozhai, once closely associated with Beijing’s old imperial enclave the Forbidden City and in operation at its present site in Beijing since the turn of the twentieth century. Rongbaozhai still makes prints and scrolls following processes developed over a thousand years ago; indeed it has survived China’s dramatic changes of the last century by producing magnificent copies of national masterpieces, and several years ago was declared a “rare intangible cultural property” by the Chinese government. MoMA’s Library Council is delighted to have been able to engage Rongbaozhai to produce The Three Gorges Dam Migration. For this first collaborative project between the Beijing workshop and a museum outside China, the master carvers and printers of Rongbaozhai have worked closely with Ji to create an edition of woodblock prints, sharing in his exploration and reinvention of the richly historic and still relevant form of the Chinese scroll.
In 2008 and 2009, craftsmen at Rongbaozhai produced nearly 500 woodblocks, hand carved from pearwood, that then were used to print multiple impressions in watercolor ink on mulberry paper. To make the scroll, the long printed sheets were mounted by hand onto multiple layers of silk. Each finished scroll is rolled over a glass rod and housed in a handcrafted box. The printed image measures approximately 14 inches x 10 feet (35 x 306 cm). When unrolled to its full length, including silk ends, the scroll extends to nearly 32 feet.
The scroll is printed in an edition of 108 copies, 20 deluxe copies, 7 deluxe copies for the artist and the Museum, and 30 artists’ and printers’ copies. The deluxe edition is presented in a hand-carved wooden box with an additional, original woodblock print.
About the artist
Yun-Fei Ji was born in Beijing in 1963. He studied at Beijing’s Central Academy of Art and left China in 1982 to study in the United States. He lives and works in Brooklyn.