Archive: 2008

WORKERS 工人 – Beijing 2008 Image of the Day

24th November, 2008

Beijing images of the dayThis short has shown up on You Tube. It was broadcast as an official Beijing 2008 Image of the Day during the Olympics.

It is commonly known as the Bird’s Nest but Beijing’s National Stadium is more than a name. It is a testament to the hundreds of migrant workers who toiled long and hard to make it a reality. See the book that celebrates their achievement. 13th August 2008

WORKERS book featured in the 'Beijing 2008 - Image of the Day', Olympics, China


WORKERS book featured in the 'Beijing 2008 - Image of the Day', Olympics, China


WORKERS book featured in the 'Beijing 2008 - Image of the Day', Olympics, China


WORKERS book featured in the 'Beijing 2008 - Image of the Day', Olympics, China


WORKERS book featured in the 'Beijing 2008 - Image of the Day', Olympics, China


WORKERS book featured in the 'Beijing 2008 - Image of the Day', Olympics, China


WORKERS book featured in the 'Beijing 2008 - Image of the Day', Olympics, China

New Work landscape prints reviewed – Crafts Council magazine, ‘Contemporary Chinoiserie’

1st November, 2008

chinoisery article small

…The vision of China represented in this exhibition is, as its title suggests, still a romantic and fanciful one, though more actively engaged and critical than its antecedents. Moments of darker realities do pierce through uncomfortably, with Helen Couchman’s paper works commenting on the changes in Beijing’s built environment and Gayle Chong Kwan’s detached observation of the deserted English-style satellite town outside Shanghai. …

Gigi Chang was assistant curator of China Design Now at the Victoria and Albert museum.

Crafts. Nov/Dec 2008

inVisio Images and Organization – seminar

14th October, 2008

Images and Organization
Visio launch event

19:00   Welcome and introduction to inVisio

19:15    Jonathan Schroeder (University of Exeter):
             Snapshot Aesthetics in Brand Culture

20:00   Helen Couchman (Photographic Artist):
             WORKERS 工人

20:45   Claus Noppeney (CNC Berlin/Grenoble Ecole de Management):
            Seeing Organizations – Understanding Organizations?

14th October 2008
7 – 9.30pm,
9.30pm drinks reception
at The Photographers’ Gallery, London


InVisio talk by Helen Couchman

Private View – Contemporary Chinoiserie

10th September, 2008

Contemporary Chinoiserie
Curated by Day+Gluckman

Private view: 6pm tonight
11th September – 26th November 2008

Collyer Bristow Gallery
4 Bedford Row


An exploration of a modern day concept of Chinoiserie; relationships,
aesthetic responses and perceptions of China.

Lisa Cheung, Gayle Chong Kwan, Helen Couchman, Stephanie Douet, Ed Pien, Neil Stewart, Pamela So, Karen Tam and Erika Tan

This exhibition brings together artists from the UK and Canada whose work or practice is affected by their connection to China. The exhibition explores how pervasive Chinese culture, industry and aesthetics are in our everyday lives, be them actual or perceived.

‘Chinoiserie’, a French term meaning ‘Chinese-esque’, derived from the Seventeenth Century as an entirely European style that was influenced wholly from China and the East. The China that was being emulated was in fact fictitious. Very few real images of life in China had reached the west. Instead a Utopian land was described and repeated through the use of decorative motifs and styles. The influence and desire for China, it’s trade and culture ramified in to the 19th century, opium wars, trade and colonialism.

In Contemporary Chinoiserie we look at the work of nine artists’ whose practice explores their relationship with China through photography, prints, film, sculpture and ceramics. The artists all reference a contemporary response to a China, neither fully understood nor real; from stylistic responses, mythical tales, and references of racism and displacement to a desire to understand what China means to them. Whilst many of the artists’ are of Chinese descent, others are linked to China through family or, in one case, live in Beijing.

Artist Stephanie Douet is interested in Chinoiserie as the birth of leisure in Europe. The fractured, fictional idyllic life the aristocracy in Europe imitated of China is explored in her bizarre sculptures. Douet, whose two young nieces are adopted from China sees a similar distance in Europe’s understanding of the country today and a continuation of trade and misunderstanding from that of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The sculptures resemble furniture and antiques with indiscernible meaning and use. Their quirky shapes and beautiful craftsmanship are a contemporary take on the curios that came from trade missions in the beginning of Chinoiserie.

Karen Tam, based in Canada, creates installations looking at the influences and cultural particularities of Chinese communities. Her work, like Douet’s, directly references Chinoiserie as she looks at contemporary issues and misconceptions of the culture. Paper cuts, a traditional Chinese craft, adorn the walls, referencing take away menus, railway posters, racist political cartoons and export chinaware.

Ed Pien, also Canadian, was born in Taipei, Taiwan and in this exhibitions presents new work including The Blue Vine. The blue references the Delft Blue colour iconic of exported Chinese porcelain whilst the drawing technique mirrors the hand-painted effect of glaze. As with his earlier works, creatures of all sorts abound. Here the politically motivated and denigrating caricaturization of the “Orientals” in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s comes into play.

Lisa Cheung works often works with people, creating events and group activities. For Contemporary Chinoiserie she will show work created over the past few years for various commissions. One such piece is from a project in Plymouth with the local Chinese community. Working inside the Plymouth City Museum she made new porcelain pieces to go along side those exported though Plymouth’s history as a trade seaport. The crockery showed stylised portraits of the people she worked with at the time they first came to the UK. A recent work used light to shine the last texts messages of the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers to their loved ones in a haunting installation.

Erika Tan’s work evolves from an interest in anthropology and moving image having studied Social Anthropology and Archaeology at Cambridge and film at the Academy of Arts in Beijing. In Contemporary Chinoiserie she shows ‘Shot Through: Journey of Connections’, a film looking at her own relationship with China through the memories and notes of well known philosophers such as Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva.

Pamela So employs the manipulative qualities of digital photography to re-interpret and re-present history based on her Scottish/Chinese background. So looks at the pick and mix attitude towards the use of Chinese motifs and extravagant and playful elements of Chinoiserie. Developing a lightbox piece, ‘Gaming with pigs‘, based on her own family history of gambling and her own fortunes of being born in the year of the pig she explores the destructive decadence of the genre.

Helen Couchman is currently living in Beijing. As the Olympics approached she sought to understand some of the human impact on the site. A new publication of her photographic portraits of the workers on the iconic ‘Birds Nest’ Stadium and ‘Water Cube’ has just been published with funding from Arup. For Contemporary Chinoiserie she shows a series of woodblock print landscapes. A traditional Chinese medium Couchman has learnt since living in the country. The images, striking on the surface, question the current regard for culture in the city she is watching change before her eyes.

Neil Stewart’s, whose wife is Chinese, has long standing interest in Chinese philosophy, which informs his work. He uses video to explore the very different concepts of time that exist in Chinese and Western cultures. Stewart videos of a traditional Chinese landscape and the room in which Mao lived after the Long March are in fact models.

Gayle Chong Kwan also creates models with everyday objects to investigate cultural environments. Her work is crammed with historical references that comment on contemporary culture.

WORKERS 工人 review – The Age

7th August, 2008

Silent workers get their moment to shine before the Games begin
Mary-Anne Toy

The Age newspaper and here on-line. 7th August 2008


Click on image to enlarge


THEY line up one by one to have their picture taken. Behind them are the new Olympic stadiums that will define Beijing and China for the decades to come.

But in a twist of perspective, it is not the magnificent steel lattice of the National Stadium’s “Bird’s nest” or the space-age blue bubbles of the “water cube” Aquatic Centre that dominate the picture, but the individual migrant workers whose sweat and blood – at least six workers died during Olympic construction – have created these structures.

British artist Helen Couchman, who has lived in Beijing for 18 months, sneaked on to the Olympic building site over two days and offered to take pictures of any workers willing to pose.

She deliberately used the same background, with the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, for each picture to focus attention on the individual. She returned a few days later to give each worker a print. (A few are anonymous because they could not return or be tracked down).

At first people shuffled around uncertainly, but once the first volunteer stepped up she was inundated. Couchman had to encourage people to get back to work so that she wasn’t ejected from the site.

When she returned to distribute the pictures she got each worker to write down their name, village and province.

The resulting 143 portraits, along with the worker’s signatures – the individual Chinese characters vary from sweeping calligraphy to simple characters – have been published in a book titled Workers (Gongren).

In the pre-Olympics crackdown, Couchman’s first printer decided they could not print the book without government authorisation, the day after the proofs had been approved.

She managed to find another printer willing to take on what she considered to be an apolitical project that celebrated the workers behind Beijing’s Olympic transformation.

The book was launched in Beijing before Couchman flew to London in late June to take part in an international exhibition on China’s new buildings, which included eight of the migrant worker portraits and the book. She was then invited to show the portraits and launch the book in Hong Kong last month.

“The reason for doing the project was I was thinking of Lewis Hine photographing the people who built the Empire State Building in New York and the photos of the Eiffel Tower being built in Paris – these historic cities, captured in their construction, being built by these unknown workers,” Couchman said.

“Back then in New York it would have been migrant workers, the Irish and the Italians . . . here it’s about the migrant workers who have come from all corners of China.

“I wanted the project to be about the people, hence the composition with the worker in the centre of the frame. It (the portrait) becomes a piece of personal family history and will return to the countryside with them . . . that’s what I’m so delighted about, that these photographs have travelled back with these workers to their home villages all over China.

“These people will not see the Olympics, except on television, but from the photograph, a villager in some remote part of China will see that their uncle or aunt, or mother or father, played a key role in the 2008 Olympic preparations.”

Ironically, as part of Beijing’s clean-up, the city’s hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have been sent home for two months.

WORKERS 工人 review – SCMP

3rd August, 2008

Photographer puts faces to the construction of the Games sites

by Ng Tze-wei
South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, Thursday, July 31, 2008 (page 7)

They may have helped build two of the most significant structures in modern Chinese history – the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Centre – for the BJ Olympics, but the thousands-strong workforce has remained faceless. Until now.

A group of 143 men and women from provinces as far away as Gansu and Sichuan posed for British artist Helen Couchman’s latest project, a book called Workers, which attempts to put a face to the mammoth projects.

Before her lens some appear formal while others are nervous; some wear a poker face, but most beam a smile, amused and somewhat proud. The portraits all share the same backdrop – the venues known as the “Bird’s Nest” and the “Water Cube “.

Couchman said much of the news on the BJ Olympics had focused on landmark buildings, but, she reasoned, what about the people who actually welded the intricate steel structures together and put the many pieces in place?

“The Empire State Building and other historic buildings like the Eiffel Tower – we see photographs with [workers] in them, but we are not sure who they were,” said the 35-year-old, who moved to Beijing 19 months ago and has just begun to communicate with the locals in broken Chinese.

“When you photograph people as individuals, they become memorable. They are no longer a group, a mass, an unknown quantity.”

British art critic Peter Suchin writes in the book’s introduction that the way Chinese positions the workers at roughly the same spot for each portrait suggests they can also be seen as “one single portrait, that of `the worker’ engaged in the making of the Place of the Games … the central focus, the essential signifier of the new BJ”.

Couchman, who received her master of fine arts degree from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, said she had always been interested in portraying urban landscapes through various media.

Her previous works in Beijing include collages in ink, and woodblock prints depicting features of a new city, such as high rises and ring roads, using traditional Chinese motifs.

For this project though, her shift in focus had much to do with the hype surrounding the architecture of the two main Olympic venues.

She said she wanted to go back to the fundamental question of what the Games meant to BJ and the nation.

“I’ve always done work about overlooked landscapes,” Couchman said.

“But here everyone is talking about the buildings, the buildings that are going to represent the new China.

“So for me, the workers became the ones who were overlooked.”

Taking the 143 photographs formed only half the project. The other half involved putting the images into a book to provide interesting details of how Couchman carried out her project, and a wealth of information about the workers that lends significance to the artist’s work.

For two days last December, Couchman dodged tight security and sneaked into the construction site of the “Water Cube”, offering to take pictures of workers.

Those who agreed to take part were each promised a copy of the photograph to take home.

So after the pictures were developed, she sneaked back to distribute them.

Those who heard about the return of the foreigner photographer showed up to collect their pictures, and signed Couchman’s “autograph” book.

A handful never came back. Some had already returned home, the other workers said.

She adopted a presentation format reminiscent of Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong’s ‘Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats’, which features signed portraits of nine pairs of soldiers from the mainland and Taiwan.

Each labourer wrote their names on the original prints, and the autographs effectively tell the story of how far the workers travelled and the transient lifestyle they lead as migrant workers.

The details provide the human touch – such as how one wrote her surname in the wrong character and crossed it out, and others who practised writing their names on the backs of their hands first, or with help from friends. They indicate the limited education received by these workers, still the hardest-working toilers at the bottom of the new Chinese social order.

Couchman fully expected workers’ rights to be raised in panel discussions during the book’s launch in BJ this month.

However, she was taken aback by the ferocity of a question on whether her work had glossed over workers’ conditions on the mainland, often cited as an example of the nation developing too recklessly with little regard to the human cost.

“It’s good if my work raises awareness [of workers’ conditions]; however, it was not my reason for starting this project,” Couchman said.

“If I had aimed to make this project about workers’ rights, it would not be what it is.”

‘Workers’ (Gong Ren) will be launched in Hong Kong today. A selection of 55 portraits will be exhibited at ‘Solutions for a Modern City’, from today to Sunday at Park Court, Pacific Place.

SCMP South China Morning Post review WORKERS by Helen Couchman