Archive: newspaper

Review article – The Global Times, ‘Mirror Images’

11th June, 2011

Global Times 11th, June 2011

Artist reflects on hutong development

by Song Yuanyuan

In a small gallery on Guloudong Dajie hang 23 framed photographs. They document the changes in the Gulou (Drum Tower) area as seen by British artist Helen Couchman, 38, who’s lived in a nearby hutong for over four years.

But what’s especially striking is her use of three mirrors placed in such a way that they also reflect the landscape around back into the frame. A Beijing friend gave them to her but they sat on her desk for a long time. “At the end of 2009, I started photographing, thinking about the illusion, and the way I could look underneath things or behind things or at far things with the mirrors,” she said. Couchman explained the mirrors gave her different views, allowing her to see things around her. The mirrors enable her to focus on the textures and see the distance of something in the same picture, “kind of getting the close in with the far,” she added. With the mirrors, she deliberately mixes the view with something natural and bright green, a contrast with the gray sky.

The project is part of Couchman’s PhD research in landscape changes, trying to find out how it changes and in the meantime reviewing the people who live through these changes. “It’s about how we use the land to reveal these things, our economics, politics, and culture,” Couchman explained.

In February 2006, she came to Beijing by train from Moscow, and this became her first Asian experience. “I wanted to see the distance; how far it is from Europe. I was reading how China was changing very fast. Everyone was writing about its economic stories and Yangtze dam; so I had to go quickly to see the landscape changes, I want to see it before, and why it changes and after. I had wanted to come to other places, but China became where I wanted to come to desperately.”

Her photographs depict the Gulou area’s recent changes, in particular during and after demolitions. “I want people to feel like they’re walking the line between old Beijing and the new areas that have been demolished, following the edge of these two places and where they converge. In one direction, you have the romantic beautiful hutong views, and in the other way, you have the earth, the buildings, holes, ground, and the mud,” she said.

Her bare feet are often shown in her photos too, touching the earth, like a performance. “I’m standing there and deciding where to put the mirrors, walking around, feeling it, getting dirty with it to get the ‘on the earth’ feeling, kind of making something out of that moment,” she said. “It’s not a digital illusion; stepping foot on these places, I got really dirty, but it’s nice to be so physical with the place, touching things, which gives you a better understanding,” she said.

Shot for The New York Times – found on the cutting room floor

14th February, 2011

Although shot in December 2009 I have not seen these images until this week. Taken by freelance news photographer Shiho Fukada we agreed to do the shoot at Beijing Central station where I very first alighted in China from the Trans-Mongolian train – departing Moscow, stopping in Ulaan Baatar and onto Beijing, February 2006.

Images of my work and another portrait from that day were published with a feature by Dan Levin in both the The New York Times and International Herald Tribune arts pages, Sunday 10th January, 2010.

Portrait – Lutz Engelke

20th May, 2010

Portrait - Lutz Engelke, Triad Design

Lutz Engelke, founder of Triad commissioned for Die Zeit, 20th May 2010.

Berlin based company Triad won the commission from the Shanghai World Expo 2010 committee to design one of the three themed pavilions at Expo, ‘Urban Planet.’

Article by Frank Sieren.

Featured – China Daily, ‘Private fantasies, creative vulnerability’

29th March, 2010

Feature article, ‘Private fantasies, creative vulnerability‘ about Helen Couchman’s work is in the China Daily newspaper this morning.

English artist Helen Couchman at work in her Beijing home. Wang Jing / China Daily

British artist presents cultures in photographs. A look at her bio makes it sound like English artist Helen Couchman has taken her art on a journey all round the world, the UK, Cyprus, Armenia, the United States, and for the past four years, China.

Couchman, however, would be more inclined to say that it is the other way around, that it is her art that has taken her all over the world. And for the last four years, it’s Beijing.

“I’ve lived in lots and lots of different places, but being here it’s pushed forward. I’ve taken it further.”

The question Couchman has been pursuing in her recent work deals with her how to identify ourselves with where we are, what is an ideal city and what makes Beijing Beijing?

“While I’m observing the city and what it means to go around and observe. I only see what I think I understand,” she said. “But I love the otherness of all of these things, and when they get filtered down they form, well, these fantasies, really.”

Couchman has chosen to visually articulate these “fantasies” through the manipulation of scale.

“With some projects there are tiny high rises or huge dragon statues. I feel that the dislocation or manipulation of scale make a playful landscape. And that’s been quite a recurring theme.”

In her series Untitled (Collecting and Dropping) Couchman presents this juxtaposition of cultures in a sequence of photographs, where she poses nude behind a massive Chinese fan from which the paper is gradually removed.

Couchman’s latest book, Workers, was a project that documented the men and women hired to construct the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube prior to the Olympic Games. Photographing 143 individuals posing in the same position in front of these massive structures they have helped construct, the book is a singular portrait of both the workers and Olympic-fever Beijing.

While her primary medium is photography, she also works in other mediums. Her most recent work, a linocut series, Yellow Lining 12345, an exploration of clouds and the typography of the sky as a landscape.

She says the inspiration for the series came when she arrived back in Beijing in February. “It was a blue sky day, but when we landed there was a smog of white, and what really struck me was that on top of this was a band of yellow, a sort of layer of tangerine.”

She decided to use relief printing for the series because of its rough-and-ready graphic appeal. “Because of the nature of woodblock printing, it really lends itself to a sort of crude form of printing, the positive and negative and little in-between. They’re a little more like a comic strip. A bit explosive,” she said.

Work from the series will be on sale at the Affordable Arts Beijing fair on April 24-25.

However, it was a photograph that first drew her to China. “I had seen pictures in the back of a glossy weekend newspaper supplement and one time they had a picture of the Harbin Ice Festival and it burned a trail in my mind from about 2000. After that, I was obsessed with coming.”

In 2006, Couchman was finally able to make her way to China via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

“I had never been to Asia before so it was great to go by land,” she said. “When I arrived in 2006, I decided after three days I wanted to live here and a year later I moved.”

But for someone whose living is made from exhibiting her ideas in public, Couchman’s creative method actually requires a lot of privacy.

“Even my friends don’t know what I’m doing,” Couchman said. “I just need a space. I don’t want to have to deal with other people’s points of view at this stage. I want people to see it and know what they think, but I think in the creative process you have to almost stop and go on with it. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in.”

Still, like any artist who deserves the title, she is comfortable with vicissitudes of her creative drive. Private fantasies, creative vulnerability

“I’ve got boxes of notes,” she said.

“Things I might come back to later because it might just be not the right time.

“I think that ‘s why I don’t understand why people harp so much about originality,” she said.

“Art’s all a melting pot of a bunch of other things people have seen and heard. The discipline is that I keep pushing myself on my own terms not a race against other, But a race against myself.

Christine Laskowski
Arts, China Daily

See the same on the China Daily online here:
http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2010-03/29/content_9653906.htm

Featured – New York Times, ‘For Expatriates in China, Creative Lives of Plenty’

10th January, 2010

NY Times cutting, 10th Jan 2010. web

 

For Expatriates in China, Creative Lives of Plenty
by Dan Levin. NY Times arts page, Sunday, 10th January 2010

THERE was a chill in the morning air in 2005 when dozens of artists from China, Europe and North America emerged from their red-brick studios here to find the police blocking the gates to Suojiacun, their compound on the city’s outskirts. They were told that the village of about 100 illegally built structures was to be demolished, and were given two hours to pack.

By noon bulldozers were smashing the walls of several studios, revealing ripped-apart canvases and half-glazed clay vases lying in the rubble. But then the machines ceased their pulverizing, and the police dispersed, leaving most of the buildings unscathed. It was not the first time the authorities had threatened to evict these artists, nor would it be the last. But it was still frightening.

“I had invested everything in my studio,” said Alessandro Rolandi, a sculptor and performance artist originally from Italy who had removed his belongings before the destruction commenced. “I was really worried about my work being destroyed.”

He eventually left Suojiacun, but he has remained in China. Like the artists’ colony, the country offers challenges, but expatriates here say that the rewards outweigh the hardships. Mr. Rolandi is one of many artists (five are profiled here) who have left the United States and Europe for China, seeking respite from tiny apartments, an insular art world and nagging doubts about whether it’s best to forgo art for a reliable office job. They have discovered a land of vast creative possibility, where scale is virtually limitless and costs are comically low. They can rent airy studios, hire assistants, experiment in costly mediums like bronze and fiberglass.

“Today China has become one of the most important places to create and invent,” said Jérôme Sans, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. “A lot of Western artists are coming here to live the dynamism and make especially crazy work they could never do anywhere else in the world.”

New York Times, Slideshow, Helen Couchman

From the slideshow – click to enlarge

 

Helen Couchman

China popped onto Helen Couchman’s radar around 2000, when, she said, she “first saw gorgeous little tidbits of something far away”: glossy photos in British magazines of ice palaces in the northern city of Harbin and sweeping tales of the country’s frenetic experiment with modernization. In 2006 she stepped off the Trans-Siberian Railway and into the chaos of Beijing’s main train station, and after three days of wandering around she knew she wanted to live here.

As a photographer she found the manic pace of Olympic construction irresistible, along with the cost of living as compared with London, her home for 15 years. “A £4 tube ticket would buy my dinner here,” she said. Ms. Couchman, 36, who is British, moved to Beijing a year later, and though she sells most of her work in Europe, she said, the “shapes and designs here have completely saturated my work.”

New York Times, Slideshow, Helen Couchman

From the slideshow – click to enlarge

 

In her most recent work, at right, she poses naked behind a large fan, a traditional Chinese accessory that serves as an emblem of the camera, behind which she is frequently shielded.

She is more than a documentarian. Her book “Workers” illustrates her personal engagement with China. In December 2007 she slipped behind the screens surrounding the construction of the Olympic park and shot portraits of 146 migrant laborers. She returned the next day with two sets of prints, giving each subject a copy to keep and having workers write their name and hometown on the other, which she compiled for the book. “Their families couldn’t afford to come to Beijing and see their role in history,” she said. “Now they have this document, like I would have a graduation or wedding photo…”

Article in full: www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/arts/design/10expatsweb.html

New York Times, Slideshow, Helen Couchman

From the slideshow – click to enlarge

 

Also featured: Alessandro Rolandi (Italy), Alfredo Martinez (US), Rania Ho (US) and Joseph Ellis (US).

Slideshow:
www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/01/10/arts/20100110-expats_index.html

Climate change commission for Al Jazeera

9th December, 2009

Photographic commission  for article:

China’s creeping sands published to coincide with the Copenhagen Summit on climate change.
Al Jazeera, 9th December 2009

 

A river used to flow at the site where Yan Hongmei stands with her daughter.

She remembers it well; 20 years ago, the river carried clear cold water and her father caught fish there big enough to eat.

But, slowly the sand began to encroach. At first it was just a little blown in by the wind.

But the wind grew into more frequent storms and the air became yellow with sand. People wrapped scarves around their faces to guard against it.

The Gobi desert was infringing on Huailai, the area where Yan lives, and the trees lost their strength to fight it.

It rained less and less. “And when it rained, it caused a storm flood,” says 28-year-old Yan.

Living off the sand

Yan recalls how, when she was a child, her family grew maize that dried in the sun behind their house and how, like many other families in the area, they bred small, sturdy Mongolian horses. But only a few thin goats now survive and the family has little money.

Yan’s home is not in a remote part of China – it is just 80km from Beijing and 30km from the Great Wall.

Any aircraft leaving Beijing bound for Europe flies over the village. But if Yan were to see that view from an aeroplane, she would be frightened by the size of the Gobi desert in relation to the short distance between her home and Beijing.

Heading west from Beijing by plane, for almost two hours one sees only barren earth and sand – interrupted by small villages along dirt tracks.

Green conifer forests only come into view as the aeroplane nears Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

Yan’s family now make their living from the desert by renting out the nearby sand dunes to film crews and tourists from Beijing.

Yan is the cashier, while her husband helps the film crews with their technical equipment. They do not have any competition in the area yet and manage to make a decent living.

But they are unsure what will happen if the desert encroaches even further and know that they cannot halt the sand.

“Film crews hardly need so many sand dunes,” says her husband, Zhang Rongfei.

Planting green walls

When Zhu Rongji, the then prime minister, took office in 1998, he travelled to the drought-hit areas of northern China. Alarmed by what he saw there, he planned a belt of thousands of trees – a green wall against the sand.

A protective ring of trees were also planted in the area where Yan lives. “The farmers are satisfied,” says Yan. “But you can’t plant trees like this everywhere,” Zhang adds.

climate, sand , china

Yan Hongmei worries about how the desert will impact her daughter’s life [Helen Couchman]

Some experts agree with Zhang’s assessment of the situation.

“In some regions the development is under control,” says Wu Wei, a scientist with the department of environmental sciences at Peking University, “but overall it has worsened.”

About 20 per cent of China’s surface is experiencing desertification and driving back the desert costs the country $12m a year.

A Chinese team of scientists from Nanjing have calculated that the desert in northern China has expanded three-fold from 137,000 square kilometres in 1950 to 385,700 square kilometres today.

Scientist Wang Xunming of the renowned Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) believes that during the second half of this century the arid and semi-arid areas in northern China will turn into sand dunes or at the least very arid steppes.

“The survival of the people is under threat,” says Wang, who is convinced that this situation has not been caused by cultivation, but by global climate change.

Liu Tuo, the head of the Office for Prevention and Control of Desertification, says that the encroaching sand is a “serious threat to the people living in this area” and that it harms biodiversity.

“About 15 per cent of the species in this habitat are on the brink of extinction,” he says.

Economic miracle threatened

In China, alarm bells begin to ring furiously when the country’s economic miracle comes under threat.

That is why Wang Tao, the head of the Institute for Environmental Protection at CASS, has calculated the damage of the drought in the ten northern Chinese provinces.

In 2005 alone it was close to $74m. That is equal to half of this year’s trade surplus.

The Middle Kingdom, with its 1.3 billion people, is facing huge costs as a result of climate change; this explains why the government may feel more pressure than smaller countries to respond to the global phenomenon.

Professor Adil Najam of Boston University says he has “big hopes for China”.

As the director of the Pardee Centre for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Najam was the lead author of the third and fourth assessments for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for which the IPCC was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with other scientists and Al Gore, the former US vice-president.

Najam says China will go its own way “but ultimately it will do the right thing because it knows it is in its own interests”.

Villager Yan has a more down-to-earth approach. “The problem is so huge that even our government is hardly in the position to address it,” she says.

Poverty

Yan’s relatives from the barren mountainous province of Gansu in the northwest are even worse off. They do not get even half of China’s average rainfall.

“They are earning less and less,” says Yan. They live off just $120 a year, while Yan and her husband earn five times as much.

Even the Chinese government considers people with an annual income of less than $150 to be very poor and, in Gansu province alone, 4.4 million people earn less than this.

Yu Qingtai, the Chinese special representative for climate change negotiations, likes to place a transparency showing the poorest regions of China over a map of the regions most affected by climate change. They are literally congruent.

Yan is glad that she is able to lead a better life than her relatives. But she wonders how her daughter will live when the air is once again full of sand.

She says: “My daughter will have to move to the city. We will stay behind alone – in the dust.”

 

Frank Sieren is a bestselling author who has been living in Beijing for 15 years and is regarded as one of the leading German China experts.

His brother Andreas is a specialist in international relations and development aid. He worked for many years for the United Nations in Asia and Africa.

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

07aug08_NAA_A09

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