Welcome, we read, on a large billboard by the grounds of an idyllic park somewhere in China
Initially it seems almost a fairy-tale picture, but you look a little longer and a suspicion of doubt begins to grow. And before we have seen through it, we find ourselves in the midst of tall housing blocks. In a hastily thrown-up neighbourhood we see a woman who is hard at work in a public garden. A breath-taking scene, as, in a beautiful choreography with the hose pipe, she tries to make nature – the grass, flowers and trees between the concrete blocks – survive.
Meggie Schneider, the maker of this video, does not make a fuss about it, and leaves little to the imagination. Here, the pride of a housing-block neighbourhood becomes a stark metaphor for the way in which the development of present-day China, the destruction of landscapes and environmental problems, is hidden from sight by ‘nice things for the people’. The devastation of nature, the demolition of the old, intolerable residential districts which culturally, in fact, often represent great value – all that is compensated for culturally and artistically, as it were, by a little garden. In China nowadays, everything happens at enormous speed, and if that comes at the expense of what we in the West regard as human rights, then so be it. In this phase of development, human rights, or animal rights, or just the conservation of monuments and historic buildings, are simply less applicable. Even an architect like Rem Koolhaas, who greets with enthusiasm the new cities and waterworks which shoot up at tremendous speed, considers that simply inevitable. The Chinese government’s overtaking manoeuvre, conducted for the sake of joining the global economy, demands its toll.
Schneider knows of the existence of these conflicts, but she is an observer, not a political meddler. Her pictures – which are as moving as they are, in a certain way, frighteningly devoid of illusion – of the confrontation between old and new, regional and global, revolutionary and capitalistic, bear witness to this. She does not wish to judge or evaluate, but knows that she will nevertheless be judged by us, the viewers. Her eye is very sharp and is particularly artistically informed, demonstrated in a manner of filming that is immediately understood and answered by the lady garden worker. Schneider rotates the camera around the gardens and the Chinese lady responds to her intervention, ‘dancingly’ answering Schneider’s advances with a ‘water-ballet’. Thus, in a very intuitive manner, Schneider and the garden worker translate the social issues of present-day China into artistic images. In particular, the tension in the implicit relationship between herself and the woman at work here speaks volumes. Because it is clear that the garden worker is aware that she is being filmed with a digital camera. But is she proud of her work? What is she experiencing? Is she jealous of the film-maker? All the questions that obtrude into their relationship we recognise, and thus they reverberate in the relationship between our viewer and the residents there in the flat, whom we hardly get to see but who nevertheless play a leading role here, in one way or another.
In her cool interpretation, Meggie Schneider sees through the Welcome of her first picture. Propaganda or not, what the Chinese government shows of a new future in fact makes visible what has been lost.
translation Bob Biddiscombe