Text and photography by Alessandro Carboni
Location: 23° 1′ 0″ N, 113° 7′ 0″ E
After Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Foshan is the third largest city in the Pearl River Delta. Once famous for the production of porcelain, recently, thanks to the booming economy of China, Foshan (1) has undergone a very fast urban, social, economic transformation, at times disjointed and schizophrenic. I arrived in town a few days ago, a guest of Art Center Ninliho Gallery to start the project Overlapping Discrete Boundaries on 12 cities in Asia. At the end of this little residence I presented a video installation and a performance. During these days I shared my research with the musician Dickson Dee from Hong Kong and the Chinese artist and calligrapher Liang Guo Jian. Foshan is a dense paste of moving flows. Productive villages and districts have been stratified over the centuries creating a very complex and branched urban grid. From the first hours in the city, the flow takes me in a multitude of bodies, cars, buses, writings, dirty walls and lots of scooters. Everything is apparently chaotic. These areas are dense. The boundaries between old and new seem to overlap, creating new territories: population and buildings, in symbiosis, create a perfectly functioning urban balance.
I was interested in visiting these areas to understand their territorial, urban, social, human boundaries. I travelled the road that connects the centre of Foshan with the Shunde district: the largest production and distribution centre of furniture and furnishing artefacts of China and the world (2). Along the street is Longjiang, covering an area of 78.3 sqkm. Arriving in Longjiang, I meet Chai Xin Min, resident and government official. Chai is a tall, slender, very quiet type. For my every question, he answers calmly, without haste and enthusiasm. His story begins with a list of famous people born around the village. First on the list, the famous Bruce Lee. We’re sitting on a stone slab near a secular tree. The roots of the tree broke through the road with violence bringing the land covered by the concrete back on sight. It is difficult understanding the words of Chai not only because I do not speak Chinese, although I have an interpreter, but because around us it formed a kind of vortex of scooters, bikes and a large number of onlookers who rushed from nearby houses. Chai tells me that until not long ago, Longjiang was a small rural village of farmers and fishermen. Thanks to the shipbuilding skills of the latter, some families begun to produce furniture. During the years, also thanks to China’s economic boom, (now about 25 years ago), Longjiang urban area has dramatically expanded overlapping and incorporating the other surrounding areas including villages and nearby fields.
Now there are 1,200 factories spread over an area of approximately 1,000,000 sqm. In a very short time the village has become an area of 180,000 inhabitants. I’m not really surprised, Chai’s story is similar to many other cases of urban transformation that I have encountered over the years during my travels in China (3). After the chat with Chai, I began my exploration. At first, I was interested in analysing the shape of houses, roads and bodies as a stream in motion. On the one hand I wanted to understand the structure of the urban grid, on the other I was interested in understanding the relationships between the bodies and their movement in connection with the city. Later on I realised that in order to analyse these assumptions, it was necessary to boost my perception of space. In order to have greater spatial sensitivity I used the Urban Proximity Detector, a urban kit that I developed and built with Riccardo Mantelli, media artist. The Urban Proximity Detector is a jacket, similar to the vest that is usually used by photographers in their reportage. Two proximity sensors are sewn at the shoulders height, and one at the height of the sternum. The sensors are connected to a small plastic box. This contains the ends of the wires that connect to an Arduino, a piece of hardware that allows to collect the sensors’ data and transfer them to a software. Data visualisation is done in real time using Processing, a software installed on a small computer that I brought with me during the explorations. In addition, at the same height of the sternum, I sewed a small web cam that is connected to the computer. This has allowed me to film the entire walk.
My explorations were just simple walking. I usually start with small clues, forms, urban details and pedestrians. In this case, I started right where Chai left me: from the cracks in the asphalt broken up by the violence of tree roots. The asphalt opened like a wound, is similar to that of rice paper that gets wet with ink when drawing an ideogram. My eyes continued to look at the roots, which ended up in the slot of a house penetrating its interior. During the walk, I was very careful to observe every moving urban detail. The sensor captured every little movement within 6 meters radius. I do not know how, but I felt that the sensors also boosted my own sensory perception of space. It is as if a new territory between me and the urban space was formed. A sort of screen, similar to the feeling when you watch a movie in 3D. In parallel I could see in real time the map of the space around me simply by looking at the computer. The centre of Longjiang is very articulate but you have the feeling of moving in a of solid, ancient grid. The houses, in typical Qing style, are made of small red brick and stone. The roofs have a soft, rounded shape reminiscent of the Roman churches. The streets are narrow and travelling is at walking pace: even the bicycles turned into small trucks can not pass. This allowed me to easily tour the whole village in a couple of hours. Between a road and the next there are small canals, now become open air sewers. In fact it is not difficult to see some people unload every kind of junk in them. One has the feeling that this area of the city is completely detached from the rest. Maybe someone forgot, maybe there is nobody interested in this area for now. Closing my eyes, I do not hear the noise of progress, of change and transformation that until now I had always heard on the outskirts of the city. Here you hear the void. In fact, between a house and another, someone has seen fit to make a small garden. An old economy that remained indelible in the urban fabric. After the first 50 meters, I stop. I decided to retrace my route back, trying to remember step by step, inch by inch the flow. Bodies, urban detail objects come forth as images, layered in my memory. I tried to relocate every single element and feeling in a new map that I no longer displayed on the screen of my computer, but in the memory of my mind.
The second leg around the town of Longjiang starts in Zuotan, the fishermen village. In order to get to the village we ask for help to Chian. His help is essential. Zuotan is located on the banks of the river Jiang. The village is inhabited by a few families. They are the last fishermen who for many generations have been living in the beautiful houses built who knows how long ago on the north bank of the river. There are wooden boats, others in plastic materials and metal. Zuotan is a tiny village. The fishermen tell me about their difficulties. “There are no more fish” – they tell me several times. “They die from fear” – they continue. I wonder how the fish die of fear. I ask out of curiosity, but they do not respond. The village chief, shows me a few horizontal lines that run along the outside wall of his house. “During the rainy season, the river in full flood reaches up to here” – he tells me. In the meantime, I ask more details about the history of the village and the construction procedures of the boats. We greet the fishermen and we head to the furniture manufacturing district. The landscape changes quickly. We cross a wide plain, the soil is barren, arid. On the horizon the reinforced concrete pillars for the construction of the third ring, the new highway that will soon pass near here. The ring seems to mark the new boundary of the new territory where the manufacturing district is located. We arrived after about 15min by car. Here is the famous boom!!! Everything I had imagined is now visible, in front of my eyes. A real cluster of houses, hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, transport and above all 20,000 different types of furniture, shoddy goods and many other items for sale.
The urban grid is regular, simple: a large main road and many perpendicular roads that penetrate towards other avenues that stretch as far as the eye can see, a large urban mass that changes depending on the profits and stock market trends on a global scale. I jump into the flow. There do not exist bare walls. They are covered by large plastic images that, all along, cover every inch. The space is full of information, very dense. In order to analyse the data, again I use the Urban Proximity Detector. Without being noticed, I begin my exploration following the first passer-by who is immediately mapped. I walk quickly, I am on the track of his flow. After a few meters he enters a large glass door with an almost transparent Italian writing that says “HOME” accompanied by a series of Chinese ideographs. I meet ancient bodies, bent, moving slowly through the large images. The bodies push heavy weights. They are the bodies that inhabit the nearby villages and that every day they move in the grid. Suddenly, I arrive in a huge open space, a large square from which emerge pavilion shaped large structures covered with mirrors. The bodies get disperse, they are invisible. The flow becomes more rarefied until it becomes non-existent. I walk quietly, along the enormous plain of grey concrete. I walk as if I were in the desert. It is 13.50, the sun is strong, it is very hot. I keep walking, I am the only presence, I am alone in the flow.
1) Population: 3,389,000 inhabitants. Density: 888.7/sqkm (2,301.6/sqm)
2) The market covers an area of about 3 million square metre and includes more than 200 buildings selling modern furniture, such as SunLink Group, Lecong International Furniture Exhibition Center, Shunde Empire Group, Tuanyi Iternazionale del Mobile City, and others. The market extends for over 5kms and is organised in 12 rows and 20 streets. There are over 3,300 domestic and foreign furniture dealers and more than 1,500 furniture manufacturers. Together you can view more than 20,000 types of furniture and products ranging from living room furniture, dining room furniture, lounge furniture, bedroom furniture, kitchen furniture, furniture for hotels, mattresses, furniture for restaurant, chairs, stools, bathroom furniture, sanitary and everything you can imagine to furnish any building.
3) For nearly four years I have been collaborating with the research group Kaitak River in the urban area around NGA Tsin Wai Village in Hong Kong.