Beijing's trash art

Beijing's trash art

Beijing's trash art

Updated 5 January 2012, 12:45 AEDT

A new exhibition in Beijing is making treasure out of trash and challenging criticism of China's modern art movement that it's become too safe.

Award winning photographer Wang Jiuliang has spent the last year turning his lens on the Beijing's garbage dumps.

The result is an exhibition titled "Besieged by Garbage" - an accurate description for Beijing, which is surrounded by sprawling piles of trash and effluent.

The city's waste management infrastructure is only equipped to handle around half the 18,000 tonnes of garbage its residents produce each day.

Beijing's garbage output is also growing at 8 percent a year, though few new treatment facilities are being built.

Authorities, in their latest attempts to control the smell, have had to resort to shooting fragrant bombs into the garbage pits that neighbour the new housing developments springing up on the city fringes.

And as the city's bureaucrats try to find a way to deal with the problem, rubbish continues to accumulate in the mostly illegal, rubbish dumps that ring Beijing.

Over the last year, Wang Jiuliang has visited and tagged 500 of them using GPS coordinates.

He says the dumps have provided him with a perfect canvass to create a disturbing picture of China's quickly changing society.

"Nobody else is interested in places like this, except for garbage scavengers who come here to make their living," he said.

"Who else would be interested in garbage dumps? But no matter how bad it smells here and how dirty it looks, someone's got to face up to the reality of these places."

After a year photographing the dumps, Wang's pictures are now being exhibited at one of Beijing's most respected galleries.

The photographs lay bare some of China's most sensitive subjects, it's degraded environment, the gap between rich and poor and the change in traditional Chinese values of thrift.

But getting the exhibition up and running hasn't been easy.

"There have been some obstacles. Certain businessmen protested against what we are doing here," said Wang.

"But if we believe we are doing the right thing, we should be persistent."

Wang says he hopes those that visit the exhibition don't view his photos as art.

"I'd rather be regarded as a social commentator than a photographer. I think if photography or art is isolated from reality, it will lose its power."

"For my exhibition, I don't want anyone to look at it as an art. It is a very straightforward reality," he said.

"If you are numb in the face of that reality, or if you're trying to appreciate it from an artistic perspective ahead of that reality, then first of all, I have failed."

Nonetheless, those who are backing the exhibition say Wang is an important artist.

The exhibition's curator, Li Xianting, is generally regarded as one of the fathers of Chinese modern art, fostering many of the big names that put China on the international art scene in the 90's.

He says he thinks the Chinese art movement has lost its way, giving the market what it wants instead of setting its own agenda.

"In the beginning, Chinese modern art was in step with society. It constantly criticised society and reminded society of reality."

"But since the year 2000, Chinese art became rapidly commercialised, and began selling for really high prices at the auctions and that caused a change in Chinese art."

"So lately, I've been trying hard to pull Chinese modern art back to facing social realities."

As word of Wang's project has spread in the local media, his art has already created an impact.

His works have touched a nerve with many Chinese urbanites, and not just in Beijing, whose lives have been directly impacted by the growing piles of rubbish in their cities.

Wang says Beijing's government has responded, inviting him to share his views with them and has made sanitation a priority.

Whether or not his work ends up on the walls of serious art collectors, Wang feels he's already achieved his aim.

"I don't want to comment on other artists, but what real art should do, in my opinion, is to be a means of pushing social change."