Journeying along the historic structure, the photographer captures the reality of life as it is today, played out in its shadow
Since the 2016 publication of her photobook, titled Aeronautics in the Backyard (by Netherlands-based The Eriskay Connection), Xiaoxiao Xu has occupied an interesting position in contemporary Chinese photography. At the age of 15, she left her home in China and relocated to the Netherlands; thus her perspective of the land of her birth is a multi-layered and engaging one. This is also true of her latest book Watering my Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall. With an established interest in traversing the boundaries of dreams and reality, her newest publication (released last year, also with The Eriskay Connection) teases out a subtle and complex visualisation of ‘the Long Wall’ – the Great Wall of China. Contrary to popular belief the Wall is not a single continuous construction, but rather a collection of walls and towers built throughout a number of ancient Chinese dynasties. As it moves through the narrative, Xu’s project weaves and dismantles preconceptions of the impressive structure, while taking stock of the reality of living in its shadow.
Throughout the book, there is an underlying yet tangible awareness of the artist coming to terms with her connection to the myths surrounding the Great Wall. This is accompanied by the stark social and economic realities Xu is presented with. “As a child, I often heard how glorious the Wall is,” she tells me. “But during my journey I discovered that it is merely a ruin. Some people who live there think the Great Wall is a useless old thing. They let the sheep graze there and they sow vegetable fields on it. The Wall is like an old man, a witness of time, it is decaying, and it will disappear one day. There is something lonely about it. Somehow loneliness and emptiness appeal to me.”
This is just one aspect to Xu’s approach. We see the crumbling remains of the iconic Wall, but also moments of staggering beauty and the snatched perfection of life being played out at its foot. Along the way, Xu photographs children filling their spare hours with play, farmers hunched over carrying heavy loads in their fields, old monuments incongruously used as backdrops for daily life, and ancient ceremonies being conducted. The layers of the storytelling are accompanied by handwritten texts of local folk tales and traditions by the Wall’s caretakers. Xu explains, “Wall caretakers are villagers who have devoted their lives to prevent damage. Their ancestors built the Wall and they see it as their duty to protect it. During the journey, the sites and traditions I witnessed constantly gave me the feeling that I was travelling through time.”
Xu’s immersive book is replete with cinematic landscapes and entrancing portraits. It is a richly layered story of historical and mythological narratives, played out amongst the challenges, vibrancy and richness of everyday rural life in the long shadow of the Great Wall.