Actually, in Beijing, Jens Harder hoped to explore the rapid changes that had transformed China’s capital city from a seemingly endless two-story village into a skyscraper-studded mega-metropolis in just a few years. But once there, the state’s compulsory controls and the artist’s sense of freedom clashed mightily.
At first glance, Jens Harder’s pictures from Beijing show everyday impressions of a tourist in the Chinese capital: A group of girls on a stone circle supposedly symbolising the centre of the earth. People playing go. Animal and human figures on a temple gable. Group photos of Chinese people at the old Beijing city wall. Tourists with selfie sticks. They’re nice impressions, but also a bit unspectacular.
In order to understand why this is so, we have to look behind these images, to see what Harder’s pen was unable to capture. So, let’s ask the artist himself!
Honest voices and facts
Journalists are familiar with the problem of how easy it is to fall into the PR trap these days. Almost all contacts to companies, associations, or politicians are made through press officers who are extremely well trained in shining the best possible light on their employers. At the same time, they persuade the researching journalist that they are being entirely open and are generally extremely helpful when it comes to material procurement.
All of this doesn’t make it easy, even in Germany, to find honest voices and facts that don’t always show just the good sides. But it is possible with a little work and effort. When he was invited to China a few years ago, Harder learned that the situation isn’t the same everywhere.
Wish list for drawing Beijing
The artist was invited to the Drawing Beijing event series, during which he and his colleagues were asked to each deliver one drawing of the city a day for ten days. He hoped to take advantage of the opportunity to research the city’s transformation into a megacity.
“I had sent the organiser a very detailed wish list in advance: I wanted to visit an ordinary school and an ordinary factory and be able to move around there freely, accompanied by an interpreter, and interview people. Then I wanted to meet a number of ordinary people in order to record their personal experiences of the changes in the city – with the major plans for the Olympic bid or the rapid growth of the city in all directions. I was hoping to gain insights into the lives of these people, to tell their stories in relation with all the upheaval – to show negative, but also positive effects.”
Meticulously planned journey
But in China things work differently – especially when it comes to independent research:
“How naïve of me! We weren’t allowed to take one step alone; we were constantly on the move in a large group of up to forty people. Every day was meticulously planned, from breakfast in the hotel around 8:00 a.m. to returning home in the evening around 10:30 p.m. We just kept rubbing our eyes in disbelief at what was happening around us. In terms of the travel itinerary, we were presented with hardly any alternatives at an initial press conference – our only choice was to belong to Team A or Team B, as our group was split up for two or three days to head to a few different smaller destinations. Otherwise, always this huge entourage, always in large, comfortable buses, always sprawling feasts, always with an entertainment programme, for example, a boat trip over an idyllic lake, on which suddenly a Chinese opera singer stood up in one of the boats to sing for us; or an elaborate show, in which our handprints were pressed into large gold stars in order to later make some kind of walk-of-fame out of them.”
Everything remained under surveillance
What Jens Harder relates here reminds this writer of his own press trip to Asia a few years ago. "I went to Taiwan on a fellowship for freelance journalists financed by the Taiwanese state. We also had state-organised day trips with pomp and feasts – albeit with one crucial difference: the few planned excursions were voluntary and we were able to move about the country freely and talk to anyone we wanted during the entire three-month stay."
Harder and his colleagues were denied that possibility: “We asked several times to forego all the luxury and instead be allowed to ride through the city for a relaxing afternoon on rental bikes or to eat outside at a simple cookshop. Nothing doing – safety concerns were brought into play, sanitary regulations, no matter what, the main thing was that everything remained under surveillance.”
Cramped and careless
The conditions, under which the drawings that Harder published in his comic book 'Cities – Empty Places, Crowded Streets' were created, were carefully monitored:
“During our trips, the actual attraction (such as a temple, park, theatre, or Olympic site) was always preceded by guided tours and lectures. Due to the sheer size of the group and all the driving around and talking, about one and a half of the two hours at the site were lost. In the end, we were always told that we now had 20-25 minutes to draw before we started again. And exactly at that moment, when we finally had to ... er … were allowed to open our sketchbooks, the escort group pointed several video cameras, cameras, and smartphones at us. We began hiding from the entourage and playing cat and mouse with them, which unfortunately didn’t help much.”
Harder is aware that these circumstances also had an effect on the quality of the drawings and the choice of subjects:
“As a result of this constantly being displayed and observed, the drawings were rather cramped and careless; it was especially difficult for me to work under these conditions (some of my colleagues were at least more used to an audience than I was because of the live drawing and weren’t as bothered by the circus-like situation). This theatre also had a negative effect on the choice of subjects because when you’re under observation, you tend to choose something obvious or particularly attractive – you don’t even get to the places where there are really interesting sights or where you can make your own discoveries. We always stood where, on a guided tour, the guide would say, ‘Take your photo from here, this is the best angle.’ Our results were therefore often similar in a very unpleasant way, like from a night school drawing course, like a best-of slide show.”
The narrowed gaze
Harder got into the habit of drawing in his hotel room in the evening from photographs and sketches he’d made on site. There was a very practical reason that he had to get to work every evening: he had to deliver.
“Absurdly enough, every evening we had to hand in our drawings in the organiser’s room, who immediately scanned all the pictures in high resolution to forward them to his clients. It was like bringing in the day’s harvest.”
This procedure also explains the noticeable change in style within the series. The more sketch-like drawings are the ones that Harder drew in China. All the others were made later in Harder’s Berlin studio with the help of his extensive photographic material.
“I later also sent all of those pictures to Beijing. Most of them were then published in a large joint catalogue about the project (the only one not included was the three-page comic about the wall, which I made later specifically for my Cities anthology).”
The only subject in Harder’s collection that is undoubtedly critical (the high-rise towers of Chinese state television as a stomping giant trampling the traditional village architecture) didn’t make it into that project catalogue.
“It was my test: to see how they would react.”
His honest assessment today:
“All in all, the working conditions were unbearable and we could almost never avoid them. But all the same, the ten artists and the actual organiser are still in close contact and everyone still raves about the time there. We would even do it all again – probably even I would, but only on certain conditions because I still have a very unpleasant aftertaste from the brazen attempts at instrumentalisation.”
Cités: Lieux vides, rues passantes (French) - August 28, 2019. Publisher: ACTES SUD. Starting at 23 euros.