Article by Peter Walters for That’s Beijing
Silent workers get their moment to shine before the Games begin
The Age newspaper and here on-line. 7th August 2008
THEY line up one by one to have their picture taken. Behind them are the new Olympic stadiums that will define Beijing and China for the decades to come.
But in a twist of perspective, it is not the magnificent steel lattice of the National Stadium’s “Bird’s nest” or the space-age blue bubbles of the “water cube” Aquatic Centre that dominate the picture, but the individual migrant workers whose sweat and blood – at least six workers died during Olympic construction – have created these structures.
British artist Helen Couchman, who has lived in Beijing for 18 months, sneaked on to the Olympic building site over two days and offered to take pictures of any workers willing to pose.
She deliberately used the same background, with the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, for each picture to focus attention on the individual. She returned a few days later to give each worker a print. (A few are anonymous because they could not return or be tracked down).
At first people shuffled around uncertainly, but once the first volunteer stepped up she was inundated. Couchman had to encourage people to get back to work so that she wasn’t ejected from the site.
When she returned to distribute the pictures she got each worker to write down their name, village and province.
The resulting 143 portraits, along with the worker’s signatures – the individual Chinese characters vary from sweeping calligraphy to simple characters – have been published in a book titled Workers (Gongren).
In the pre-Olympics crackdown, Couchman’s first printer decided they could not print the book without government authorisation, the day after the proofs had been approved.
She managed to find another printer willing to take on what she considered to be an apolitical project that celebrated the workers behind Beijing’s Olympic transformation.
The book was launched in Beijing before Couchman flew to London in late June to take part in an international exhibition on China’s new buildings, which included eight of the migrant worker portraits and the book. She was then invited to show the portraits and launch the book in Hong Kong last month.
“The reason for doing the project was I was thinking of Lewis Hine photographing the people who built the Empire State Building in New York and the photos of the Eiffel Tower being built in Paris – these historic cities, captured in their construction, being built by these unknown workers,” Couchman said.
“Back then in New York it would have been migrant workers, the Irish and the Italians . . . here it’s about the migrant workers who have come from all corners of China.
“I wanted the project to be about the people, hence the composition with the worker in the centre of the frame. It (the portrait) becomes a piece of personal family history and will return to the countryside with them . . . that’s what I’m so delighted about, that these photographs have travelled back with these workers to their home villages all over China.
“These people will not see the Olympics, except on television, but from the photograph, a villager in some remote part of China will see that their uncle or aunt, or mother or father, played a key role in the 2008 Olympic preparations.”
Ironically, as part of Beijing’s clean-up, the city’s hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have been sent home for two months.
Update: Tonight Migrant workers who built Olympic Beijing is on the front page of The Age online.
The online producer of the Australian newspaper The Age sent the following link today. Now live on page one online, They Built this City:
Photographer puts faces to the construction of the Games sites
by Ng Tze-wei
South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, Thursday, July 31, 2008 (page 7)
They may have helped build two of the most significant structures in modern Chinese history – the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Centre – for the BJ Olympics, but the thousands-strong workforce has remained faceless. Until now.
A group of 143 men and women from provinces as far away as Gansu and Sichuan posed for British artist Helen Couchman’s latest project, a book called Workers, which attempts to put a face to the mammoth projects.
Before her lens some appear formal while others are nervous; some wear a poker face, but most beam a smile, amused and somewhat proud. The portraits all share the same backdrop – the venues known as the “Bird’s Nest” and the “Water Cube “.
Couchman said much of the news on the BJ Olympics had focused on landmark buildings, but, she reasoned, what about the people who actually welded the intricate steel structures together and put the many pieces in place?
“The Empire State Building and other historic buildings like the Eiffel Tower – we see photographs with [workers] in them, but we are not sure who they were,” said the 35-year-old, who moved to Beijing 19 months ago and has just begun to communicate with the locals in broken Chinese.
“When you photograph people as individuals, they become memorable. They are no longer a group, a mass, an unknown quantity.”
British art critic Peter Suchin writes in the book’s introduction that the way Chinese positions the workers at roughly the same spot for each portrait suggests they can also be seen as “one single portrait, that of `the worker’ engaged in the making of the Place of the Games … the central focus, the essential signifier of the new BJ”.
Couchman, who received her master of fine arts degree from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, said she had always been interested in portraying urban landscapes through various media.
Her previous works in Beijing include collages in ink, and woodblock prints depicting features of a new city, such as high rises and ring roads, using traditional Chinese motifs.
For this project though, her shift in focus had much to do with the hype surrounding the architecture of the two main Olympic venues.
She said she wanted to go back to the fundamental question of what the Games meant to BJ and the nation.
“I’ve always done work about overlooked landscapes,” Couchman said.
“But here everyone is talking about the buildings, the buildings that are going to represent the new China.
“So for me, the workers became the ones who were overlooked.”
Taking the 143 photographs formed only half the project. The other half involved putting the images into a book to provide interesting details of how Couchman carried out her project, and a wealth of information about the workers that lends significance to the artist’s work.
For two days last December, Couchman dodged tight security and sneaked into the construction site of the “Water Cube”, offering to take pictures of workers.
Those who agreed to take part were each promised a copy of the photograph to take home.
So after the pictures were developed, she sneaked back to distribute them.
Those who heard about the return of the foreigner photographer showed up to collect their pictures, and signed Couchman’s “autograph” book.
A handful never came back. Some had already returned home, the other workers said.
She adopted a presentation format reminiscent of Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong’s ‘Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats’, which features signed portraits of nine pairs of soldiers from the mainland and Taiwan.
Each labourer wrote their names on the original prints, and the autographs effectively tell the story of how far the workers travelled and the transient lifestyle they lead as migrant workers.
The details provide the human touch – such as how one wrote her surname in the wrong character and crossed it out, and others who practised writing their names on the backs of their hands first, or with help from friends. They indicate the limited education received by these workers, still the hardest-working toilers at the bottom of the new Chinese social order.
Couchman fully expected workers’ rights to be raised in panel discussions during the book’s launch in BJ this month.
However, she was taken aback by the ferocity of a question on whether her work had glossed over workers’ conditions on the mainland, often cited as an example of the nation developing too recklessly with little regard to the human cost.
“It’s good if my work raises awareness [of workers’ conditions]; however, it was not my reason for starting this project,” Couchman said.
“If I had aimed to make this project about workers’ rights, it would not be what it is.”
‘Workers’ (Gong Ren) will be launched in Hong Kong today. A selection of 55 portraits will be exhibited at ‘Solutions for a Modern City’, from today to Sunday at Park Court, Pacific Place.