Thirty WORKERS 工人 portraits
You are cordially invited to the opening ceremony for the ‘Heyi 798 Art Project’ at three p.m on April 8th 2012, to be held at the Heyi Hotel.
Address: Yihe Hotel, 9 Jiuxianqiao Lu, east side of the Dashanzi Road junction, Chaoyang District, Beijing.
The ‘Heyi 798 Art Project’ is an art project of a new type and the highest quality. Gabriela Salgado independent curator, formally of the Tate Modern, London has generously agreed act as a consultant for the project. Close on a hundred renowned artists will be in attendance and original works of all types and styles will be on show. Ten artists have been invited to create special pieces for the show, site-specific works adapted to the surroundings of the Yihe Hotel. In the tradition of art interventions in public space, a venue that is normally traveller’s respite will have a close-up encounter with the world of art.
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This little snippet of a short has shown up on You Tube. It was broadcast as an official Beijing 2008 Image of the Day during the Olympics.
It is commonly known as the Bird’s Nest but Beijing’s National Stadium is more than a name. It is a testament to the hundreds of migrant workers who toiled long and hard to make it a reality. See the book that celebrates their achievement. 13th August 2008
This morning I notice that ‘The Book Bench’ in the The New Yorker magazine have covered WORKERS 工人. See the brief article titled WORK UNIT here or read below.
Under Loose leafs from the New Yorker Books Department this article was published on the 19th June.
Last December, the photographer Helen Couchman shot portraits of a hundred and forty-three Chinese laborers at the construction sites of the two most iconic buildings of the Beijing Olympics, the National Stadium (a.k.a. the Bird’s Nest) and the National Aquatics Center (a.k.a. the Water Cube). According to the publisher of her new book, “Gong Ren” (“Workers”), she was able to bypass the authorities and approach her subjects individually—a feat that seems extraordinary, given the government’s intense micro-management of what is essentially the nation’s global coming-out party.
As Paul Goldberger noted in a recent review, these new Olympic monuments were “made possible partly by the presence of huge numbers of low-paid migrant workers”; the construction crew for the Bird’s Nest alone “numbered nine thousand at its peak.” He expressed reservations about the price exacted for the sky line’s glory:
In both conception and execution, the best of Beijing’s Olympic architecture is unimpeachably brilliant. But the development also exemplifies traits—the reckless embrace of the fashionable and the global, the authoritarian planning heedless of human cost—that are elsewhere denaturing, even destroying, the fabric of the city.
A slide show of images of the buildings is online; Couchman’s book launch will be celebrated at the Beijing Bookworm tomorrow night.
Helen Couchman and her book Workers
In December 2007, during her second extended visit to Beijing, Helen Couchman photographed a large group of migrant workers building venues for the Olympic Games. She published the photos in a book entitled “Workers.”
“I think it’s a historical moment for this country, so the people participating make the thing happen. People who are central to the happening should have a record and be sort of proud of what they’ve done.”
“Workers” is Couchman’s first published book. As her subjects, the English photographer chose the migrant laborers who built the National Stadium, or Bird’s Nest, and the Water Cube, the two grandest venues of the upcoming Beijing Olympics.
There are 143 portraits in her book. She asked each worker to stand in roughly the same spot with the Olympic stadium and swimming venue clearly in view behind them. Each worker looks calmly, confidently and directly into Helen’s lens.
An important feature of these photographs is that, irrespective of their archival value, they were taken without the approval of local authorities. Helen simply asked the workers themselves if they would let her photograph them. She did not introduce herself, nor did she know whether her Chinese was good enough to communicate with them. To her surprise, the workers’ responses were very positive.
Couchman talks about what impressed her the most when she took the photos.
“I was really taken by their enthusiasm. I really enjoyed the positivity. Something interesting for me was I knew that handwriting is important in China, but I didn’t realize in a way how important. People took great pride in writing their addresses and names beautifully. And they felt their handwriting wasn’t good enough. They had conversations with friends who they thought could write them well and asked them to write for them.”
A worker helping to build the Bird’s Nest
Besides each portrait what also in the book are the workers’ signatures and the provinces where they are from. Some are from Sichuan Province, and some are from Henan Province.
Helen gave each worker a copy of their photo for them to keep or send home to their families.
John Pauline from Australia is one of the lead architects on the Water Cube. He has been working on the project for more than three years.
Pauline has seen many publications about the Olympic venues in Beijing. He says Couchman’s book is quite special.
“What impresses me most is unlike other books of the Olympics or stories about Olympics, it’s not about the athletes. It’s not the buildings, and it’s not about Beijing. It’s about people. That’s wonderful to take the shift of attention from the worldwide audience and just focus on the physical hand of the workers who have built these wonderful buildings, who are going to be largely responsible for making the Beijing Olympics a success.”
Wang Kan is a doctor of Laws at the Renmin University of China. Wang has been helping migrant workers on a program arranged by his university. He believes that they deserve respect.
Wang says Couchman’s book gives them that respect. He talks about one photo that especially caught his attention.
“There is a photo about a female worker. She smiles on the photo and she looks very proud of herself. I think for me I like this photo because it shows a construction side. We believe construction is only for men. But you see women there. They enjoy the same happiness as the male workers. That shows more like equal culture between Chinese men and Chinese women.”
As the Olympics is drawing near, Helen wishes that this book will be a great gift for this grand event.
The four workers are on the same page of this page, each of whom with a smile on their faces
A signature of one worker and his hometown
Interview at: http://firstname.lastname@example.org
Beijing book launch of WORKERS 工人
Panel discussion and book signing
Speakers: Helen Couchman, Stacey Duff, art critic for Time Out Beijing (US), Wang Kan NGO Director of ZXD (China), John Pauline, PTW Architects (Australia), moderated by Jeremiah Jenne, Qing Dynasty historian.
The Bookworm, 20th June 2008
John Pauline – director, PTW Architects, Wang Kan – secretary general, China On Action, Stacey Duff – writer and art critic, Time Out, Helen Couchman – artist.
7.30pm at The Bookworm, Building 4, Sanlitun Nan Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing