Where Do Artists Fit Into the Dam Debate?

Kate Ross

"The river showed no mercy. It swallowed the landscape in slow, heaving gulps. The surrounding fields had all but disappeared, digested over the course of the day in a pulpy mass."
- Excerpt from Li Miao Lovett's In the Lap of the Gods.

Artists Respond to Three Gorges: March 14, Berkeley CA
Artists Respond to Three Gorges: March 14, Berkeley CA
Built on the Yangtze River in China, the Three Gorges Dam is the world's largest hydropower project. No single dam has displaced as many people (1.2 million), nor flooded as many cities, towns and villages (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages). Although the dam has already been completed, its problems continue and while the above statistics are staggering, the human stories often get overlooked.

Artists around the world have focused their attention on these individual stories of displacement and used various artistic mediums to convey the feelings of anger, frustration, and hope.

On March 14, International Rivers will commemorate the International Day of Action for Rivers in Berkeley with an evening of music, art and activism. We'll examine the questions:

What role do artists play in mega-development debates such as those swirling around the now completed Three Gorges Dam and other large dams (both proposed and completed) worldwide?

How do they bridge the gap between such projects and those of us not directly impacted by them?

And most importantly, how do they bring out the individual stories that are so often lost in the local and international debates?

Three artists will be joining us to discuss their work and tackle those questions:

  • Linda Butler is an independent art-photographer. Her most recent book, Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake (Stanford University Press, 2004), is an historical document of the Three Gorges Dam project in China. This past March, Linda returned from her ninth trip to China and she now has one of the most extensive collections of before-and-after photographs of the Yangtze River and its shores. She will be sharing these photos and many of her stories in a pre-event reception. 
  • Jeff Kelley was the Consulting Curator of Contemporary Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco from 1998-2008, where he organized the exhibition on the painter Liu Xiaodong ("The Three Gorges Project," 2006). He will be joining the panel discussion to talk about Liu Xiaodong's paintings of the workers who built the dam.
  • Li Miao Lovett is an award-winning author from San Francisco. Her debut novel, In the Lap of the Gods, tells the tale of the Three Gorges Dam as it uproots a million lives, and a poor widower who loses everything. While searching the treacherous river for things to sell, he finds an abandoned baby girl and together they create a new life.

We are also thrilled to have a quartet of young musicians led by Michelle Kwon, a cellist and member of the San Francisco-based Delphi Trio. They will be performing the world premier of Yangtze Journey, a piece of music inspired by this powerful river, and a tribute by the composer to its people.

Newly Displaced Population, 2004
Newly Displaced Population, 2004
Liu Xiaodong, Photo courtesy of Jeff Kelley
This event is an opportunity to explore and experience the creative responses that these artists have taken to the Three Gorges Dam and those displaced by its massive reservoir. It is also an opportunity to examine how artists can transform the rest of us, and be transformed by these displacement-inducing projects. 

Finally and perhaps most powerfully, it is an opportunity to learn about how we can better support riverine communities and find alternatives to mega-dam projects around the world. With China exporting the Three Gorges model overseas into Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, these questions are more pertinent than ever.

As part of the International Day of Action for Rivers, this is just one of the many actions that will be happening around the world in support of our rivers and the rights of those who depend on them. If you are in the Bay Area, I urge you to join us and our amazing partners at the David Brower Center on the evening of March 14 for this incredible event. Stop by for some lively discussion, a chance to learn more about international movement for rivers and rights, and to meet our event partners - Asia SocietychinadialogueFriends of the EarthPacific EnvironmentStanford University Press and Tuolumne River Trust. And who could refuse some dim sum as well?

You can buy discounted tickets right now on our website.

If you're not in the Bay Area, there's still time to plan your own action or join one that's already happening. You can find out about the many actions which have already been planned here. Please remember to email dayofaction@internationalrivers.org with your plans for March 14.

Be Inspired, Get Creative, Take Action!