Drawing Lessons from Dams and Displacement

Katy Yan
Carpenter in front of his home, before and after it was demolished
Carpenter in front of his home, before and after it was demolished
Linda Butler, 2001 and 2003

"Art goes around our neatly arranged arguments. Art allows us to see beauty, feel joy and anger. Art doesn't follow a party line, but punches us in the stomach when we least expect it."- Peter Bosshard, opening of Artists Respond to Three Gorges.

For the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest and most (in)famous dam, you could throw around some impressive facts and figures and everyone would shake their heads at them:

  • 1.3 million people displaced and 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages submerged
  • 12% of resettlement funds embezzled by corrupt officials
  • Up to $88 billion spent to build the project and deal with the environmental aftermath
  • A reservoir that could stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles

While the list goes on, what moves the heart is not data. It's the stories and images of those most affected by the project and by the displacement and destruction it induced.

On Monday night, three artists and art experts brought us a bit closer to understanding the experiences and forgotten stories behind the Three Gorges Dam.

Musicians perform Yangtze Journey by Jeff Fallen
Musicians perform Yangtze Journey by Jeff Fallen
After a moving musical tribute to the Yangtze River and its people performed by a quartet of SF Conservatory of Music graduates, each of the speakers allowed us to witness through their eyes the changes wrought by Three Gorges Dam on the environment and its people:

  • Jeff's photos of the artist Liu Xiaodong painting Hotbed showed a group of workers playing cards at the spot that would soon be submerged by the raising reservoir behind their backs. His paintings and subsequent the films his work inspired showed how art could be an indirect, under-the-radar, and incredibly powerful form of protest.
  • Linda's extensive archive charted the journey of one carpenter and his family from 2001 to 2010, a journey that involved the completion of a house built by his own hands, to the destruction of that house a few years later, and the complete isolation of being stuck on the banks of the Yangtze without employment or (for a long time) any recourse. On the flip side, her photos showed the carpenter's daughter go from village teen to a rising urbanite in Chongqing.
  • Li Miao's reading of a peasant revolt at a new dam upstream of Three Gorges reminded us of both the power in numbers and the ongoing threat of large dams to China's rivers and riverine communities.

Jeff Kelley, Linda Butler and Li Miao Lovett answering a question from the audience.
Jeff Kelley, Linda Butler and Li Miao Lovett answering a question from the audience.
According to Li:

"The impact of any one artist is a drop in the bucket, but it's these drops that wear away the stone over time."

The same happens when one action in one part of the world acts like a ripple, inspiring actions the world over, as we saw on the 2011 International Day of Action for Rivers, and as we've seen with the protests in the Middle East. That unity in voice and numbers is what can turn human tragedy into a global movement for river protection and social change.

More information: 
  • For more pictures from the event, see the slide show of our Flickr set.