Urban Demolition and the Aesthetics of Recent Ruins in Experimental Photography from China


Xavier Ortells-Nicolau

PhD defended at: 

Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona



In reform era China, demolition and rubble have become unavoidable presence in most major cities. Reifying “the menace to the city and its memory” (Yomi Braester), demolition has attracted many artists and filmmakers, who have incorporated it in their works. This dissertation contributes to recent studies of the ruin imaginary in Chinese art and visual culture, and to the emerging body of literature on Chinese photography with an analysis of experimental photographers who have engaged with urban demolition.

The predominance of the theme of urban demolition responds, first and foremost, to the fact that urban rubble has been ubiquitous, enduring and highly visible. In this sense, this dissertation sketches the institutional and legal framework regulating land development in China, to account for the particular dynamics responsible to the emergence and visibility of ruinous landscapes. At the same time, the focus on artistic experimentalism serves to focus on the ways in which the different artists have transformed demolition sites into ruins, going beyond a documentary or activist depiction of demolition. In this sense, the dissertation also partakes in the current transdisciplinar revision of ruins studies, which foregrounds the constructedness of ruins as a discourse and critical category.

The dissertation examines over 40 photographic series spanning from the early 1990s to the present, detects their aesthetic and discursive strategies, and divides them in different chapters according to their chronological sequence, and the commonalities in their approach to demolition. In addition to the immediate context of contemporary photography from China, the dissertation also explores the connections of contemporary photographic projects with the long aesthetical tradition around the ruin, and in particular with pioneering photo-conceptualist artists of the post-war period who rekindled its artistic value in tune with the contemporary context of mass-production and consumption.

After analyzing the different photographic works, the dissertation highlights conceptualism, performativity, and digital technologies as the main strategies for the creation of ruins. It also posits a temporal evolution in the style and attitude of the artists, with an exploration of the newest photographic works on demolition concurrent with the writing of this work.