I’m gazing upon the “six major rivers in Kunming”.
The map was made by an ancient hydrologist (Huang Shijie) in Qing Dynasty. In the map, Huang illustrated the major rivers and their branches around Kunming, detailed their sources, which later became a reference for later generations.
Now I’m gazing upon the map. The yellowish paper and the ancient map itself catalyze a sudden nostalgia in me. It sounds like the map was about my hometown, Kunming, as I could clearly find out the city and Dianchi Lake, which is the largest lake to the southwest of Kunming. I could somewhat find out some river branches and some places, but I could hardly figure out where many places are – the wall of the city had been dismantled in the 20th century, and the city itself had grown to a size way more than in Qing Dynasty. A similar scenario happened on finding out the ancient river channels. Among the ancient channels, the Baoxiang River and the Maliao River had only left part of its branches; the Haiyuan River and the Jinzhi River had partly gone underground; the Yinzhi River had been directed into the city’s drainage system and therefore disappeared. Despite numerous alterations on the smaller river branches, the Panlong River had remained. The Panlong River is the largest river in Kunming. And probably because of that, its waterway had been best preserved, even including some ancient bridges. However, even being the best-preserved river, the landscapes along the river has been changed drastically. As a result, the city of Kunming today is totally a different world compared to the photos taken in the late Qing Dynasty. Fortunately, the ancient city had been nicely documented on the map; therefore we would have a chance to access it even hundreds of years later. Through representing the city in maps, the ancient city space has been taken out of its time constrain and stand on its own. In other words, space has conquered time through setting up such representation.
However, such conquest comes with a price. While the time dimension is removed, space is fixed in its representation. Therefore many instantaneous, vibrant moments and activities have become lines and boundaries in a two-dimensional surface; or a deterministic and even materialistic representation. Any possibilities I can trace back these sparkling moments? Probably not, as the time always moves on. I can neither trace back to the ancient space, nor to any spaces that had ever lived in. Consequently, the ancient space illustrated on the map should not be my hometown. And my emerging nostalgia could only be a self-reflection.
Nevertheless we have to accept the constantly changing nature of space, and therefore space could never be fully represented. No space could be represented without a time dimension. In such a sophisticated time-space complex, how can we define the present? In order to answer this question, I started investigating the time and space and their interactions through naming the Panlong River.
The Panlong River is less than 100 km in length, and is the cradle of Kunming’s civilization. When I was young, I used to search for its source. Although all my trials failed, my known territory had expanded drastically through numerous searching experiences. Instead of imaginary spaces on the ancient map, now the streets and rivers became real places that I had visited. I can still remember the scenes while I was searching the sources of the river, like rice paddies lying by the endless concrete road and beside the water. I thought the landscape could be there forever as described in the Bible: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever”. As I grown up, the city has expanded to almost twice its size. Within these few decades, the previous rice paddies rapidly turned into houses and then skyscrapers. The change in space is so rapid that I could not even know whether the place still exists without a timeframe. The only thing that that remains in the region is the Panlong River.
The river originates from the mountain ridges to the north of Kunming. Streams run down from the mountain forests; join with many other branches and pass through the rice paddies; flow through the suburbs; across the Kunming city; and finally flow into Lake Tien. With the flowing of the river, the spaces upstream and downstream are sequenced into a timely order. The sequential space alone the river also illustrates a metaphor in parallel -- forests to farmlands, farmlands to suburbs, and suburbs to cities; similar to the landscape evolution in time. And the only thing that remains unchanged could be the river itself.
However, in geological timescale, even the river evolves naturally. The river could have never existed in the Permian system. Millions of years ago, the place where Kunming is could have been an ocean basin. With millions of years’ evolution, the oceanic crust uplifted into continents; mountains were built; and then rivers were formed. As evidence of the geological evolution, fossils of marine lives could be found in the limestone on Snake Mountain, implying the mountain used to be underwater. Today, the limestone is mined as a raw material for making concrete. Concrete was used to build up the city. As such, materials of various origins were added into space. As time goes by, more and more multiplicities were added.
Materials from various time points multiply into one space. Therefore different time points could be traced today in a spatial format. For example, along the naturally evolving river, I found the rock with fossils lying beside the water habitat for today’s snails; I discovered the ancient arch bridges on the river next to concrete bridges; I witnessed the old buildings standing side by side of new skyscrapers. The durable materials could trace the longer time in the past. In contrast, the endurable materials could only represent a relatively short period and then disappear. I think this is why the past could never be represented accurately on a map. However, I could meet the present with traces of the past in various time-snaps.
I meet the present Panlong River, with all the traces from the past. It is like my irreversible path of life encounters the time and space of the river. Now the river is no longer lines and boundaries in the map, but a river flowing in front of me -- the river that is crystal clear during dry seasons, and muddy during wet seasons; the river that could sometimes flood the rice paddies, the concrete roads and the city. I finally trace the river to its source, looking at water running down the mountains. From then on, the stream will merge with many other streams; and finally become the Panlong River -- the river that flows through my life.
Within the path of the river, I meet with other people. We all accidentally run into the space and time that the river reaches. The good shepherd told me the legends in the local dialect. The bee seeker pulled me out from the turbulent water, and walked with me in the jungles along the river. The retired truck driver played the old songs using his saxophone. The veteran steered at the flowing water with his dog. The former farmer whose land was lost due to urbanization started working in the construction site. My friend who is a geologist and I went to seek the fossils from Cambrian outcrops. We all have different life paths, and we meet along the river. Our life paths, the changing environments, and the constant evolving river together build up the present.
Finally, the present is illustrated through interweaving space and time. Space is modulated as time goes, and time is represented by various traces in space. This sophisticated space-time complex illustrates the present. And the present emerges in my life. I finally could project the river within my lifetime and my living quarters as most personal pieces. These pieces of my treasure are specimens of the river in various time/space dimensions. They interweave and consolidate into the Panlong River-- a river of space, a river of time.
"Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics", © ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, 2020. photo: Tobias Wootton
"UN/CONVENTIONAL" © OCAT Shanghai, Shanghai,2020
"Notes on Region" © Contemporary Gallery Kunming, Kunming, 2018
"The Imaginations of a Museum" © J-Gallery, Shanghai, 2018