The Ragpickers: Precarity and the Artwork in Contemporary China

Join us for the latest in our research seminar series, with speaker Margaret Hillenbrand, Associate Professor of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford.

In recent years, waste has become a dominant signature in visual culture, from the toxic landscapes of Edward Burtynsky to Chris Jordan’s statistical renderings of plastic beverage bottles.

Within these topographies of debris, the human figure often recedes past the vanishing point as waste itself becomes the ascendant pictorial subject – and perhaps no absence is more striking than that of the waste-picker herself. Following Baudelaire and Benjamin, many artists seem to have become chiffoniers instead, scavenging through dumpsters in search of material that can be reclaimed, and redeemed, through art.

This tendency is striking in contemporary Chinese visual culture: artists such as Xu Bing, Wang Qingsong, Jiang Pengyi, Xing Danwen, Han Bing, and others have turned to the arts of assemblage and bricolage to produce works – photography, sculpture and installation – whose focus on the materiality of trash suggests a shift in subject-object relations. In many artworks, waste has begun to supplant – subsume, even – the humans who generate it.

In this talk, Margaret Hillenbrand will argue that the lost voices of China’s waste-pickers are a lack that requires redress in art as well as life. The scavenger is not simply an icon of poverty in the Global South, but a personage in which the condition of our time is crystallized: the ragpicker, as a combinant identity in which waste and precarity meet, is an archetype for our age.

To develop this point, the talk will explore the work of Wang Jiuliang, a documentarist whose recent film Plastic China (2016) reinstates the figure of the scavenger at its aesthetic center by showing that if the poet is often a ragpicker, the ragpicker may also be a poet.

This event is organised by the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies as part of the spring seminar series. It is free to attend and all are welcome.

Image from Plastic China, dir. Wang Jiuliang, 2016.