Hu Fang’s garden
A field for artistic experimentation in the megacity of Guangzhou.
This story began at the Art Basel fair in 2012. During a panel discussion, Zheng Guogu, a Chinese artist, presented a few photos of a field near Guangzhou, in the middle of China’s largest urban conglomeration. This is where China’s industrial explosion started and over 45 million people live today. Probably no land in this polluted country is more contaminated. But on these photos it all looked like paradise. I saw vegetable beds and, in the background, hills and lakes. The pictures were of a new project, Zheng explained, but he wasn’t supposed to talk too much about it. His friend Hu Fang now lived there, he said.
I was baffled. Hu Fang, one of China’s leading artists and intellectual star of the Chinese art world, is now farming land that has the quality of a ploughed rubbish heap? A symbiosis of art and agriculture in China? Did this indicate that a movement was emerging in China akin to that which had altered our idea of agriculture in the West in the 1970s? When agrarian philosophers, hippies and farmers launched the ecological movement that changed how we looked at the land and state? Is such a development now repeating itself in China? But can China even be compared to anything else?
The black limousine softly glides through the premises of the former factory. I’m on my way to Hu Fang. The fog that often veils Guangzhou on such late summer nights is slowly dispersing. At eight in the morning, it’s still quiet in the so-called Creative District. China’s new class of innovative minds is only just getting up.
“Get Rich or Die Tryin’”. Last night, in one of the converted factory halls, a rather chubby young man asked the karaoke band to play this song. He knew it by heart. Two young women leaped up on the stage beside him and danced, in sync, Gangnam Style. The audience roared and the beer flowed profusely on this sticky hot Sunday night in the Creative Industry District, with all its agencies, studios, bars and galleries. On the roof kids swigged bottles of champagne. There were ice cubes. Fashion. Long legs. Laughter. It was like an advert.
Hu Fang has arranged a limousine and my lodgings in the area. As basic course on the current state of Chinese industrialisation. Lesson two is about to follow. Hu Fang and I are planning to do something otherwise reserved for China’s super rich and highest-ranking party officials: to eat food from a privately-owned field. We roll through the gate. Outside there are trailers. Apparently the workers have just completed this “creative park”. The skyline of the commercial district of Guangzhou looks quite formidable in the morning mist. The former city of Canton now has 13.5 million inhabitants. The air conditioner in the car whirs. The driver silently conducts us on towards Shenzhen, where the government started this huge experiment in the early 1980s.
Yesterday’s farmers have been relocated to the world’s largest urban zone.
The hills of Shenzhen, an old fishing town in southern China, near the free trade zone of Hong Kong, were razed and capitalism went wild. The town exploded from 30,000 inhabitants to its current population of 10.5 million: an increase of 34,900% in a little over 30 years. China’s leaders love such figures.
The experiment was expanded: ever more land was levelled or filled in around Shenzhen so that factories could be erected, demolished or enlarged. The region became known as the “workbench of the world”. Along with other megacities, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are now part of the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, a sprawling urban conglomeration with over 45 million inhabitants. So big that L.A. would fit into a small portion of it. Hu Fang tells me that his field lies between Guangzhou and Shenzhen. We’ve already been driving for thirty minutes, but Guangzhou never seems to end. Hard to imagine we’ll find any fields here. Most of the inhabitants of large cities like Shanghai, Wuhan or Beijing were once farmers. They began by planting factories on these new fields, then housing blocks. Others now cultivate the earth, the fields, food. But it’s not clear who.
China’s super rich have their own organic farms. Only a few billionaires and high party officials, it transpires, get their food from these secret and safe, private fields.
Over the past ten years, the People’s Republic has been rocked by food scandals. For the Chinese, it is the biggest everyday problem: people no longer trust food. And independent supervising bodies don’t exist in a dictatorship. Not even for comestibles. Doubts about food products – this is the invisible price the Chinese are paying for the country’s ascent. Invitations to friends’ homes, meals in restaurants, they are all accompanied by doubts: there’s a fear of poisons, fakes and scams. And these doubts really take it out of you. Nobody can help you. No god or government. No advice from friends or food-testing app on your smartphone. In the end, you alone decide what you eat.
The car cuts through the endless urban expanse. After an hour the buildings are lower; the road, smaller – only four-lane. A donkey cart. Trees. We turn left.
A boom is raised, a security guard wearily waves us through to a small village. There’s a lake full of water lilies. Pensioners, who all seem to be moving in slow motion, stroll around it. Guwei New Village is only a few years old and the product of compulsory relocation. Farmers were forced to make way for new buildings and resettled in housing blocks here.
We stop in front of a small terrace house. And Hu Fang. In a blue-and-white striped French navy sweater. He is slender and has short hair. A round face and broad cheekbones.
“Lovely you’ve come!” He smiles. “It was a long way, wasn’t it? Come in!” I had asked him if we might cook a meal together. Test what he harvests from his field. Experiment together. He replied that it was all just beginning. But that I should come, of course. The garage door conceals an art space with sculptures. The back wall is filled with simple bookshelves. We go upstairs. Not only here, but throughout the house, there are all kinds of artworks hanging, leaning and lying about. An electric guitar is propped against the wall of the guest room on the first floor. The house looks brand new. A workroom contains Apple laptops and computers. At the very top, under the open skies, there’s the terrace kitchen. “We’ll cook here later,” says Hu Fang, “when we get back from the field. But let’s have breakfast first and then go to the covered market. Can you ride a bike?”
What in the world made Hu Fang move to this village? “I grew up in the city, but every family in China, if you go back before modernisation, has its roots in agriculture. The current changes in society are a challenge for people. The big question for me is to figure out exactly what “modernisation” means. People often just equate it with urbanisation…” Outside it starts raining.
“I’ve often heard that in China today nobody wants to be a farmer anymore,” I say.
“But what are we today ?” Hu Fan looks at me quizzically. “I always try to focus on this one issue: we need to work out how we are actually living. We live in a society that concentrates on the material aspects of its surroundings.” Hu Fang believes that by doing so people misjudge the true situation. Material things embody something substantially more real. Art is a practice through which we can train our perception for this reality. And eating is an artistic practice, a technique for perceiving reality. “For instance, why do we in China have what we call a food culture? Why is food more than just something material? Why isn’t it just something to fill our bellies? I believe that the materiality of food is just a gateway for entering into something else. Food has an entirely different, non-material level that is essential to life.”
“But what does Guwei New Village have to do with all this?”
“In China you live in a constant state of alarm,” comments Hu Fang. “Nothing lasts in this rush of change. Which is why you need to develop a way of life that can deal with change. … When we see how people in the village are cultivating their small green plots, we realize they have found a way to carry on their culture.” The resettled farmers try to plant and re-naturalise small fields in the green areas of this town that was planned on the drawing board.
The whole point of the project, Hu Fang goes on to say, is to achieve a new mind set. “In China, many of the things that concern us on a daily basis have nothing to do with building our lives in the here and now or erecting even sturdier walls. Rather it is about understanding how we might best proceed when needed. This is where Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching comes in. This ancient philosophic work revolves around the phenomenon of change. The only thing that is stable is constant change. So people have to work on not blocking their energies but on channelling them or navigating their way through them. And today, it is exactly this that has become important again.”
The rain subsides. Hu Fang watches the farmers driving the livestock past us: “Think about the change caused by the industrialisation of agriculture and how it has also changed the tasks of those who work the land. It has altered the structure of the village and its social fabric. The cultural significance of the land extends beyond its function of filling people’s bellies.”
“Are you saying that our identity, our role in society, starts with the land?” Hu Fang takes some omelette. “We are in the middle of an industrialisation process that turns land into factories. Or into an object of speculation – in order to maximise profits. It means we’re losing land. And with it the ground we stand on.” The rain is over. I ask if we are going to his field now. Hu Fang nods. But first we’ll buy some meat and fruit at the market. Then we leave Guwei New Village and cross a six-lane road. We come into a green park-like area.
A young assistant of Hu Fang cycles past. She proudly shows us what she has harvested: a sachet of fennel seeds. We ride through a nature reserve. Fields, nurseries, bike paths, clean, new, fenced lakes. Birds twittering, silence, clouds. The air is heavy with an odour, sweetish, green-smelling. We stop briefly. “Take a look at this pile of rubbish,” says Hu Fang. “There’s rubbish everywhere here, people think it’s part of the soil.”
In the middle of the nature reserve we stop at a construction site where workers are building several impressive villas. “We’re here!” Hu Fang gets off his bike. A friend, who had made a fortune with a chain of restaurants for large events, offered them the field – Hu Fang isn’t exactly sure how it had been possible, but his friend had bought this land in the middle of the nature reserve for his holidays.
“We thought about his offer for about a year and a half. Ultimately we realized it would raise a lot of interesting questions if we were to grow something exactly at this location – without trying to maximise what we got out of the soil. We want to train our perceptual capacities. To do so it is important to find a real basis, real ground from which to judge things.” At first glance Vitamin Creative Space’s field is hardly noticeable. A few furrows, a wood gate and a wood frame, which is just lying there, mark off an area the size of a handball court.
“Seeing how all the plants are interrelated here, this garden might be considered a kind of community,” says Hu Fang. “Farming and gardening are about establishing some form of communication with the plants and the soil. For me, this is where they connect to people’s living conditions. A factor we tend to ignore these days. We overlook how we have evolved out of the earth, how we “grow”. We have lost touch with the soil. We no longer know where we come from. When we work in this field, we have to learn to coexist with the ground here.”
Hu Fang gestures towards the field. “Our project is about developing a more organic perspective. To come into contact with the ground without having to make it produce anything. We do some gardening and observe how it shapes our perception. This ground here is not something abstract.”
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I’m gradually beginning to understand that on his field Hu Fang is trying to develop a philosophy for society based on the process of gardening. I ask him if it has anything to do with the label “bio” or “organic”. He says it doesn’t. “As labels bio and organic are merely the promise of individuals. As soon as business factors in, they often become empty promises. They turn into propaganda, advertising, and disintegrate into thin air.” The “bio” model is based on continuing exactly the kind of buying and selling that has taken us so far away from the soil. “But what if doing things organically turned out to be a way of restructuring your life? A way of becoming independent of the system?” Food produced from an organic perspective should have some kind of connection to the earth, and not simply be a food free of pesticides.
Hu Fang points to a piece of meadow, farther below, right next to the entrance. That’s where his field will be transferred once his friend’s holiday home has been completed. He plans to divide the land in thirds: a garden, a kitchen in the middle and, adjacent to it, a library with exhibition space.
But what if doing things organically turned out to be a way of restructuring your life?
In China it seems to have become fashionable to combine food and thought. I’ve often observed this. On the field planned by Hu Fang, the two are to come together in the kitchen.
“Our idea was,” Fang continues, “to not interrupt the flow between these different activities. The kitchen functions as a link between the places needed here. You might be able to understand our project better if you take a look at recent Chinese history. During the Cultural Revolution, the state forced intellectuals to move to rural areas. For many Chinese intellectuals the countryside became a site of terror. When our field first opened, my friend Zheng Guogu laughed. He said that the time had arrived for intellectuals to move to the country voluntarily.”
Hu Fang points to some eggshell in the soil. “We want to simultaneously test different methods of cultivation. This part of the field is fertilised with compost. Our first question is: How can we revitalise the earth, make the ground fertile again? Here the earth is so hard from intense cultivation and chemicals, it appears frozen. What you see here is the outcome of nearly a year and a half of reactivation. We need to concentrate on the earth.”
I ask Hu Fang where he got these methods from. “We flew to Austria, to a mountain farmer named Sepp Holzer.” Hu Fang chuckles. “At first I was shocked when I saw his fields. Everything looked so … (he points to a particularly weedy patch). But then Josef, Holzer’s son, who now tends the farm, started giving us some basic information about the land and the countryside. You begin to realize that everything you pick at their place is edible. It shows how great the influence of humans can be. At the same time, everything there is based on letting Nature take its course. The level of harmony is different from what we had learned to strive for.”
At about 6:30 we bike back to Hu Fang’s studio. Once we reach Hu Fang’s roof, we begin to wash and cut the vegetables.
The Chinese artist received help from a mountain farmer in Austria.
“I believe we are living in a time when people are beginning to realize how changes in nutrition affect our bodies,” says Hu Fang, as he starts preparing some dishes. “Food is a metaphor for the physical life of humans, for the quality of our lives.”
“If food is a metaphor for the quality of our lives, then you’re making a very comprehensive demand,” I remark.
“True,” Hu Fang replies. “Another issue is how to get individuals to participate in a community voluntarily, without any pressure or the fear that individualism might weaken the community. If we think of China’s food culture, of the social upheaval happening today, then I find it interesting that at this very moment a food movement is gaining strength that is also attractive to young people.”
He scrapes the bottom of the pan in which meat, ginger and chillies are sizzling, and then turns down the flame. “People tend to just focus on themselves. All that matters to them is their own safety. That’s also the way it is with certain people in the government who operate their own private organic farms. What I ask myself is: how can we regain our understanding of food as a daily dialog between ourselves and the world, and not as an expression of a hierarchical structure? After all, this is why organic foods should be cheaper. Yet because they’re branded … ,” he continues frying, while putting everything else away, “… they’re more expensive.” The solution is not to be found in the products themselves, but in an approach to nutrition that allows everyone to participate.”
“You mean you think it’s a weakness that the organic food system in the West has developed into an industry that merely wants to replace the preceding system?” I ask him.
“Exactly,” answers Hu Fang, “such a system can degenerate all too easily into a strategy – and no longer attend to the actual goals.”
Leading a moral life while renouncing luxury?
“But the system is just beginning to gain people’s trust,” I say.
“It’s not about my trusting anyone,” says Hu Fang. “Rather it’s a matter of whether you can trust the land and the food. Instead of developing a system of trust between people – a system that is much too susceptible to power and strategy –, people should build up trust between themselves and the land, the soil.” Wet green leaves are sizzling in the pan. Bowls of food are accumulating on the table.
“So your strategy is to build up trust in the soil?”
“It’s not a strategy”, says Fang, “but a goal. It’s a matter of content. If you can relate to the soil, then you can get back to yourself and the question of what you really need. It’s like when you’re ill. What is initially more important? To understand your illness or to set up a social network with other patients? No illness can be cured by our being part of a network. It is always about an individual problem and whether we are willing to take it on.”
“Farming is not just a means of producing food, but also an aesthetic and spiritual approach to life. It ultimately leads to the cultivation of human beings.” Hu Fang included this quote from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in a letter.
“We have to take time for this option. Nature can become part of the way we think. However, if we make the organic our strategy, it could become a trap and prolong the present situation. Because in doing so we would lose touch with the actual content, with our demands. The goal is structural change, not the preservation of an existing structure.”
It is slowly getting dark. “There’s also another aspect in Chinese culture. As Confucius says in one of his books: “I would rather have no fish than a home without bamboo.” Bamboo stands for a moral life. So this saying also means: I would rather lead a moral life and renounce the luxury of eating fish.” Hu Fang turns towards me, puts two bowls on the table and serves me soup. “Should we get some beer?” I ask. “Good idea,” Hu Fang says, and opens the fridge.
Hao Liang, Secluded and Infinite Places, ed. by Hu Fang (bilingual edition: Chinese/English), Sternberg Press & The Pavilion.
Hu Fang, Dear Navigator, (collection of ten short stories), The Pavilion, 2014.
Hu Fang is one of China’s leading contemporary artists. He is the author of several science-fiction novels and head of Vitamin Creative Space, which is more of a think tank than a gallery; Zheng Guogu is also a member. Hu Fang co-founded the art space in the late 1990s and it was the first of its kind in China to be invited to show its work at the very selective Art Basel fair. Vitamin Creative Space is known for its experiments. The motto of one of its blogs is “intangible cultural activity in china”.
Agriculture – or the cultivation of land to produce plants or raise animals - is the source of most of the food we buy. Agriculture has been practised for about 10,000 years, first in the Middle East, then in other parts of the world. It probably began with the domestication of certain plants...