Book Review: RongRong's Diary, Beijing East Village
Beijing’s Experimental-Art scene is disappearing. Gentrification is taking over what were once burgeoning places for artists to live and work, and turning them into cultural dominions. Year after year, Chinese police are raiding art districts, disguising their actions as the government’s effort against organized crime, displacing the artists that live in them, erasing the traces of their presence and ultimately breaking down the Chinese artistic network and sense of community.
Beijing East Village located on what was then the outskirts of Beijing, was a home for many young radical artists, notably performers and photographers. Their experimentalism wasn’t always respected by neighbors or the authorities, and it didn’t take much time until they would intervene, arrest the artists and evict them from their homes. RongRong returned to the East Village in 2002, after it had been evacuated and recorded what he saw in his diary; "Nothing familiar met my eyes—the entire village had been turned into a vacant lot. I walked and walked on the open ground as if looking for some lost treasure. All I could find were a few trees from the past, standing in isolation and facing a forest of high rises in the distance…" What then is left, of places like Beijing East Village and the radical art that was produced in it?
The memory of these community spaces live in the artists which created them. RongRong created a photobook called Rong Rong’s Diary which portrays, in black and white photographs, a unique community of artists coming together in one place to live and create according to their own rules. RongRong was one of the many artists who lived in Beijing East Village and who recorded performances by his friends with his 35mm camera. The book navigates Bejing’s East Village through his photographs, diary bits and a few correspondences with his sister. The collaboration of text and image works to reflect the artist’s emotional journey and adds a deeply engaging dimension to his photographs. It exposes us to what kind of place it was; squalid and desolated yet full of life and artistic expression. Beijing East Village creates a permanent, poignant and enlightening personal narrative of a place; Beijing East Village.
The photographs recording performances are taken from above, capturing subjects in motion, not at a specific angle, favoring a different spacial perspective and a more dramatic mood. Together, the photographs and excerpts from his diary really succeed to immerse the reader into his experience "I took her picture rapidly from all angles. With each change in the angle I edged closer and closer to her… I moved closer and closer, until the camera almost touched the girl’s face; the clicks of the camera mixed with the breathing sound of the two performers".
Documenting this brief history into a book Rong Rong guarantees that it won’t be lost to time or made invisible to new generations like mine. Toward the end, he writes in a short poem "Myself, myself, I only have myself, my loneliness at this time, all consuming, filling my blood, I want a mirror, myself, myself. There’s only one sound in the world, Click! Click! (shutter shound)"
RongRong's Diary. Beijing East Village, co-published by STEIDL/THE WALTHER COLLECTION/THREE SHADOWS PHOTOGRAPHY ART CENTRE