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Laboring Bodies and Chinese Landscapes of Desolation

Sat, June 25, 3:00 to 4:50pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: 1F, 122


The Chinese landscape of desolation has much in common with its peers in the post-industrial West—not just images of poisoned villages and rivers in lurid neon shades, but also rusted and shuttered factories. And yet, despite such commonalities, these remain landscapes of desolation with unmistakably Chinese characteristics. Marked by a fascination with scale—especially the gigantic—the Chinese landscape of desolation often center on subjects that dwarf and alienate human figures, especially laborers. My paper, “Laboring Bodies and the Chinese Landscape of Desolation” explores the complex interplay between the body of the land and the body of the laborer, and in particular, how they are nationalized and racialized for non-Chinese audiences. It focuses primarily on images of China produced by the Canadian documentary photographer Edward Burtynsky, and on the larger promotional, textual and exhibitory apparatuses that have supported and disseminated those images. I argue that Burtynsky’s images naturalize a very old vision of China as dehumanizing, dehumanized and profoundly ecologically compromised through a symbolic visual structure that masks itself as “hard evidence.” The laborer’s body plays a central role in this symbolic structure as both human site of victimization and a less-than-human cog in the faceless machinery of China’s economy.