Shanghai-based artist Yang Yongliang recently unveiled his largest work to date – a continuation of his ongoing commentary about the devastating effects of unchecked development and industrialization through the use of dense, photography-based collage. From the New World measures almost 26 feet wide (800cm) by 13 feet tall and while it’s impossible to truly appreciate it online, it’s still an amazing feat of image manipulation. To get a better sense of his art, you can check it out at his website and I would also recommend watching this short clip about him which is really interesting and definitely worth the 5-odd minutes.

Where the hell did that CBD come from?
Having lived in China from 2009 until May of this year, I can attest to just how much the East-Asian powerhouse has developed, even over that comparatively short time. Many people will be familiar with the images taken from the curve of the Bund in 1990 and comparing it with today. Of course one could be equally amazed at photos of the New York skyline in the 20s compared to today, but the fact that China’s premiere city and self-described ‘face’ of the country has managed such development in just over two decades is staggering.
As Yang proves with his art, there are many young people that are concerned with the effect such development is having on national identity and themes of disenfranchisement, disconnection and fluidity are fairly common in contemporary work. Such rapid change is particularly difficult for China because of it’s long and varied history. For a young country like America that has always been founded on innovation and forward-thinking, rapid development is the name of the game.  In China though, there is a great deal of value placed on tradition and ‘the Chinese way’ of doing things, developed over thousands of years. Such conflict between tradition and modernity can be seen all over the country, from the juxtaposition of gleaming new architecture amid old-fashioned hutong alleys to the generation gap between young people raised in a globalized, international environment and their more conservative, confucian parents.
Traditional Chinese Hutong  and spaceship.
Not only has this rapid development caused problems for young people, but it has also led to an incredibly high income disparity between the affluent cities and agricultural farmland surrounding them. Furthermore China’s hukou system, which governs where individuals have the right to live and work, has exacerbated the problem by creating an underclass of migrant workers who have less rights to good jobs, social services, education, healthcare and other essential services in cities they are not registered in. (It should be noted that the hukou are currently undergoing changes, though it remains to be seen how far-ranging these will be. This article from the Economist gives a more in-depth explanation of hukou).
 
The rapid industrialisation of the country has also resulted in a raft of environmental issues, perhaps the most well-known of these is the infamous Beijing smog. I was resident in the city (just around the corner from the above photo in fact) and the smog definitely got worse over the time I was there. There are many reasons for this – Beijing is just Southeast of the Gobi desert, so dust from the Mongolian plains blows into the city. There are also mountains on three sides so fumes from industrial areas just to the south of the city drift north and get trapped by the topography. China’s energy needs are also exploding along with the growth of the country and since coal is the cheapest and most readily-available fuel source, it is multitudinous coal plants that are supplying electricity. Part of this problem could be assuaged with more efficient technology in coal plants but the US has the best and they don’t like sharing, so the pollution continues. There is an index for measuring the air quality of a place called the AQI, most western cities would rarely see 100, but I witnessed AQI’s of over 1000 on occasion in Beijing. This is no mean feat considering that the index itself only goes up to 500.
From the New World, detail.
China is a vast country though, with a huge number of ethnic minorities and differing cultural traditions. It must be remembered for all the negative press the country gets in the Western media, that it wasn’t more than a few decades ago that the country was almost exactly the same as North Korea in terms of political backwardness and lack of social infrastructure. The ruling Communist party, which gets even more bad press (much of it admittedly deserved) has nevertheless lifted more than 500 million people out of extreme poverty over the past 30 years. They have also essentially managed the entirety of the both the agricultural and industrial revolutions – which took over a century in western Europe – in less than half that time. The unfortunate problems that the country is facing today, require artistic people like Yang to encourage discourse. As the censorship by the government prohibits outright criticism of it’s rule or policy, creative subtlety is a must. Yang’s incredibly detailed work skillfully blends the traditional Chinese watercolour landscapes with social commentary using modern media tools and as a result, fits perfectly between the lines of modernity and tradition that are the embodiment of contemporary China.
Joel Evans