The Great Wall of China, like China itself, is a fragmented, broken up site held together by history, mythology and necessity. Xiaoxiao Xu’s new book, Watering my Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall, reminds readers that although the wall is unquestionably present in memory, history and myth, what really exists is disparate from the image in our minds. Instead of the soaring, well maintained, ornate spectacle many of us may picture, Xu’s book focuses on the ramshackle, run down, dilapidated, un-looked after remnants. And, indeed, the entirety of the book exists as a quiet subversion of the idea of one Wall, one history and one imagery.
The first image is beautiful, but it is the first spread that really is intense and clear: an old map, a cleaner and a cherry tree in bloom over a run down fragment of the wall. Through this opener Xu signals much of what’s to come: the quieter and less visited places, the delicate resilience of nature, the cyclical return of seasons (and visual signifiers of that rhythm) and the story of decay as an essential part of history. Alongside all of that, a humble dignity in the people who live and work nearby.
So much of this book quietly deals with the limitations of ‘China’, of history, of memory. Grand and triumphant written stories are placed next to architecture in decay, or rusted relics of times long forgotten. The collective remembering may be grand, but the reality defies the image.
Myth may lull us to sleep, but it can’t change the fact that labour wears us out, and there’s more to do tomorrow.
An early spread shows two sections of the wall near to some rice fields: what matters to today’s people who live there today is not the noisy triumph of the past but the necessity of the present. An image of a horse and snow that appears to be a horse seem so metaphorical on their own, speaking to myth, travel and power. Then the next two pages are of labour, rest and effort – myth has a function, as a dream, as a story, but life is very different. Xu subtly speaks to the power of myth and memory, but also reminds us of their limits: myth may lull us to sleep, but it can’t change the fact that labour wears us out, and that there’s more to do tomorrow.
Another thread of this work deals directly with three forms of beauty: natural, built and human. Often, Xu returns to photographs of trees, blossoms, flowers, rocks and growth. Many images soar: hills, sheer cliffs, tenacious plants reclaiming harsh spaces. As parts of the wall lie unmaintained nature returns redefining the space as a different story of history: illogically beautiful, stone slowly broken by roots. Often these images are jarringly juxtaposed with the squabble of human built environments carved into the wall, angular and conspicuous.
Human beauty, though, is Xu’s undoubted home ground as a photographer – her portraiture is fantastic and consistent. In particular, her images of children are, to my eye, unparalleled, managing to capture the elements of play and the intense, curious stares of children that often make them look oddly mature. Many portraits of adults, too, are quiet and frozen and complex. The portraiture is essential; while much of the writing that is placed throughout the book reminds readers of stories, histories, and events that define the Wall and the people who used it, her portraits bring us back to today, to the people who still live and work there, for whom the reputation of the wall is quizzical and at-odds with their reality. Stories of famous conquerors next to a child strewn in corn effectively pull at the necessity of everyday life and the over-the-top bloated quality of the many famous stories of faded victory.
Moving slightly away from the content of the book, there are some curious design choices. While many of the two page spreads are flawless in both form and content, it seems as soon as the double-page spreads have more than two images they visually fall apart. Yes, the wall is fragmented, yes there are competing elements, but a few too many jumbled pages detract slightly from the book. There are definitely some complex pages that work formally and visually, so perhaps the occasional off spread is more reflective of the difficulty of combining multiple visual languages over one spread. The printing is fantastic, the paper choice – Holmen’s TRND line – gorgeous. Xu’s use of colour has forever been one of her calling cards and this stock and printing are so muted, rich and lush, it’s a celebration of those elements in her work and an extremely well executed choice. If only those few pesky spreads worked a little better.
Towards the end of the book, Xu begins to photograph Lunar New Year celebrations – music, costumes, colour, preparations. As people from all over China return to their ancestral villages and their elderly relatives, so to do people return to traditions, to myths, and to stories as a way of unifying and bookmarking the year . There’s something so well executed here, the earlier parts of the book so slightly subversive of mythology, the later parts so clearly redemptive of the way it can live through us, unify us and remind us of who we are.
These photographs may seem a bit outlandish: such an obvious subject, so gaudy and extreme in the grey days and grey walls. And so we arrive at the final photo, the back of a colourful caravan heading down a snowy road on a sunny day. It seems so cliché: the end of a book being the departure, return and the light. But that’s sort of the point of a new year, isn’t it? It’s also the point of a myth, too. These things, collectively, buoy us up, ground us, prepare us for the new cycle by bringing us home. Only with such subtle and clear-sighted shooting and editing can Xu use such a typical ending with such elusive strength.
Ultimately, this isn’t really a book about the Wall. Watering One’s Horse isn’t about seeing the wall, it’s about the wall as a space through which one travels, sees and learns. Xu is a traveller here, as much as she shows the wall, she is really showing how the past relates to the present (and where it doesn’t) using travel as a method to uncover what endures and remains. She doesn’t tick the boxes, visit all the sites or show all the delineated points on the map because she doesn’t need to. Instead she makes her point clearly: despite our collective memory, nothing ever dies, it just changes – nostalgia reassures us but the past dies a little more each year. A fantastic book and a triumph of a project.