Angie Baecker is a freelance writer and a doctoral candidate in modern Chinese cultural studies at the University of Michigan.
The artist Wang Qingsong has re-staged a 1959 artwork called “The Bloody Clothes” in Highland Park, a small city within Detroit.
On February 17, the Beijing-based artist Wang Qingsong assembled more than 50 people in Highland Park, Michigan, on the site of a candy factory that was destroyed by a fire in 2012. The artist is known for his large-format photographs that often echo canonical works of Chinese art, using actors posed against sprawling contemporary backdrops. In Highland Park, he was re-creating an enormous charcoal sketch titled “The Bloody Clothes,” displayed in the National Museum of China and considered a major early socialist-period artwork.
Completed in 1959 by a realist painter named Wang Shikuo (no relation to Wang Qingsong), “The Bloody Clothes” commemorates the land-reform campaigns that swept across China after the Communist Party came to power, repealing the rights of landowners and giving their land to peasants. In the sketch, the central figure accuses her former landlord of exploitation, waving a blood-stained shirt as proof while members of the public look on. Although land reform in China is remembered today for the violent ends that befell many landlords, at the time it was seen as redistributive social justice, and Wang Shikuo portrayed it with theatrical gravity and a cinematic scope.
Participants in the photo shoot were offered either a $50 gift card or a signed print of the final photograph as compensation for their time. Across the street from the old factory, they gathered at Nandi’s Knowledge Café. University of Michigan undergraduates Chelsea Heath and Sam Su said their professor offered them extra credit for turning up. Ewell Compton said he heard about the casting call from the café’s owner, Lucy I. Frye (known as Nandi). Compton hadn’t been told much about the artwork that was being staged, but he was intrigued enough ask his son Omar to join him.
Sharron Solomon grew up in Highland Park, and this was her first visit back to the neighborhood in 15 years. She had fond memories of the old candy factory (“They would give us pop”), but the area had changed almost beyond recognition, she said. “My childhood home is gone; my whole childhood neighborhood is gone.”
On the factory site, Wang positioned a table covered in white cloth on top of a wall that had caved in, while participants tied up red and white banners. The banners were printed with clunky English translations of slogans found in public spaces in China. Wang painted the character chai, to destroy—the ubiquitous sign of impending redevelopment in urban China—on a few walls that remained standing. A lattice of twisted rebar holding boulder-sized hunks of concrete hovered above the set, which the artist dressed with smoke cakes, snow, and an assortment of trash collected from the site.
Wang decided to stage his work in the Detroit area because he was struck by its parallels to China, and he wonders if China’s future will look like Detroit does today. Manufacturing drove China’s explosive economic growth during the 1990s, but with growth slower now, the government is transitioning the economy from manufacturing to services. “Already in China, factories are starting to close,” Wang said. The urban centers of southern China were ground zero for the country’s manufacturing economy. An economic shift “forces people to change very quickly, and the land too,” Wang said. “How will it be used when the factories are gone?”
Highland Park was also a ground zero of sorts for manufacturing in the United States. In 1913, Henry Ford opened the first automobile assembly line at a factory here, and the city incorporated a few years later to prevent its tax base from being absorbed by Detroit. Today, although Highland Park is surrounded on all sides by Detroit, the city of less than three square miles is still a separate municipality.
Manufacturing then fled Highland Park. Writer Mark Binelli has described it as “the Detroit of Detroit,” a place where the trends of economic and demographic decline that have plagued Detroit as a whole are experienced more acutely. Without manufacturing jobs, Highland Park lost many thousands of residents, and in the 2000s, a lack of funding for the police department, libraries, and even street lights resulted in those services being suspended. More symbolically, the city once known as “the City of Trees” lost much of its greenery to tree diseases.
Wang Qingsong intends for his work to highlight concerns over land ownership and social justice that are shared across time, place, and culture. “From a theoretical point of view, ‘The Bloody Clothes’ is propaganda, because it depicts land reform,” he said. “But it still speaks so directly to today’s society, and I always want my works to illustrate societal phenomena.”
As the mise en scène came together, the actors took their places. Wang handed Omar Compton a green overcoat covered in patchwork, and Nandi Frye was given a branch to hold as a staff. Sam Su stood atop rebar and rubble with a stained white cloth tied around his head. The artist donned the landlord’s robes. His wife, Zhang Fang, played the part of the woman brandishing the blood-stained shirt.
Frye was impressed as she surveyed the scene: “Highland Park, you’re on the map and you don’t even know it.” More than four dozen actors held their poses, and a few minutes later, the photos had been made.