Lam, Tong (2014). Unreal estate and China’s collective unconscious : photo essay. Cross-Currents : East Asian History and Culture Review. E-Journal, 10 (March 2014). URL: http://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/e-journal/issue-10
More than two decades ago, at the height of postmodernism, French historian Pierre Nora lamented that there no longer existed any milieux de memoire, or environments that embodied real everyday experience. What was left, according to him, were merely lieux de memoire, or sites of memory. As such, historical monuments and other memory sites do not seem to carry any fixed historical meaning anymore. Rather, they have emerged as focal points of memory contestation and identity politics, becoming “pure signs” with “no referents in [historical] reality” (Nora 1996, 19).
Indeed, even in China, where the kind of politics of representation common to liberal democracies is seldom applicable, there has been a proliferation of counter-memories—from private museums to Cultural Revolution theme restaurants—that do not always conform to the grand narrative sanctioned by the government. The country’s rapid economic growth over the past three decades has essentially produced an accelerated history, or what Nora and others refer to as the collapse of the present into the past, of memory into history. Not surprisingly, a spontaneous movement is emerging to collect, preserve, and archive all sorts of tangible and intangible artifacts and practices, such as old photographs, recipes, oral histories, and folkways, in contemporary China’s new economy of nostalgia.
What has often been left out of this postsocialist archive fever, however, are the numerous sites that are slipping not into, but out of, history. China’s reckless urbanization and real estate speculation have produced countless architectural wreckages—buildings, neighborhoods, and even cities—that are incomplete, destroyed, abandoned, or otherwise unused. Out of sight and out of mind, these sites do not register in public memory. Some of them may look monumental, but they are not monumentalized. In short, these are sites not of dissonant memories, but of collective unconscious.
For the photographic series featured in this issue of Cross-Currents—“Unreal Estate and China’s Collective Unconscious”—I have selected a diverse range of ruinous spaces to tell an alternative history of contemporary China’s hysterical transformation. Whereas historical monuments in China are frequently used by the state to symbolize civilizational pride and national humiliation, in order to mobilize the masses to observe their patriotic duty, the ruinous sites I seek to foreground in my photographs are non-places that represent the specter of history.