JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by The Eriskay Connection (here). Softcover (24×33 cm), 112 pages, with 142 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Maria-Caterina Bellinetti and illustrations by Mandy Peeters. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Rob van Hoesel. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Xiaoxiao Xu is a Netherlands-based photographer with Chinese roots. She was 14 when her family emigrated to the Netherlands from Wenzhou, an industrial port city in China. Discovering photography helped her to find her artistic voice, with “the intention to tell stories and convey emotions.” The relocation influenced her perspective as an artist and became an essential subject that she now explores in her work. She says “my immigration experience motivated my desire to tell stories and made me learn to observe both China and Europe from a distance. I am as much an insider and an outsider, uprooted, unidentified and estranged from both sides.”
In her fifth photobook Watering My Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall, Xu takes us on a poetic journey along the Great Wall of China (or Long Wall, in a more literal translation which the artist prefers). While the name gives the impression of a continuous line, in reality it is a system of fortifications, walls, and towers, built by various dynasties in different centuries. Xu spent a year travelling along the less prominent parts of the wall, looking at the daily lives of the communities living in the villages along its lengths. The title of the book is a reference to a poem by Chen Lin, depicting the hardship of laborers recruited to build the Long Wall.
Watering My Horse is a softcover book with a black and white image of the Yellow River Stone Forest with a very faint pink tint on the cover. The title of the book and the artist’s name are placed along the orange spine, and the cover flap opens to an illustration depicting the wall. The photographs are printed on a light fiberwood-infused paper, adding an earthy element to the book, and standing in contrast to a loaded symbolism of the wall. In addition to Xu’s photographs, handwritten folk tales by Long Wall protectors, a military map of the Ming dynasty, and still life images of archaeological objects such as weapons, everyday objects, and decorations (their descriptions appear at the end of the book) are sprinkled throughout the book. The visual flow moves from dense spreads with small and medium sized images focusing on details, to full spread photographs that feel more open and enveloping.
The photobook begins with a sunny photo of blossoming young cherry trees growing along the road near the mountains. Beginning in the spring of 2017, the narrative moves chronologically through the seasons, while also progressing from east to west, reinforcing the idea of a continuous journey through space and time. Photographs of nature – isolated trees, snowy mountains, ruins overgrown by grass, a flock of sheep in the snow, a white horse on the side of a hill – are intermingled with images capturing the ordinary moments in the lives of local communities, primarily the elderly and children, as most of the young adults have left in search of better jobs.
The Long Wall appears fragmented and decaying from natural erosion, rather than indestructible and powerful as it is often depicted, and Xu’s desaturated palette makes the images feel even more dusty, rocky, and desolate. The government pays locals to guard the wall, mostly to protect it from vandalism. Local residents are seen moving rocks, farming the land with hand tools, shepherding, and observing local traditions like the Qingming Festival, a day for paying respect to the dead. Xu’s portraits document their often sunburned and weathered faces, as they continue the hard life of their ancestors.
There are numerous photographs of children and toddlers, adding a flicker of hope. A photograph of a boy standing on top of a hay filled truck, with an older man at the wheel, seems symbolic of the cycle of generations. One spread shows children at the playground: a boy hanging upside down on a metal wheel as he looks right in the camera, and three girls climbing on another outdoor ramp. Then, a full spread image captures a girl in a red sweater lying on a pile of corn cobs, the brighter colors popping. A few pages later, a vertical photograph of two baby goats lying next to each other on a path is paired with a smaller horizontal image of two girls leaning on each other, Xu’s juxtapositions bringing tenderness and empathy to the narrative.
The book ends with the series of photographs documenting the Spring Festival, the most important holiday of the year in China. There are images of locals with colorful masks and striking costumes, and a full spread photograph shows a procession carrying a dragon, celebrating the holiday. The beginning of the new year symbolizes a moment of renewal, hope, and optimism.
In her photobook, Xu draws attention to a lesser-known, and often unexpected side of the Long Wall – the intimate and hidden life of its local residents, who have been there for centuries, working, protecting the wall, and passing on their cultural traditions. The book offers a multi-layered and poetic journey, paying attention to the overlooked rhythms of traditions and daily life, and showing how the local communities adjust to life along this historic site, and ultimately, define each other.
Collector’s POV: Xiaoxiao Xu does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).