Artist's 'Three Gorges' Video Installation Takes Viewers Into a Disappearing Landscape

The Three Gorges, 3rd Edition video installation by Sonja Hinrichsen
©. Sonja Hinrichsen

© Sonja Hinrichsen

In the darkened room, the only sounds are the hum of a ship's engine and the water lapping up on its hull. On three sides loom the canyons around the Yangtze River, an area of China dramatically transformed by the building of the Three Gorges Dam.

The video images of the Yangtze projected onto the walls of the Organhaus Gallery in Chongqing, China, were shot by artist Sonja Hinrichsen during trips both up and down the river and then stitched together to create "a surreal world, where the viewer could sit or stand inside a 'ship' and cruise through four rivers simultaneously," she told TreeHugger in an email interview. "The video projectors were placed in a way that the viewer's shadow would be cast into the piece several times, so that he/she became a player in the installation (rather than just a viewer)."

Questioning Human Interventions In The Landscape
In making the multi-screen video installation, "The Three Gorges, 3rd Edition" (2011), Hinrichsen said she hoped to raise questions about how human interventions change the natural world, and what might be left of such landscapes in the future:

Will we turn around and decide to protect and preserve what is left of original landscape[s]? ... Or might natural environments vanish altogether sometime in the not-so-far future, as a result of our growing needs for space and resources? Will they continue their existence only as a memory that can be experienced solely in a virtual world?

The artist, whose other works have included ephemeral geometric "snow drawings," told TreeHugger she wanted to grapple with how the dam has changed the environment it flows through, especially the Three Gorges area, a natural wonder visited by thousands of tourists a year. "I also wanted to address how the dam has dislocated people whose houses and villages flooded because of the dam -- and are now completely underwater," she added. "And I wanted to address that the rise of the water level has drowned numerous historic sites and archaeological sites from ancient times."

Chilly Climate For Criticism In China
Hinrichsen found her working process affected by the sensitivity of the dam issue and the risks of open criticism in China. She had originally intended to mix in short text statements -- personal reflections, historical facts, quotes from interviews with local residents -- with the images, but was urged to take a more cautious approach.

The Three Gorges, 3rd Edition video installation by Sonja Hinrichsen

© Sonja Hinrichsen

"The arts organization I was working with, and where the piece was exhibited, asked me not to use any text, because it would inevitably have contained aspects of criticism of the dam project," she told TreeHugger. "I was shocked at first. As a person who takes democracy and freedom of expression for granted this felt like a slap in the face. I was outright angry and wondered if I should just give up on this project and leave China."

Instead, she crafted a subtle approach that she hoped would inspire people to reflect rather than telling them what to think. "I wanted the piece to be a playful and exciting experience, while it would at the same time get people's minds going," she said.

In stark contrast to the changes wrought by the Three Gorges dam, Hinrichsen says she aims with much of her art to engage with nature -- without altering it in any lasting way. "I am not interested in creating lasting art pieces, as I believe that our world is over-saturated with man-made products," she writes in her artist statement. "However, as an environmentalist I hope that I can inspire appreciation and awe for our natural world."