For Watering My Horse I have followed the Long Wall of China from the beginning to the end and photographed the lives of the people along the foot of the wall. The journey began in the spring of 2017 and continued until the spring of 2018. It resulted in a road trip of 25,000 kilometers.
Contrary to what many people think, the Long Wall of China is not a single continuous construction, but rather a collection of walls and towers built during various Chinese dynasties. I followed the section of the wall from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and takes the viewers to the ruins of the older parts. Despite the decline, there is a lively relationship with the wall among the local population that honour and protect the wall.
The Long Wall was built as a defense against the invaders, whether they be the Mongol tribes or the Japanese armies in the 1930s; yet it failed. People came and went; soldiers and merchants breached it or simply walked through it, bringing with them different cultures, languages, foods, and ethnicities. The Long Wall is not just a symbol of power, it is a place where people have been living, working, and preserving traditions for centuries. It is a space and, more simply, just a wall. It is on this premise that I embarked on a photographic journey in order to show the undisclosed, almost hidden identity of the Long Wall.
I tried to discover the impact of fast-growing China on this historic site. What does the Wall reflect today? Which elements have disappeared and which remnants have survived? I have learned that the villages are mostly inhabited by the elderly and children because young people are leaving the area to make more money in nearby towns. People, traditions, and places are gradually disappearing. My work focuses on the visual transformation of this process. From place to place I try to catch a glimpse of the past.
The Wall meanders through time and space. Instead of viewing it as a barrier laden with meanings, I prefer to see it less defined. I want to capture the ordinary, everyday life of people, grabbing the desolate atmosphere and melancholic state of time, which is something mythical, undefined and elusive.
The book has different layers. A wide selection of my own images is combined with found material, including pages from a hand-drawn military atlas and scanned pages with hand-written folklore stories, the translations of which have also been included.
In addition, I have photographed countless artifacts that were found during excavations or during repair work on the Wall. These artifacts are described at the end of the book.
Taken together, the different stories provide a rich look at both the traditions and daily life of the people who live along the wall. The editing of the book follows the route that I have traveled, and therefore the seasons from spring, autumn to winter and also the geographical location of the Wall from east to west.
Together with designer and publisher Rob van Hoesel from The Eriskay Connection, I am working on the photobook Watering My horse by a spring at the foot of the Long Wall. It will be a book of 112 pages, 24x34cm in size. The use of light- fiberwood-containing paper offers a counterbalance to the heavily loaded meaning of the Wall, which again emphasizes my point of view. The book contains an essay by Maria-Caterina Bellinetti. She is a writer and art historian specializing in photography, Chinese visual culture and propaganda.
Xiaoxiao Xu’s Watering my Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall (Eriskay Connection) is now available for pre-order.
Xiaoxiao Xu (Qingtian, China, 1984) emigrated from China to The Netherlands in 1999. In 2009 she cum laude graduated from the Photo Academy in Amsterdam. After graduation, she won The Photo Award and held her first solo show in FotoMuseum Antwerpen. She was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass for several times and she participated in exhibitions all over the world. In September 2014 she published her first photo book.
Her third book, Aeronautics in the Backyard (see image below) has been received with great success. It was nominated for Best Dutch photobook 2017, selected among the best photo books by The Guardian 2016.