Nailhouse Incidents in Modern Day China
What I often find more striking than an intentional work of art is a work of art that stands just outside the notion of a work of art, an unintentioned work of art, a work of art that never meant to be a work of art, but can nevertheless be read as a work of art.
Consider the nail house incidents that have taken place across China in recent years due to the conflicts that arise out of changing property laws and homeowner rights. Nail houses refer to homes that belong to people who refuse to make way for development; that is, buildings that are hard to nail down for hammer-like developers.
The Nail House Incident in Chongqing, China (2004-2007) was especially extraordinary and attracted worldwide attention precisely because of the visual effect of the nail house and the circulation of images in the media. The owners (or “stubborn nails” as they are called by developers) Wu Ping and her husband Yang Wu became national heroes for their refusal to back down. And what became a three-year battle resulted in the image of a brick house, isolated in the middle of a massive construction site, surrounded by a pit of excavated earth. And as the couple’s symbolic fight made the papers, and chat rooms rejoiced, the nail house stood atop the remaining mound of dirt, dead center and defiant, blocking the construction of a new shopping mall.
The image of this incident reads like a layered text, informing us of the political changes taking place in post-communist China. On the one hand, the notion of personal property in modern day China is unprecedented. On the other hand, does a post-communist China risk becoming a form of authoritarian capitalism? To better understand how ‘incidents of resistance’ reverberate in the wider social and ideological experience of interpretation, we need to acknowledge the spatial paradigms and economies that constitute them.
Over the years, there’s been a steady rise in property disputes in China as the economy continues to boom and people try to seize on the idea of human rights, at times through proxy debates. Wu Ping and her husband Yang Wu were 1 of 281 families in the area who rejected an offer of financial compensation or a new house.
China had put forth a new property law that allowed the government to demolish housing communities, relocate the people, and use the land for building new structures. It’s part of China’s greater effort to drastically redesign their cities. However, a landmark new law guaranteeing private property rights allowed for Wu Ping to challenge the exchange offered by the developers.
She also made a fuss about it and held weekly press conferences while her husband climbed up into the house every night to occupy it. Because water and electricity had been cut off to the house, locals supplied him with water and food.
Like Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993-1994), Wu Ping turned her domestic house into a terrifying modernist cube. As Angela Dimitrakaki writes in her essay Gothic Public Art and the Failures of Democracy:
“The ‘local’ debates that emerged around House in London in the early 1990s have nowadays become more globally relevant than ever. The issues are commensurate with efforts to appropriate and re-appropriate public space in the light of aggressive ‘development’ projects; with the spectre of failed democracy haunting western societies; with the emergence of new subjects through struggles that have challenged both progressive and reactionary certainties; and ultimately with efforts to account for the increasingly complex concept of ‘art’ as a form of historically determined intervention, as well as the subject/s it addresses or even constructs in its process of becoming…” (P. 121 Dimitrakaki)
The disturbing detail (Barthes’ punctum) plays an important role in how one perceives, interprets, and understands a historical moment. Personally, the image of the nail house, isolated atop a mound of dirt, puts an image to the irony bubbling in modern day China, and the image of Wu Ping, a young-looking middle-aged woman dressed in a commanding red coat and standing gallantly in front of her home, puts a person to the incident.
The nail house is [a form of] architecture against architecture. While suspending the construction of a supermarket, this monstrous scene, animated by [an act]
the desire of resistance, sets the domestic subject against a background of planned obsolescence induced by market-driven development projects.
Rendering visible the limits of consensus and the complexity of social relations, micro-political ruptures (i.e. nail house incidents) reveal a melancholic but promising picture. The privileged social space where decisions are made is inundated with individuals at odds with the economic forces at play; and the risks they take to draw a certain picture adjusts our way of reading the world. In her essay Tilted Arc and the Uses of Democracy Rosalyn Deutsche argues that:
“Public space…is the uncertain social realm where, in the absence of an absolute foundation, the meaning of the people is simultaneously constituted and put at risk.” (Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics)
We ought to be more mindful of the precarity of the meaning of the people and the vulnerable constitution of citizenship. We have to stop seeing art from a narrow perspective, and start seeing the art of the streets, the art of the struggle, the art of the crippled public. We have to start looking outside of art to find art again, for art is lost. And we who call ourselves artists are scavengers.