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The Politics of Subterranean Art in China

Authors: Marijn Nieuwenhuis*, Durham University
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, China, Political Geography
Keywords: Underground, Mining, Art, China, Extraction
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The dire state of China’s environmental condition is widely known. Every five seconds someone dies prematurely from air pollution (UN 2019). Environmental degradation is not limited to the air alone, of course, but also affects conditions of subterranean life. “Black lung disease” (pneumoconiosis), a condition suffered mostly by rural migrants, is by far the most common occupational illness in China. Over half a million people are reported to live with the incurable disease. This official number is estimated to be 10 times as high when considering labourers working in private mines (SCMP 2018). Casualties of the disease are anticipated to increase even further as higher-quality seams of coal are mined out in China and elsewhere (Guardian 2018).

In contrast to air pollution, justifiably a politicised subject, little attention seems to be granted to the damaged lives underneath the surface of the earth. This paper expands the location of the “political” by problematizing the relationship between the above and the below ground. Clark (2013: 2825) defines this division as a “geologic politics” which, he argues, “involves a turn from issues hinging on territorial divisions of the earth's surface toward the strata that compose the deep temporal earth.” This turn of focus entails, at least for my purposes, a geological reworking and expanding of the idea that only that that what is visible/ aboveground is political. I will visualise this subterranean politics through the mining artwork of Yang Shaobin and a number of other contemporary Chinese artists working on underground life.

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