SSG POST 12 – London Chongqing

Here we discuss links that we made between London and Chongqing, transnational trajectories that are both material and immaterial. These emerged first through our Skype dialogues and sketches, transmitted between London and Chongqing, then through our itineraries in the Thames estuary peripheries and finally, in our fieldwork along the Yangzi River.

This post revisits the process of ‘dialogue’ as one of the underlying strata from which our practice emerges, through the eyes of the cities from which we were respectively talking. Here, our respective sites speak on behalf of the cities, and the dialogue runs between places as well as interlocutors.

A mirror-relationship though, polarizes the dialogue, the counterpart of our frequent use of inversion in material manipulations:

caves   <> bunkers
carving <> casting
dead <> living
recesses (bunkers’ doors) <>  recesses (caves’ openings)

When not in the same country we spent time discussing our project, exchanging open-ended textual and sketch dialogues: a constellation of points. The combinatory basis of our collaboration was born out of this process.

Whilst in these two cities separated by many thousands of miles, each of us continued to include the other within one’s own research, Rupert visiting sites on the peripheries of London and the South East coast, Lia visiting rock cut burial sites in the peripheries of Chongqing.

The materialities and subjective experience of these landscapes became merged in our dialogues, fusing two apparently different locations into an evolving syntax and vocabulary of interconnection. Although we didn’t realise it at the time, what we were doing was developing a common language that dealt in change, movement, precariousness and uncertainty – a reflection of the marginal landscapes we were dealing with.

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When we were both in London, making journeys out from the city to sites along the Thames and South East coast, we started to form a set of embodied and material connections between London and Chongqing.

This started when we were exploring Cliffe fort in Kent.

cliffe fort

Inside is a protected area with all open arched spaces on it, agora-like, not war-like.

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Here, the process of entering the fort, climbing up and down walls and the formal structure of the space itself, a clear distinction between inside and outside, alcoves, arches, magazine stores, started to throw up connections between our defensive sites in the UK and Lia’s rock cut burial sites in China.

Both draw a line between life and death in an ontological sense.

Both also have an actual demarcating function, bunkers, forts and rock cut burial sites being all designed to protect their occupants from raiders and invaders.

Also, both the bunkers and the burial caves used visibility and inaccessibility as a contrasting pair of qualities, combining the illusion of enhanced presence and the alienating effect of distance.

In fact, the Napoleonic invasion never happened, but the forts, especially Cliffe, Hoo, Darnet and all the Martello towers, retained their continuous and affective presence on the surrounding landscape.

The caves, called ‘wild people dwellings’ by their nowadays neighbours, still do not fit the current idea of what a burial should be: they are too striking, too dominating, and awkward for the people who inhabit the area today.

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Lia, writing from Chongqing, immersed in an urban life among the self-constructed structures, most of them ending with the flood caused by the Three Gorges Dam, felt not so remote from the tidal movement of the Thames in London.

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Drawn to the rock-cut ensembles dotting the landscape on the fringes of this stretched, diffuse and interrupted city of Chongqing, Lia’s fieldwork pulled her always further into untouched nature, usually following the ‘unbuildable’ banks of the Yangzi River and its tributaries.

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Among the ever-fresh looking rock-cut structures, be they shrines, bunkers or actual 2nd century AD burials, the repeated habitus of nesting into the cliffs persist over thousands of years. The cliffs, being this otherwordly, vertical space, not arable, not suitable to erect dwellings on, of unsteady, seasonal access, keep serving peripheral, non-domestic functions throughout the history of built environment in the area.

Laodongyan meander 2002    Laodongyan meander August 2014

Seasonal access (low/high tide)
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Natural cave as shrine with addition of a bunker in WWII.

Instead of the ‘sudden production, sudden abandonment’ pattern known for the defensive structures in the UK, especially in the case of the short-lived sound mirrors (just in the decade between the intensification of war aviation and the invention of radar), the bunkers and other caves in Chongqing would be re-used as short-term restaurants, shops, storage spaces, or simply erased from the riverbanks by new-built roads, bridges, etc.

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Intense traffic, and the exponential demographic explosion of Chongqing pushed the city out of its natural limits, i.e. the rivers and mountains around.

While cemeteries and settlements used to keep some distance in between, now they are meeting and blurred in one built continuum. No need to cross a river anymore, no marked limit between the two, …

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Where they used to belong to radically separate worlds, beneath and above are now blurred.

After these trips in China and the UK, it became apparent that our fieldwork practices had many similarities.

The remote location of our sites, the processes of figuring out where the sites were located and then the physical process of finding them, gaining access across different types of difficult terrain, water, marshland, forest/jungle, mountainside. The similarities became particularly apparent when considering the traces left upon us at the end of the journeys.

One of these traces, you would have noticed by now, is the omnipresent shape of the recessed doors, found both on WWII UK bunkers and 2nd century AD Southwest China caves. One, for defensive purposes, and the other, left for us to interpret.

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Also, the same aching muscles from the same kinds of climbing, the same kinds of dust, mud, chalk on our clothes and tears in soft fabrics. The same kinds of cuts, scrapes and scratches on our bodies. The same sitting on hard stone, concrete floors. The same wet shoes and socks.

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