Dam is a monumental landscape remarkable both in terms of concept and size (350 x 1760 cm, 8 panels each 350 x 220 cm). Similarly to a few other earlier works painted en plain air (e.g., Landscape, 2004, 400 x 220 cm or 08.10.2006-20.10.2006 – Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2006, 200 x 400 cm), Dam is as well regarded by the artist both as a live painting performance – with reference to the outdoor painting process – and as an oil painting.

For the completion of this work (April-July 2007), Meng Huang built a huge structure of scaffoldings on the dry river bed of the Ru River, Zhumadian Prefecture, Henan Province, and painted a 360 panorama of the surrounding area. The central focus of the painting is a view on the Banqiao Dam, a huge, controversial architectural structure erected in the early 50s, the infamous story of which the artist knows well as a result of growing up in the same province.

It was August 8, 1975, when the Banqiao Dam and a string of 61 other smaller reservoirs downstream catastrophically failed, due to construction and engineering defects, after the unforeseen consequences of the devastating collision between the cold front of air coming from the north of the country and super Typhoon Nina. The death toll from the resulting tremendous flood was only declassified in 2005, having remained a state secret for over 30 years. According to the Hydrology Department of Henan Province, the victims for the flooding totaled ca. 26,000, while another 145,000 people died from the ensuing famine and epidemics. Judged on the basis of a corresponding report by Human Rights Watch, the actual body count appears to be much higher than the official figure. Many of the dams that collapsed in 1975 have been newly rebuilt since then, included the Banqiao Dam in 1993. Meng Huang’s Dam does not only keep the memory of a terrible catastrophe alive, but also casts a shadow on the even greater risks connected with an extremely ambitious man-made intervention on nature, the Three Gorges Dam (Sichuan Province), the largest hydroelectric station worldwide.

Nataline Colonnello