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Out with the old: a photo essay by Ai Weiwei

China's architecture has transformed over the past decade, but at what cost?

In the past ten years, China's urban landscape has changed beyond all recognition. Construction programmes across the country have ensured the mass production not only of buildings, mall and homes, but of whole new cities. The development shows no signs of slowing: the government has announced that it plans to build 20 cities a year for the next 20 years.

Since 1949, all the land in China has belonged to the state. As the country's economy opened itself up to the world, demolition and development was allowed to occur at an unprecedented pae. China's old towns and cities have been reimagined - villages have been eradicated to make way for shopping centres, and skyscrapers have replaced the traditional hutong buildings. Centuries-old architectures and the cultural heritage of a nation have been erased from the civic space.

Between 2003 and 2007, Ai Weiwei took a series of photographs entitles Provisional Landscapes. He traveled through Shanghai, Beijing, and the Dongbei region and other locations to study the disappearance of the county he once knew, and the emergence of a new China. A selection of these previously unpublished images was reproduced in his guest edit issue of the New Statesman. In addition, exclusively for the edition, Ai returned to some of the same places and rephotographed the sites he captured on film nearly ten years ago. These pictures are paired, where appropriate, with those from the original series. As the two sets of images show, China's transformation over a decade has been one of the most rapid and comprehensive in history. Yet a question remains: can a country every completely erase its past?


(Then: Shenyang, 2005)

(Then: Chaoyang park, Palm Springs Compound, Beijing, 2005)

(Now: The same location in 2012)


(Then: Wukesong, Beijing, 2003)

(Then: Shanghai, 2007)

(Then: Shanghai, 2007)


(Then: Dawang Lu, Beijing, 2003)

(Now: The same location in 2012)


(Then: Huajiadi Compound, Taiyanggong, Beijing, 2006)

(Now: The same location in 2012)

[All photography by Ai Weiwei]

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis