Internal Theater: Terminal Care for a Workers Club
Many Post-’80ers in China have childhood memories of co-living. In towns of machinery and tall chimneys, workers streamed out of factories after their shifts and headed back to their dormitories nearby. The auditorium, where meetings, lectures, movies, plays and ceremonies were put on, was undoubtedly a center for their spiritual life. It was the auditorium where most of their collective memories were created.
Shandong Zibo was once known as a City of Ceramics in China. Among the porcelain factories around Zibo, Kunlun Porcelain Factory boasts the most glorious past. It was not only the most profitable porcelain factory, but also a cradle for some of the best arts and crafts masters in the country, whose works shone through state banquets held in the Great Hall of the People. More than 30 years passed, the factory has long been swept by the wave of bankruptcies and restructurings. The “Workers Club” in the center of its living area is now faced with demolition. Those young people who used to storm the stage of the auditorium are now scattered.
When we visited the Workers Club for the first time, most of its interior space had been demolished, leaving an empty shell. This abandoned house went through ups and downs and now time seems to stand still here. It is declining rapidly like a ghost town where weeds grow all over, forgotten by most people. Interestingly, a building often manifests its essence after it becomes a ruin. We came to understand the special meaning the Workers Club was given. It was like a socialist church where the workers had joys and sorrows and could always be healed. Through movies, lectures, meetings and other activities, they gradually had the same pace of spiritual life. The Workers Club painted a bright color to that era.
This decrepit club was eventually demolished and disappeared in the residential neighborhood. It was a late curtain call of the co-living era. From those who came out from that turbulent era we could still vaguely see its special mark. This small installation was built in memory of the era that is seldom mentioned nowadays but had a profound impact on a whole generation.
The inspiration of the creation was the bustling Workers Club in people’s memory, which is an epitome of the co-living era. The mirrors were properly positioned and their angles carefully adjusted so as to reflect a “complete” image of the auditorium, bringing the visitors back to the old space and old days. Using the most common materials, we try to create another world and bring those people and those stories back to life. But each person in the mirror is just duplication. The seemingly spectacular scene is only a one-man show. 20 years passed, people once again see in the mirror the scene in those glory years, but it is after all an illusion.
What the installation presents depends on one’s sight. At the entrance, the illusion of the theatre appears with the ruins at the same time. Inside it, people will only see replications of themselves and the ruins were shielded outside.
In the stage center of the Workers Club we put a huge circular screen. It displays several sketched slides we found in the Club’s screening room during construction. In the past, these slides were displayed before a movie. We repaired them because they embody such a distinct feature of that era. The circular screen is like a time-travelling telescope, through which we could peek into the old times.
The “Internal Theater” has no facade, only sections. Its entrance is at the end of the two walls, allowing visitors to first see their reflection in the mirror before they step into the Internal Theater. The space of the club is then reflected through the mirrors, creating the missing stage and orchestra pit.
Two ordinary white walls make the outer form disappear and the internal space emerge. The narrow, towering space defined by the two walls forms a hollow “monument” in the center of the club.
This is an installation of no actual functions. It was only on display for four hours on March 5th and attracted more than 300 visitors, which made us realize the great power of community installation and collective memory.
Since the factory went bankrupt, those people who used to gather in the auditorium to watch movies have taken completely different paths. Some people good at porcelain baking started from a small workshop and even managed to export their works abroad. Some craftsmen turned to emerging sectors such as advertising and activity planning. Quite a few workers were ruthlessly laid off and struggled to make a living.
Despite that they have not met for 20 years, when these old friends reunited in the “refurbished” internal theater, they hugged each other tearfully as if they were never separated. It feels like the old days when they gathered in the auditorium, just this time with their grown-up children. They watched slides displayed one by one on the brick wall, expecting a movie that would never be played.
For these former factory workers who drove more than 30 kilometers here, this white and pure “Internal Theater” is like a white screen, which projects the memory of their past and gone youth. It is also like a monument. People stand in front of it and mourn for the co-living era never to return. After completing this ritual, all of these are once again washed away by the waves and tides of time.