Seeing Like A State, China, (2013 – on-going)

I would conquer the Cedar Forest. I will set my hand to it and chop it down.
— Epic of Gilgamesh

In a barren desert, a huge lake has been carved out of the sandy ground like a mirage. It embodies the defining development in China today: rampant urbanisation. With unprecedented scale and speed, China’s government is transforming it from a rural country to an urban one, marking a tumultuous chapter of human history. Rulers’ impulse to control nature and society has been found since the beginning of human civilization, but has usually been held in check by religious taboos or technological limitations. Over the past hundred years, the rise of science and the authoritarian state has obliterated those boundaries, and led to a complete reforming of our ecological, political, and social landscapes. As the anthropologist James C. Scott puts it, these projects to flatten and organize are designed to make society more “legible”–easier for governments to read and thus to control. In his book Seeing Like a State, Scott shows how in countries like China, the state knows no limits, leaving technocrats free to reimagine the country according to their vision.

I have been documenting this change for the past 11 years while living in China. Its Leviathan-like hand has made urbanisation and high-modernist ideals of highways and tower blocks seem like the only way to a better life. That involves sculpting desert landscapes into new cities, rechanneling vast ancient rivers through concrete aquaducts, or wrecking disorderly but organic traditional forms of living to build sanitised skyscrapers over their demolished skeletons. What becomes of the people? Some are bewildered in front of these new, ghostly reflections. Shoe-horned into housing silos at night, they spill out onto the streets, trying to recreate the communal village life of traditional China under tents–negotiating a vision of the future that they had no say in shaping. China now counts more urban than rural residents. That has far-reaching effects on global consumption and depletion of resources. This zeal to take control over nature, space, and man is how the state, the world’s newest superpower sees and acts.

Sim Chi Yin

Sim Chi Yin (b. 1978, Singapore) focuses on history, memory, conflict, and migration and its consequences through the mediums of photography and new media.

The Nobel Peace Prize photographer for 2017, her photo and video work has been exhibited in museums, galleries, and photo and film festivals in Asia, the United States and Europe, including at the Istanbul Biennale in 2017, at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, and at PhotoVille in New York, the Annenberg Space For Photography in Los Angeles, Southeastern Center For Contemporary Art in North Carolina, Tom Blau gallery in London, and the Arko Art Center and Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art in South Korea. Her work has also been screened at Les rencontres d'Arles and Visa pour l'Image festivals in France, and the Singapore International Film Festival. She does commissioned work for global publications, such as The New York Times Magazine,
Time, National Geographic, The New Yorker and Harpers.

Chi Yin won the Chris Hondros Award in 2018. She was an inaugural Magnum Foundation Social Justice and Photography fellow at New York University in 2010, and a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography in 2013. She was listed as one of 30 emerging photographers globally by Photo District News in 2013 and in British Journal of Photography’s “Ones to Watch” in 2014. That year, she was Her World Magazine’s “Young Woman Achiever of the Year”.

Chi Yin read history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is from Singapore and has been based in Beijing for the past decade. She works with photography, film, sound, text and archival material.

Chi Yin was with VII Photo Agency from 2011 to 2017, as a mentee and then a member. She recently joined Magnum Photos as a nominee. She is researching a book on the early Cold War that tells the story of her grandfather, his compatriots and their anti-colonial battle in British Malaya, and working on a global project on sand.