Living Among the Dead – Kan Xuan’s 阚萱 ‘Millet Mounds’ 大谷子堆

The following review is written by Tom Baxter, a recent graduate from the University of Glasgow, where he received the Library Dissertation Prize for his dissertation on the origins of the national minorities issue in China and the Soviet Union. He was also awarded the Thomas Logan Memorial Prize for distinction in the arts and humanities. He now lives, studies and writes in Beijing and can be contacted at:; his Twitter account is @TomBaxter17. We would like to thank the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Arts (UCCA) for permission to reproduce their poster announcement of Kan Xuan’s exhibition.—The Editor


From 15 September to 10 November 2012, the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Arts (UCCA) in the 798 Art District of Beijing hosted a large-scale exhibition by the Anhui-born, multidisciplinary artist, Kan Xuan 阚萱. The work, ‘Millet Mounds’ 大谷子堆, a video-installation, or 影像装置, explores the physical and social geography of northern China’s ancient dynastic burial mounds, which date from the Han to the Ming dynasties, a period of around 1800 years, and the modern communities now living around this region’s scattered ruins. Kan Xuan’s exploration of these ancient landscapes shows how mystery-laden and richly inscribed with meaning they are.  Her art draws attention to the importance of grass-root and individual negotiation of meaning while highlighting the ways in which these remarkable places project an overlapping of past and present.

‘Millet Mounds’ consists of 174 short, looped slide shows, which run fast enough to be viewed as videos. Each series of slides follows a short journey through a small area of space amongst the ruins of dynastic tombs and monuments in the blistered and dusty plains of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan and Shandong. A number of examples are available to be watched here, here and here.  The slides are displayed across three rooms on screens attached to a number of low, four-sided, breeze-block structures. The artist spent over 100 days, travelling over 28,000km, visiting and recording everyday journeys around these forgotten relics of China’s grand past.

The Guanzhong Plain of Shaanxi 陕西关中平原 (also known as the Weihe Plain 渭河平原), along with other areas around the ancient capitals of Xi’an and Luoyang, were the favoured burial places of emperors and their entourages.  Over successive dynasties, China’s emperors had fantastic burial mounds constructed for themselves, along with approaches lined with stone steles and statues. As a result the landscape of the area is literally strewn with markers of China’s distant glorious past, of bygone eras and their conceptual orders. This human-sculpted landscape, where the past is ubiquitous and intersects riotously with the present is intoxicating indeed, and many have become obsessed with its haunting aura. Adding to this mystique, China’s grand historian, Sima Qian 司马迁, had described the resting place of the First Emperor of the Qin 秦始皇 in his second century B.C.E. work, Records of the Historian, with reference to the arcana of Daoist alchemy: ‘Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea.'[1] The Qianling 乾陵 tomb complex from the Tang dynasty, famous for the still un-excavated tomb of the notorious Empress Wu Zetian 武则天, has also been a constant fascination for travellers and the archaelogical community.[2]

A number of Westerners have been led to speculate wildly, in a lost Shangri-La-like search, on China’s own ancient pyramid civilisation.[3] Kan Xuan’s purpose however, is not to provide an explication of the history of these tombs, but rather to engage in a twofold exploration of their present reality. She is focussed in the first instance on the composition of these remarkable hybrid landscapes, the ways in which man- and nature-made have become fully intermeshed. Secondly, ‘Millet Mounds’ concentrates on what it means to be of the present and in daily interaction with a landscape of the past, on how people in their everyday lives negotiate an understanding of this particular environment.

Kan Xuan’s work blurs the distinction between past and present, reflecting old and new as always overlapping. Even the breeze-block structures on which the screens are mounted seem caught between identification as a ruin or a new construction. The work is first and foremost about the juxtaposition of the signs and spatial configurations of past and present, and the conflict of meaning and identity to which the sites of juxtaposition give rise. Kan Xuan highlights the spaces she explores as zones of conflict and contestation. This conflict is emphasised most strongly in the groups of slides which show an awkward, unnatural overlapping of geometries. A number of slides display the line of sight from one burial mound or stele to another, often emphasised by the age-old furrows of a ploughed field, starkly interrupted by the aggressive angle of overhead telephone wires. What is shown is not just an off-kilter, awkward geometric arrangement. The two sets of contrasting straight lines serve to juxtapose two worlds, two conceptual orders, disparate in time but united in a single space. The one, the ancient, of Chinese geomancy, which for millennia has shaped much of China’s landscape through the consideration by city and tomb designers of the laws of heaven and earth, and the balance of the five elements. The other of modernist efficiency, which carves up the geography of contemporary China with lines determined by party-state fiat, speed and profit margins. One is of the conceptual world of qi, longevity and bounty, the other of the hyper-reality of the Party-dominated industrialised information age. In one space, one camera shot, then, two divergent conceptual orders are embodied in the landscape.

Kan Xuan also explores everyday life in these spaces of complex meaning. One video shows two young children playing on a centuries-old statue of a horse as if it were a playground see-saw, while another shows a man riding a motorbike through the courtyard of a dilapidated temple, using this ancient construction as a highway between two outposts of twenty-first century Chinese life. These and many others of the 174 short slide-shows not only juxtapose the signifiers of the conceptual orders of past and present, but also beg the viewer to ask what navigation through, daily interaction with and daily life within these complex spaces entails in regard to personal and collective identity.

Although Kan Xuan raises such issues in her work, the artist emphasises that her creation is neither anthropological nor archaeological.[4] Its intent is neither to uncover nor to excavate ‘truths’. Rather, the artist declares, its emphasis is on transporting the viewer via 174 small journeys of critical negotiation of meaning, a journey in and through spaces of conflicting pasts and presents. No neat, official explanation is offered. There is no masking or eradication of the contradictions.

In this sense ‘Millet Mounds’ serves as a riposte to official explanations of the past and the present, the top-down imposition of meaning as offered by the Chinese Communist Party, especially in its recent articulations of cultural nationalism and cultural diplomacy. Kan Xuan’s work solely explores locations without official blurbs. In contrast to the famous Qianling Mausoleum and the Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor’s tomb, the burial mounds explored by Kan Xuan are all non-musuem spaces; they are spaces beyond the grasp of the official narrative and presentation of China’s vaunted 5,000 years of unbroken history. The viewer is therefore made to engage in the opposite process of that ordained by the party-state: that of a personal negotiation and understanding of the past and the present. It is the same process which the local communities of the Guanzhong Plain engage with on a daily basis, the outcome of which forms their relation to the enmeshed landscape and history of their environment.

‘Millet Mounds’ is the colloquial term for these burial mounds used by villagers across China’s central plain. It infuses these burial mounds with meaning derived from both the present and the local, shunning the grandeur of Chinese dynastic history in favour of the everyday reality of grain farming.

‘Millet Mounds’ is a powerful and engaging work that challenges the viewer to negotiate and comprehend the ubiquitous presence of China’s long history in its present without official or guided mediation.



[1] Sima Qian, Records of the Historian 史记, 6:47, online at:

[2] See Bruce Doar, ‘To Dig or Not to Dig: Qianling Mausoleum in the Spotlight Again‘, China Heritage Quarterly, No.8 (December), 2006.

[3] See for example, ‘The Fabulous 1,000-foot White Pyramid of Xi’an’, the author of which offers a brief history of European and American mystical speculations on the burial mounds of China’s central plain, as well as the author’s own theory regarding ‘the Secret Society of the White Pyramid of China‘.