“In the Chinese province of Yunnan, close to the beautiful Dianchi lake, exists a magic land in the ancient forest where the dwarves live. This is the Land of Dwarves in the World Ecological Garden of Butterfly. The dwarves are diligent, friendly, talented and brave. They have their own capital, their own king, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Public Health, Finance, Culture — even their own army.”
So begins Sanne de Wilde’s faux fairy-tale artist’s statement, the opening words to her new exhibition The Dwarf Empire. The “Dwarf Empire” or “Kingdom of the Little People” is a Chinese amusement park founded in 2009 by Chen Mingjing, a wealthy real estate investor. The enterprise ostensibly serves as both an amusement park and a philanthropic endeavor, aimed at entertaining the masses while improving the difficult lives of little people.
But despite the park’s uplifting rhetoric, it has been subject to international controversy, questioned for its ethics and criticized as exploitative. Is the empire empowering its residents or simply profiting from them, turning them into a inmates at a thinly veiled human zoo?
Wilde was drawn towards the park’s complicated image, the dissonance between its appearance and its reality. In her own words, “The façade of this empire, with its walls of synthetic material, permanently seems on the verge of collapse. Nevertheless, the empire holds its ground…My adventure ended up as a modern anti-fairytale, a collection of images of my making, and theirs. My own trick forced upon myself.”
As Wilde shows in her photographs, the facade is in fine form. At the beginning of the (work)day, the park’s residents emerge from mushroom-shaped houses, where they purportedly sleep. Twice a day, hundreds of the park’s employees take part in fairy tale recreations, hip hop dance routines or in parodies of Swan Lake. Presiding over this display is the Kingdom’s “emperor”, whose wardrobe and position are inspired by the historical trappings of Imperial China.
Once the stage lights turn off, a different world emerges. Indeed, the performers do live in the park, though not in mushroom-shaped houses. They are fed, housed and paid a salary roughly equal to the average university professor. They socialize and enjoy each other’s company. In addition, they are given free English lessons. Despite some outsiders’ outrage, the park’s inhabitants appear to have nothing to complain about; some even call it a kind of paradise, where they can finally live without having to face daily mockery.
“Before we came here, many of us were discriminated against. Here, we are all equals and treated with respect. We feel dignified,” says Ou Jielin, 24, who used to sell clothes in Guangdong, in the South of China. Jielin has even met her soulmate since arriving in the park: one of the employees, whom she hopes to marry. “I feel like it was meant to be. We come from different places but we came here to live as a family. We are all very happy,” she says.
The first question many viewers ask is “Are they happy?”— a question for which Wilde, at least, has no answer. Indeed, this query seems, above all, to be a reflection of the feelings of the onlooker, as if knowing whether the little people are happy is an excuse for the scrutiny that they and their home comes under daily.
So, how should we look at images produced within such a structure? Where does the show begin and where does it end? Wilde does her best to capture as many perspective as possible: a series of portraits of the park’s inhabitants in their costumes, a series of close-ups of the same people after work hours, a series of photos taken as Wilde wandered through both the private and public areas of the park, and a set of photographs of Wilde herself as shot by the inhabitants of the park and tourists.
Thus, the work and the exhibition offer us a disturbingly voyeuristic opportunity while also asking us to question our own desire to see more. Is it wrong to look? Worse to look away? This is not easy work but however it makes you feel, it opens space for conversation and reflection.