It’s a scene from the end of the world – a pallid sun struggles to push through a thick polluted haze to the ground below, where an endless miasma of cold grey mud covers the ground as far as the eye can see, pitted with pools of stinking green water. Men, such men as can live and work amongst the mud, move slowly and laboriously through the landscape, mud sucking at their every step. They work side by side with rusting hulks of dirty machines digging at the mud and belching smoke and nearby mud-covered pipes spew liquid mud endlessly from one filthy pool to another. Mud moves from one place to the next, covering everything, colouring everything.
The sky is pierced by towers of steel rigging, soon to be cranes, and in every direction for as far as the eye can see are the hazy silhouettes of cranes on other building sites littering the horizon like so many giant skeletal weathervanes, pointing the way to some dystopian future. Flagpoles planted to stake a claim in the earth.
This is a construction site in the ‘New Town’ of Ningbo, next door to the Ningbo International Finance Centre where I spent a day last week photographing their public art at on my first real ‘professional’ photography gig. Ningbo, I suspect, is a city built largely on mud, sitting on the coastal cusp of the Yangtze delta. Mud barons have spent gazillions to create glittering towers from displaced mud, where before were only flatlands and barren wetlands.
While I searched for a vantage point to photograph a particular artwork at the Finance Centre I realized I had a birdseye view over the foundation groundworks nearby, normally hidden completely by twelve feet of impenetrable hoarding around the site perimeter. Within that perimeter hundreds of men (and women labourers too) live and work, surrounded every day by all that mud.
Of course, this hideous mud-covered scene is particular to part of the east coast of China where sediment from as far away as Tibet washes out to the sea, advancing the coast of China by an inch a day. Extraordinary to think all that sediment will make China one mile wider in about a hundred and seventy years. But this kind of building isn’t confined to Ningbo’s new financial district, it’s going on all over the country.
China, every last inch of it, is in the grip of a building boom so vast, with a scope so broad, so deep, and so tall it beggars belief. If I hadn’t crossed the country top to bottom and east to west and seen it for myself I couldn’t even begin to imagine the extent of it. Millions of metres of new roads, thousands of new skyscrapers, hundreds of bridges and tunnels.
I watched this man in intervals over the course of the entire day as he shovelled mud, by hand, from the left side of the roadway to the right. Mud continued to ooze from some unseen source, undoing all his work and he would begin clearing the same section of road all over again. It seemed rather futile in the grand scheme of building a skyscraper from scratch, but the more I watched him and thought about it, the more it brought home to me that every skyscraper is the work of thousands and thousands of hands, shovelling, hammering, welding and grinding. And moving mud.