Projects in the Making
Zheng Guogu: The Developer, the Architect, the Gardener & the Emperor

At a time when few Chinese artists can resist the siren call of Beijing’s booming art scene, Zheng Guogu sweeps aside delusions of grandeur in a few words: “I prefer to work in Yangjiang, where I can get great inspiration and seafood.”

Hidden in the periphery of the Pearl River Delta region and far from the foreign investments and massive migration flows to the north, the coastal city of Yangjiang in Guangdong province remains steeped in local rhythms that revolve around playing cards, drinking and meeting with friends. Though born and raised in Yangjiang, Zheng moved 300 kilometers away to Guangzhou for a brief period to study printmaking at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1992.

Zheng got his start in the 1990s Guangdong art scene, leading the artists’ group, Yangjiang Youth, which represented a new generation of artists that had experienced both the economic and political hardships of the end of the Cultural Revolution. In his own practice, Zheng is best known for his trademark text paintings and photorealistic canvases of scenes from international art fairs that satirize China’s rising popularity on the global art circuit. Yet, while some successful artists invest their money in trendy restaurants and business ventures, Zheng—with characteristic audacity—has ploughed his earnings into an ambitious, experimental project entitled The Age of Empire (2001- ).

Inspired by the computer game series Age of Empires, in which players control historical world civilizations, building settlements and mounting war campaigns, Zheng bought 20,000-square meters of farmland on the outskirts of Yangjiang where he is building a real-world replica of the computer game’s virtual communities. He hired legions of workers and developed the land without a permit. After first building a stone wall around the property, Zheng traced the plan on the ground, adding hills and mountains and carving a valley into which he dropped 20 tons of giant boulders. An artificial lake is also underway, and its waters will run through several canyons. Chicken and geese run wild on the grounds.

Still under construction is a vast complex of circular buildings, including a studio and several private villas for Zheng’s friends. Together, the structures form a small village on top of the hill. In Zheng’s grand plan for the property, circular and ovoid forms—a favorite motif in Zheng’s architecture—are visible everywhere, from the main buildings’ elliptical openings to the overall site plan. When he’s not overseeing the construction, Zheng concentrates on the landscape, adding one tree after another—some living, some dead—that he has transplanted from near the Nanling mountains in northern Guangdong.

While Zheng the architect and developer is only concerned with the progress of the construction, Zheng the gardener reworks the landscaping. In addition to these roles, Zheng can claim a new one: emperor. From the top of the hill, he dictates the shape of his world, declaring “that is how I like it.” Zheng’s world is neither flat nor perfect; it resembles a mound of wet clay in the hands of a sculptor, in the process of transformation and reformation. As Zheng recreates the virtual game on real land, he constantly faces myriad problems, in his words: “How to raise the money, how to find the right people to create a structure, how to transport stones, questions of manpower and material. When officials come for inspections, they say ‘What you are doing is illegal’ and then order me to complete the proper procedures.” The emperor, however, remains undeterred.

– Gutierrez + Portefaix in ArtAsia Pacific magazine

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