The Rockbund Art Museum celebrates the fantasy of Chinese farmers. It is filled with airplanes, robots and submarines handmade by inventors from China’s countryside.

Text and photos: Remko Tanis

in Shanghai, China (2010)

You’d have to be in a really persistent bad mood if you manage to walk out of the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai and still be pissed off at the world. The museum is filled to the brim with objects that inspire and testify how a lot is possible if you really want it. Although some items are outright ridiculous.

There’s submarines shaped like giant fish, airplanes made out of wood, weird looking ufos and robots that will pull your rickshaw for you.

UFO build by Du Wenda. Text on the wall reads: ‘I have never learned to land.’ Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

All are creations of Chinese farmers. The structures could come straight out of a comic book or a Jules Verne story. Some exhibit an almost childlike belief in possibilities. Because why wouldn’t you build a submarine from scrap material and shape it like a fish?

Make no mistake: the farmer-inventors responsible for these magical objects are deadly serious about their projects. Some have been laboring for decades. Having failed most of the time, or let’s be honest: all the time, they’re determined to keep going and one day build that small aircraft that will actually take to the skies.

Their persistence, even when facing hardship in their day job as farmers, cannot but be cause for optimism.

However, their pursuits come with risks. Farmer Tang Chengnian’s aircraft makes that crystal clear. It’s the first object visitors to the Rockbund see, hanging from ceiling wires. More precise: it’s the wreckage of Tang’s creation, named Cheng Nian 3.

The dashboard dial dangles by the engine’s exhaust pipe. Opposite, Tang looks at it from a photo hanging on the wall.

The wreckage of the Cheng Nian 3 hanging in the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, China.

The wreckage of the Cheng Nian 3 hanging in the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, China.

It happened on 8 April 2007, the birthday of Tang’s wife. His present for her was to be proof that he actually, finally managed to build a flying aircraft. The Cheng Nian 3 is a red and white colored box with two big wings attached to it. Shortly after he flew it into the air, his creation came crashing down again. Tang, 50 years old, did not survive.

The wreckage of the Cheng Nian 3 serves as a dedication to all the farmer-inventors, says artist Cai Guo-Qiang (52), who collected the objects for this exhibition.

“Everything you see here has been handmade by real people with real stories from the real world,” Cai says. It’s more than foolishness. The inventions serve as a testimony to the limitless fantasies embedded in people who are looked down upon by society.

Outside, in the museum’s courtyard, sits ‘Helicopter number 2’, a creation by Xu Bin. It’s made up of a green, plastic chair like you’ll find in any bus station. It’s bolted to a steel red beam and has rotor blades rising above it. The tail behind it is made out of aluminum.

On the wall next to it, a text painted in man-sized characters reads: ’Whether it can fly or not is not important’.

Creations build by Chinese farmer-inventors on exhibit at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, China.

Creations build by Chinese farmer-inventors on exhibit at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, China.

“These aircraft have been made with so much love by these farmers who dare to dream,” says Cai. “They just keep on going, designing, building, fiddling. I’m very moved by the utter uselessness of many of these inventions. That’s why they’re art: something people treat very seriously, but in the end you can’t really use it for anything practical.”

The steel, fish shaped submarine inside the museum is the creation of 69-year old Li Yuming. He has spent six years in his village in northern China, trying to build a working submarine.

His latest model is still far removed from that goal. Sure, it’ll go under water, but there’s no way it’ll ever surface. Also: it lacks any means of propulsion.

“Those are just details,” says Li - proof of his unlimited optimism. “Eventually I will build a submarine that works. It will give people the freedom to travel underseas as they do now overland.”

Wu Yulu (48) from Mawu, a village close to Beijing, is China’s most famous farmer-inventor. He’s been building robots since he was 18 years old.

Wu-25 is one of his creations. It’s a robot that can move a rickshaw with people in it. The man-sized machine moves one step every four seconds, while its ears move back and forth and his tin mouth says: ‘Wu Yulu is my dad. I am taking him to do groceries.’

A robot build by farmer-inventor Wu Yulu, imitating French artist Yves Klein at work.

A robot build by farmer-inventor Wu Yulu, imitating French artist Yves Klein at work.

For this exhibit in Shanghai Wu built robots that imitate modern artists. Like the Jackson Pollock machine that lifts a brush from a can of orange paint and then splash the paint onto a piece of paper. Just like the real deal.

“Feel free to observe my splash art, thank you,” the robot says in a faintly mocking tone, childishly rolling its eyes made out of ping pong balls.

Farmer Du Wenda (44) was so focused on making sure his UFO could fly, he forgot to invent a way to make it land again. The saucer has been parked on an open square next to the museum. Across the wall behind it, it reads: ‘I’ve never learned to land.’

Words befitting all these farmer-inventors. They’ve never learned to touch down from their fantasy worlds into the harsh reality. One where they’re considered not much more than poor schmucks and a good source of cheap labour.

They refuse to land into that reality, but keep on working and dreaming, building a world where they fly in their own machines.