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Dreams for a Pure River
Dreams for a Pure River, Chengdu, China
A Floating Sculpture and Performance
By Beth Grossman and Christine Baeumler

Click on images to enlarge.
Dreams for a Pure River is part of a large community-based Participatory Public Art project called Keepers of the Water which took place in Chengdu, China in July and August of 1995. Betsy Damon created this multi-disciplined and cross- cultural Participatory Public Art project to call attention to the importance of restoring and maintaining the local river. She brought together a team of artists and scientists from Beijing, Tibet, Chengdu, and the United States to collaborate on a series of environmental installations, performance art and processions.
As two of the invited artists, we, Beth Grossman and Christine Baeumler, created and organized Dreams for a Pure River, a Participatory Public Art event combining floating sculpture, story telling, Chinese calligraphy, Chinese music, ceremony and procession. The Fu Nan River, which is the major artery through Chengdu, a city of approximately 3 million people, has been terribly polluted by industry, raw sewage, and dumping. When we spoke with local people, they usually placed all of the responsibility on the government, yet restoring the Fu Nan requires a cooperative effort.
Using art, we wanted to engage the Chinese in a dialogue about the environment and encourage individual Chinese to speak out and take responsibility for the care of their own environment. We found hopefulness in their stories about a time when the river was so clean you could wash white silk in it and lotus flowers flourished along the banks.
With the help of an interpreter, we collected local biodegradable materials, including bamboo, rattan baskets, twine, lotus flowers and red ceremonial torches from local farmers and vendors, while gathering stories and sharing information about our event and environmental issues. Students and neighbors helped us assemble small rafts which would later be tied together at the river site to form a large floating lotus flower. An increasing crowd of curious onlookers watched as we assembled the floating sculpture.
We invited an elder storyteller to open our event. Then we offered lotus flowers to all those who wanted to speak their dreams for a clean river and what they would do to accomplish them. The Chinese showed courage in speaking out as individuals publicly and many were eager for the opportunity. After speaking, they placed the lotus flowers into the baskets.
A calligrapher transcribed their thoughts onto a large rice paper scroll which will be presented to the Environmental Protection Agency of Chengdu.

A Chinese musician began our lighting ceremony and the crowd hushed. A dozen helpers then carried the lit sculpture in a procession along the river and through the nearby tea houses. We launched the floating lotus into the Fu Nan River and the crowd ran alongside the sculpture as it was swept down the river. About a mile down, we retrieved it and talked with the crowd as the torches burnt down.

The remnants of the sculpture were offered to any who wanted to reuse the materials. We were happy to see that by the next morning no trace of the sculpture was left. What remained was the memory of everyone coming together to celebrate their precious river and plan to restore it to its glory.