Kan Xuan Millet Mounds
Kan Xuan Millet Mounds

A few brief comments on an interesting work by Kan Xuan, Millet Mounds (2012).
Millet mounds consists of more than 200 small screens, each of them broadcasting a brief, looped video. Kan Xuan uses a stop-motion technique, stitching together hundreds of individual still photographs.

Each series documents a Chinese imperial tomb and the way it is in relationships with local people. The installation takes its title from the nickname used by Northern Chinese villagers to refer to burial mounds by virtue of their resemblance to the grain stacks. Burial mounds, archaeological details, trees, plants, streets, faces, bicycles, festoons: everything enters into the narrative of Kan Xuan An interior and exterior landscape, often far away from the places and the stereotypes of mass tourism, since most of these tombs are located in remote and forgotten places . In the excellent article Tom J.L. Baxter has dedicated to this artist we can read:

“Kan Xuan’s purpose however, is not to provide an explication of the history of these tombs, but rather to engage in a twofold exploration of their present reality. She is focused in the first instance on the composition of these remarkable hybrid landscapes, the ways in which “man-and nature-made” have become fully intermeshed. Secondly, ‘Millet Mounds’ concentrates on what it means to be of the present and in daily interaction with a landscape of the past, on how people in their everyday lives negotiate an understanding of this particular environment”.


Now, while Millet Mounds, on the one hand, investigates a typical contemporary hybrid, the intersection of past and present, on the other hand, it is still possible to establish an interesting parallel with a famous Chinese movie from the Forties. This proves we are in front of a work that focuses on one of the most important existential and artistic subject matter: the time.

The movie we are talking about is “Spring in a small town” by Fei Mu.

One of the interesting things is the fact protagonists, in 4 different sequences, talking about their lives, or about a moment of it, they relate it to the ancient town walls, of which, however, we do not see anything but fragments.

Now, from this connection mixed feelings arise in the main characters, a sort of desire between what is and what it could or it could have been.

A modern sensitivity persuades Fei Mu to treat such a subject in such original way. Just for this reason Chinese Communist Party rejected the film for decades stigmatizing its political disengagement as well as its petty-bourgeois mentality.

(“rehabilitathed” in the Eighties, the film is currently ranked among the great classics of Chinese film)

It is precisely this sense of daydreaming (a sort of feeling of haziness) that the images by Kan Xuan share with it, unconsciously of course. Kan Xuan casts a glance at the contemporary China and how its past enters into relationship with its present. So there it is, an epic novel of an experience focused on the present and yet on a feeling of remoteness of individuals. It is not by coincidence that the slides show alternatively the landscape, several details in nature, the graves, the archeological ruins and local people, as to evoke a reflection on the flow of time, the historical layers of a site and their relationship with the communities living there.

Kan Xuan "Millet Mounds"
Kan Xuan “Millet Mounds”







Directed by FEI MU

Translated by Andrew F. Jones


min 1

[Yuwen, the young wife, walks along city wall]

VOICEOVER (V/O): Living in a small town, living a life where nothing ever changes. Everyday after I’m done buying groceries I like to walk for a while along the top of the city wall. It’s already become a habit with me. Walking along the city wall, I feel as if I’ve left this world behind. My eyes see nothing. My mind is empty. If it weren’t for the vegetable basket on my arm and the medicine for my husband in my hand, I might not go home all day.

SUBTITLE: Wei Wei As Zhou Yuwen, the Wife


min 32

[The four characters walk along the city wall]

Yuwen, the young wife V/O: We go out walking with no particular destination in mind. We somehow end up on the city wall. I walk behind the rest of them. He…he stands and stops and waits for me.


min 35-36

ZZC, the doctor: After breakfast, make up some excuse so that we can take a walk together. And talk things over.

YuWen: Where to?

ZZC: The city wall.

[cut to city wall]

V/O: A feeling of helplessness. Atop this broken-down and hollowed-out old city wall.

ZZC: How long do you feeling like spending up here?

YW: Being like this… I could spend all day.


min 45

ZZC, the doctor: It seems that you all like to come up to the top of the city wall. Why’s that?

DX, thr young sister: This is the only interesting place in town. You can walk along the wall forever and when you look so far into the distance that you can’t see anything at all you start to realize that the world isn’t so small after all. You know, Big brother Zhang, in a small town like this, and especially with a family like ours, you could suffocate to death. Take Big Sister: everyday when she’s done with the grocery shopping, she walks on the city wall. Maybe that’s the only way she can let go a little and it’s only after she lets go that she finds the courage to go on. Big brother Zhang? What are you thinking about? Did you hear a word I just said?


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