IIn the late 1920s and early 1930s, two sleepy corners of Essex awoke to the modern world. Czech shoe giant Tomáš Baťa’s model town grew out of nothing in the swamps of East Tilbury: a working-class community with everything just steps from the front doors of its flat-roofed houses, the shoe factory to the football field, from the ballroom to the cinema. Window maker Francis Critall, meanwhile, had just transformed “a cluster of rural cottages” into Silver End, a similar model village outside Braintree. Today, with the fashion industry’s production now centered on East Asia, the tattered Bata shoe factory is listed, although its communal buildings are gone. Silver End’s art deco villas fared better, as trophy properties worthy of restoration.
Wanting an alternative take on Essex modernism, Southend’s Focal Point Gallery invited Chinese artist Cui Jie to visit these sites in 2019. Cui made a name for herself as a chronicler of the modern Chinese experience, exploring the rapidly changing cityscape of Beijing, Hong Kong, and her hometown, Shanghai, in layered impressionist paintings. Prevented from returning to the UK when the pandemic hit, she found an unexpected point of comparison in Shanghai: the 1951 Caoyang New Village. Like the Essex developments, this artisan textile workers housing project was all-inclusive, with a cinema, shopping centre, hospital, school and plenty of green space. And as with Essex, its outlook on community life has crumbled as industrial conditions have changed.
It’s less the architecture that interests Cui, however, than “the elements that you don’t find anywhere today: who once lived there, the community way of life and the intimacy between people. Unlike buildings, traces of life can easily disappear. A number of his works explore how the aspirations and ideology of communities are shaped by our environment. In the drawings, the social realist public statues of Caoyang – among which weavers with their arms raised like conquering deities – merge with the buildings of the Bata domain. Elsewhere, the cinemas of Bata and Caoyang merge. Although Western and Chinese films are poles apart politically, she points out that “they were both ritual spaces where the public must be collectively fascinated. We can clearly see the aesthetic function of the statues: they reveal the ideal state of trance.
Other works explore how our collective inner life is changing. In a nighttime scene, Harlow Town Hall is dwarfed by a broadcast mast and enveloped in a densely woven black grid that suggests the web of our digital age, where human relationships are monetized through social media.
While workers’ villages evoke a bygone flowering of integrated living, Cui also wants us to reflect on the lessons to be learned from past mistakes. “Collectivism deserves reconsideration,” she says, “but the plans behind these practices also call for criticism. Endless industrialization leads to ecological crises. We need to rethink the relationship between us and nature.
The connections between us, the built environment and nature begin to burst in paintings that, unlike Cui, depict people. In his Ground Invading Figures series, villagers appear in comfortable intimacy, hands and knees touching. Yet the backgrounds are sketched and highlighted, so that they culminate in these self-contained groups. While evoking maps or aerial shots or architects’ plans, for Cui these segments “also relate to nature, the omnipresent sky, forests or even the air, and appear in the form of a ecological crisis. What is usually overlooked is rendered bright, oversized, and hard to ignore, “eating up the edges” of human subjects.
The Lost Worlds: Four Works by Cui Jie
Village du bout d’argent, 2021
Cui Jie explores the commonalities between purpose-built worker villages in Essex and Caoyang New Village in Shanghai. “To maximize profit, [British] factories moved to places where land and human resources were cheaper – East Asia for example,” she says. “Caoyang New Village declined with China’s transition from a planned economy to a market economy in the 1980s. This kind of communal life is long gone and the memories are fading.
Basildon, 2021 (main image)
Cui’s new paintings take modernist visions across Essex, including the shops of Basildon tucked under a long-gone curved overhang. Suspended in an abstract space, the buildings appear as apparitions or, as she puts it, “unreachable utopian dreams”.
Silver End Village and Caoyang Sculpture, 2021
“The designs feature a statue of a spinning worker wearing an apron, holding cotton flowers high in her right hand and fabrics in her left,” Cui explains. “In Caoyang New Village, many residents were textile workers, and the statue was placed at the entrance to the communal park. Now it is removed.
Ground invasive figurine #50, 2022
A series of paintings depict the early inhabitants of the villages, while highlighting the background in an intentionally shocking way. The characters were inspired by early Caoyang publicity stills, and Cui’s research of daily life in Essex included old films and photographs of sporting events and dances.
New Model Village is at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, until June 12.