Originally published in Places Journal, March 2010
Trans Siberia by artists and architects Greta Hansen and Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong should win an award for its ambitious timetable, not to mention expeditionary endurance. The challenge? Trace the historic spread of communist ideology through building typology. How? Travel the 5,000 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing during the dead of winter, stopping off at fourteen cities along the way. Get off at each stop to photograph and draw the administrative buildings and centers of power. Then, return to the United States, where you will quickly design and execute an exhibition from these findings.
It’s a challenge that melds politics, architectural history, photography, drawing and exhibition design, under a time crunch and the discomforts, discoveries and forced intimacy of extended foreign travel. The results — now on exhibit at Studio-X New York — are an expansive and heady survey of little-understood and even less-visited cities. Visitors will discover Perm, once a nuclear testing zone that was silently unchartered on Soviet maps and unpassable even for Soviets of that era (official papers were required for entry or exit), as well as Changchun, China, whose suburban administration recalls corporate office parks dotting the outskirts of countless Sun Belt cities — yet whose scale is distinctly Chinese in terms of building practice and the display of state power.
Elsewhere along the route, imperial buildings have been twice repurposed — first under communism and then under post-Soviet capitalism. And in the city of Manzhouli, in Inner Mongolia, fantastical, candy-colored architecture stands in defiant contrast to that city’s typically austere monuments to officialdom.
Throughout their trip, the duo wore five pairs of pants to stay warm, accessed little fresh fruit or vegetables, and drank a lot of vodka on snow-covered sidewalks. After hoofing it over six time zones and twenty-five days, the pair emerged from the frozen Russian landscape into a China alit with New Year festivities. Concluding their project in Beijing, where the travelers were denied photographic or pedestrian access to that city’s administration, they made due by photographing the bureaucratic complex’s gates anyway. It’s a somewhat vexing closing image to a journey that tries, but in this case fails, to undo Western stereotypes of non-transparent Chinese governance. Yet, Hansen and Wong suggest that Trans Siberia is not a fixed or complete exhibition, but rather a beginning point toward understanding larger cultural similarities and differences. For example, cities (including Beijing) along the route contain both open and closed administration buildings and centers, where local and foreign visitors are routinely granted or denied access, and which offer rich platforms for future inquiry.