Beijing Silvermine is a unique photographic portrait of the Chinese capital and the life of its inhabitants in the decades following the Cultural Revolution.

Since 2009 Beijing-based collector Thomas Sauvin has amassed, edited and archived more than half a million photographic negatives destined for destruction in a recycling plant on the edge of the city. It was here that Sauvin encountered a man by the name of Xiao Ma who stockpiles negatives, x-rays, compact discs and other detritus to melt down and filter for their silver nitrate content intended to be sold to laboratories. Recognising a rare chance to rescue abandoned memories, Sauvin struck up a deal to buy these photographic negatives by the kilo. This ‘silvermine’ of anonymous subjects and vernacular photography styles covers a period of roughly 20 years – from 1985, when affordable consumer film first came into widespread use in China, to 2005 when digital photography encouraged the mass disposal and willful neglect of film.

Video: Beijing Silvermine – Thomas Sauvin from Emiland Guillerme on Vimeo.

In his phenomenal accumulation of photographs Thomas Sauvin allows us to witness the intimate and public lives of ordinary Chinese people during a period of immense social change. These material images reveal the mundane and extraordinary moments in everyday life that have been rescued from oblivion. More than just a glimpse into the lives of people that might otherwise have been invisible participants in an impersonal collective history, the subject of Beijing Silvermine is as much the wondrous, imperfect and perishable qualities of film photography itself – its delayed surprises between the split-second of exposure and the alchemical magic of development.

Beijing Silvermine at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art presents a selection of photographs from this extraordinary archive curated by Thomas Sauvin that explore universal themes of love, leisure, birth, youth, happiness and the subtle changes – both in domestic settings and in the wider public realm – that the economic opening to the West brought into ordinary Chinese people’s lives. Also presented are two mesmerising video animations, produced by Beijing-based animator Lei Lei in collaboration with Sauvin, that reveal the surreal imagescape and stupendous depth of the Silvermine.

Beijing Silvermine opens at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art on Saturday 11 January 2014, 2pm – 4pm to be officially opened by Councillor Robert Kok of the City of Sydney, with special guest speaker Linda Jaivin, novelist, writer, translator and Visiting Fellow, Australian National University.

Thomas Sauvin Photo by Matjaz Tancic 02

Thomas Sauvin is a French photography collector, editor and curator who lives in Beijing. Since 2006 he has worked as a consultant for the UK-based Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) for whom he collects Chinese work, from contemporary art photography to period publications and anonymous photography. A glimpse into this collection is presented in the photobook Happy Tonite published by AMC in 2010. Sauvin has participated in exhibitions including Photographic Oddities from the AMC, Caochangdi Photo Festival, Beijing (2012), and more recently his project Beijing Silvermine has been presented by Singapore International Photo Festival (2012); FORMAT Photo Festival, Derby, UK (2013); The Salt Yard, Hong Kong (2013); and Lianzhou Foto Festival (2013), China’s premier international photography festival, where it received New Photography Award of the Year. Sauvin’s Silvermine, a limited edition five-album set of photographs from his archive, was shortlisted for the Paris Photo Aperture Foundation First Photobook Award 2013 and was selected by renowned English photographer Martin Parr as one of the Best Photobooks of the Year for The British Journal of Photography.

Lei Lei is a Chinese multimedia animation artist based in Beijing with experience in graphic design, illustration, short cartoons, graffiti and hip-hop. In 2005, while still in school, he founded the design group Raydesign Studio and in 2009 received his master’s degree in animation from Tsinghua University, Beijing. His works have been screened in international festivals and have received numerous awards.

Emiland Guillerme is a French filmmaker and journalist currently based in Rome. Since graduating in journalism from La Sorbonne his news stories have appeared in The New York Times, France 2 and Canal + among others. His short documentary Silvermine (2012) about Thomas Sauvin’s project is included in 4A’s exhibition.



Steve Dow, Exhibition captures life from negative past, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 2014.

SBS Radio – Chinese (Mandarin), Listen to the radio podcast online.

Nicholas Forrest, 10 Must-See Exhibitions in Australia in 2014, Artinfo, 30 December 2013.

Luise Guest, Objet Trouve Chinois, The Art Life, 17 January 2014.

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