The Backdrop of Chinese Contemporary Art

By Naohiko Hino


Set in Beijing World Park, the plot of Jia Zhangke’s 2004 film The World follows events in the lives of several fictional employees at an actual theme park in Beijing that features miniature recreations of famous scenic spots from around the world. In the film we see the Eiffel Tower at a third of its actual height; a false Stonehenge; a 10-meter-high Leaning Tower of Pisa; the World Trade Center rising from a small rendition of Manhattan in the park’s pond. However, almost everyone at the park is Chinese – not only the visitors, but also the staff, who wear wigs and costumes representative of the respective recreated sites. Everything is fake, but also a purely quotidian part of the lives of those who work there. Just as a showgirl may reveal her darker side once she leaves the glamour of the stage, behind the extraordinary and enjoyable experience of traveling the world in one place are ordinary lives full of gloom.

The Beijing World Park is of course only a theme park, but it has something in common with the contemporary urban landscape of China and its patchwork-like collection of borrowed styles, sometimes mockingly termed “Photoshop architecture.” Yet there is no real point to the clichéd practice of critiquing the “fakeness” of this phenomenon. Rather, it seems more productive to consider the resilience with which the Chinese confront the difficulties particular to their situation.

First, since cities are fundamentally quantitative, we can examine some data that reflect the conditions of Chinese urban centers today. At 37 million, the population of Tokyo (including Yokohama, Chiba, Saitama and other neighboring cities) is the largest single conurbation in the world. However, Shanghai and its surrounding Yangtze River Delta region has a population of 80 million and the Pearl River Delta region (including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau), 47 million. Although these areas are not considered single conurbations in statistical terms, it is already possible to consider them to be the largest urban regions in the world, greatly exceeding Tokyo. Of the total Chinese population of 1.3 billion, 46 percent, or 600 million, live in cities, and it is estimated that in 40 years that figure will increase to 73 percent (1). The current degree of urbanization in China is comparable to that of Japan in the 1960s, but the projected degree of urbanization in China for the year 2050 actually surpasses that of Japan today. Just try to imagine what this urbanization will actually entail. The populations of the Yangtze River Delta region and the Pearl River Delta region only amount to about 10 percent of the country’s total, but these regions account for 45 percent of GDP, and the income gap between the urban and rural areas of China is a well-known issue. The steady flow of migrants drawn to the cities by the prospects of a higher standard of living is hardly unique to the Chinese condition; it has accompanied the modernization process of many countries. However, the scale of this phenomenon is especially large in China, and developing at a blinding speed.

Chinese cities were traditionally planned according to a grid system, with districts divided symmetrically, creating a rectangular form as a whole. Many cities were built based on this archetype, not only those in China but also the ancient capitals of Japan, as well as cities in Korea, Vietnam and other parts of East Asia. The Chinese grid system was, at the time, the de facto standard of the region. The epitome of the Chinese grid system, the Tang-dynasty capital Chang’an had a population of roughly 400,000 in the seventh century, making it the largest city in the world at that time. The grid system was surely not merely ideal but also practical, striking a balance between sufficient capacity and the regulation of society. No other contemporaneous civilizations organized their cities according to such a predetermined format. In other words, China has one of the longest histories and traditions of urban planning in the world.

Of course, this traditional model cannot simply be carried over to the present. A pressing issue for China today is how to reorganize and expand its cities in order to accommodate the rapid changes that have occurred in how cities function since the reform and opening-up of the country beginning in the late 1970s. As long as vast numbers of people continue to flow into the cities, an insufficiency of living space could lead to a destabilization of society. There is no immediate solution for such a quantitative risk. China is pushed forth by this compelling reality – but which way should it turn? When Japan faced a similarly rapid population flux in the 1960s, there was a certain faith in the Modernism of the city and its architecture that contributed to the steady progress of post-war reconstruction and the country’s hosting of the Tokyo Olympics and the Osaka Expo. Japan found its guiding principles in that Modernism. Now, at a time when no such powerful guiding principles exist, China has transformed its cities into vast testing grounds of sorts, using them to experiment with various urban planning methods and determining what succeeds or fails by trial and error. The country whose urban planning was once a popular export has now become a vigorous importer, swallowing practically every drop of the rushing wave of globalized urbanism. A lack of consistency has become the established norm, with one region and the next following completely different urban planning schemes and each implementing their own new advances without any hesitation. Thus, the urban landscape as a whole becomes a chimera, while in order to achieve its aims the government evicts entire neighborhoods at a time, carving up the communal nature of urban living. The underlying logic appears to be that if no one knows what urban planning scheme will succeed, the chances of success would be higher if a variety of schemes are put into practice at once, rather than committing to one in particular.

Either way, in the socialist market economy the government can suspend projects at any time. Attracting investment capital through catchy phrases and visuals, developers prioritize fast results above all else. Development plans that promise strong returns attract investment accordingly, and those that fail to attract investment are left unrealized. In order to accommodate the population influx, the cities’ capacities are being expanded through the accumulation of “mass stock.” The Chinese well understand that after reintroducing the once-suspended market economy and taking in the mechanism of capital, their only choice is to drastically speed up the process of economic development and in doing so ensure the market’s position in society. Given this situation, for bystanders to make judgments on taste seems futile.

Even if these experiments are thus somewhat inevitable, they still present a dire predicament for the inhabitants of these cities. A city that has developed over time has, accordingly, its own culture of urban living, given shape by the “hardware” of the city’s physical environment. But when a place for living is built on the basis of an essentially hit-or-miss approach, the resulting incompatibilities and dislocations that occur at various levels of culture can lead to a confusion of values as well as a crisis of identity.

The purpose of this column is not to discuss the direction of contemporary Chinese art in general, but rather to explore the backdrop against which China’s current art scene is unfolding. On the one hand is a market without a standard, and on the other is the image of a subject that has lost sight of context and is left spinning idly. There is no room for anything like a countercultural structure to come into being, because there is no apparent orthodoxy to be countered. The absence of structure, a dismantled context, a vacant internal image and a lost history – all that these concepts can describe is probably merely a reflection of the Chinese socio-cultural situation.

Of course, potential lies precisely within that which can escape the reach of this kind of situational discourse, within a perspective that thoroughly relativizes this condition. Between shots of the borrowed “landscapes” of Beijing World Park, Jia Zhangke inserts into The World dreamlike sequences made of flimsy Flash animations. These animations have the somehow jaded quality of online video clips, indulging in cheap and commercialistic clichés. But present here is an unwavering gaze that avoids the extrapolative judgments of fake versus real – rendering such distinctions invalid – and instead looks straight at the living reality before anything else. The key issue of the contemporary situation, or the economy of images, lies not in the question of the authenticity of images, but rather in the relativization of and commitment to the system of this economy, and thusly in a move toward what Walter Benjamin describes as the politicization of aesthetics.

Based in Tokyo, Naohiko Hino is an architect and writer, and principal of Hino Architect’s Office.


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