Thursday, September 14, 2006

Shanghai Biennial

Hyper-Design is the theme of this year's Shanghai Biennial. Design is so often judged by the functionality of a finished product. Artistic value, while perhaps not in opposition to functionality, at least seems to be somewhat inconsequential to the supposed value of design: function. But the act of designing, our curators say, is human controlled creation. Necessarily creation imitates creator, and as such, there are socio-cultural phenomena, philosophy, all the mundane and spectacular of humanity apparent in created structures. Thus art is embedded in the whole of design, and art is inextricable from function. I believe the curators are trying to express that design as a work of art cannot be judged merely by the worth of a tangible finished product, but by the way a design reflects the creative values of the artist who created it and society from which it emerged. “Hyper-Design” is a movement toward this nuanced, socially cognizant appreciation of design, and the Biennial showcases manifestations of this idea from China and around the world.

China’s transformation into a modern, urbanized culture, and its sudden, blistering economic surge is clearly reflected in art from its citizens and foreign observers. Recurring throughout Chinese artworks at the Biennial were pieces that dealt with the rapidity of China’s urbanization, disconnect between traditional Chinese values and new Western ones, and flood of industrialism and consumerism that is sweeping through China. Judgments on China’s transformation ranged from fear and resolute disappointment, like Qiu Anxiong’s apocalyptic animation

The New Sutra of Mountain and Ocean, to reverent fascination, like Allesandra Tessi’s Rose of Shanghai, a radiant visual installation in homage to Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower.

One of the more profound installations in my estimation is Lee Kyong-Ho’s Moonlight Sonata 2006. Occupying an entire darkened exhibition hall, the first perception the visitor has is audible, as he or she is met by a symphony of whirring click-clacks upon approaching the darkened exhibition hall. The installation features rows and rows of electric toy bulldozers, excavators, and cranes, lit by tiny floodlights and the huge projection moon on the opposite wall, all buzzing indifferently and battering the ground. Projectors are placed at different areas around the miniature vehicles, and project an eerie shadow of the lonesome scooping of excavator arms on the surrounding walls.

Despite the loud assembly, the feeling in the room is serene, as night construction sites usually are, and exertions of the tiny machinery emit a soothing rhythm. Moonlight Sonata 2006 is an example of art in our every day life: the symphony of machinery and human creation that’s performed each day, or in this case, night. Beyond that, Kyon-Ho’s installation reflects the seemingly overnight growth of China and Asia: a relentless nocturnal game of catch-up, played while the rest world was sleeping.

The designs of this year’s Biennial all reflected the state of change in China, and the apprehension, wonder, and intrigue of the artists shine in their work. The 2006 Shanghai Biennial is about a culture in flux, and I think a question for 2008 will be: How much has change become the norm in China?

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