Thursday, October 16, 2008

Imaginary City, Imaginary Life

At first glance, the theme of the 2008 Shanghai Biennale, "Translocalmotion", seems to have a hidden agenda. Basing its curatorial discourse on the development of the urban city and its cultural implications on the local and global level, the exhibition could be seen in light of China's rise as a world power, and could be attached to the same propaganda campaign as the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. In fact, the introductory curatorial statement simply reverts the World Expo's Slogan, "Better City, Better Life", instead asking "can cities make our life better?" Taking such biases into account, it would follow that the exhibition would view urban growth and modernization in a positive light and would omit conflicting critiques. Yet, in the 2008 Shanghai Biennale there is also a substantial body of work that reflects on the consequences, albeit negative or simply an inevitable fact of urban development, which would go against this seeming advertisement of the great city of Shanghai. In fact, some of the works contradict the very notion of Shanghai itself and what it aims to represent.

            Mike Kelley's installation, entitled Kander-Con 2000, takes as its starting point the fantasy of the futurist city and highlights its inevitable fallacies. Basing the work on the portrayal of the city in the original Superman comics, Kelley incorporates video, projections, architectural models, publicity banners, and collage to create an environment that represents a convention for fans of a fictitious comic hero. Kander-Con 2000 marks a dissolution with the fantastical imaginary city and modernism's aspirations, the very paradigm that contemporary Shanghai is built on. In 1990, Shanghai was earmarked by the Chinese government as the economic hope for China, and in the subsequent decades the architecture of Shanghai has increasingly embedded a futuristic, space-age aesthetic. With the upcoming World Expo, the city of Shanghai will be spotlighted as a model city. Shanghai will try to fulfill its role as the model futurist city, even as critics such as Mike Kelley stress the futility of their goal. Kelley describes the work as "evok[ing] the picture of a time that never existed: the utopian city of the future, that never materialized'.  Kelley's Kander-Con 2000 essentially mocks the nature of contemporary Shanghai, suggesting that it is an impossible ideal.

            Thomas Ruff's Jpgs series views the notion the urbanized city in a similar critical realm. Ruff takes the quintessential tourist snapshot, the image of the Pudong Skyline, and decontextualizes it to show the influence of tourism on shaping the definitions of a city. Ruff downloads low-resolution images from the Internet and manipulates them to highlight their pixelization and nature as "digital images". The result is an image that is instantly recognizable as "Shanghai", yet that is blurry, where details are undecipherable. Ruff comments on the tourist experience in a world that is increasingly understood through images. For the tourist, the image of the Pearl Tower is the signifier for the city of Shanghai. The Pearl Tower was built to give the city a landmark that could be easily recognized. While it has accomplished its goal, the tourist is bound to be disappointed when encountering the Pearl Tower in person. The image of the Pearl Tower, or a souvenir trinket for that matter, is more real in the tourist's mind than the Pearl Tower itself. Like Kelley, Ruff critiques the difference between the imagined city and the city itself. Both exist as separate entities and must be considered as such. 

1 comment:

cardinale said...

What did you think about the way Kelley's Kander-Con 2000 was installed at the museum?