Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Shanghai 2008 Biennale
This year, 2008, Shanghai hosts its 7th Biennale, which is centered on the theme Translocalmotion. Artists from around the world focused on one of the most influential effects globalization has had on Chinese cities, specifically Shanghai -- the rapid urbanization that is currently taking place in China. In their pieces, the artists explored the physical, cultural, and social effects that this mass migration has had and will continue to have on the cities. I will focus on three artists: Bethan Huws (Wales/France/Germany), Jing Shijian (China), and Lin Chuanchu (Taiwan).
Bethan Huws was born in Wales but now lives in Paris, France and Berlin, Germany. The subject of her pieces was how language served as the medium for social communication and organization. Her first piece, located outside by the entrance to the Shanghai Art Museum, is the phrase "Une oeuvre d'art doit etre." When this piece was put up, many people where surprised that she used French instead of Chinese. Huws' second piece, a neon red French bottle drier, is located by the Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum's piece "Me You." The plaque described her pieces as focusing "on the deep-seated fascination generated by things and words that we either partly understand or do not understand at all -- due to cultural differences -- but that could nevertheless have some meaning for us." Both her pieces remind the viewer that foreigners, especially Westerners, have influenced China in the past and are continuing to do so in the present as well as into the future. I believe this piece captures what is happening in China at this very moment. Considering that many foreign countries are influencing China when they make investments, cultural differences arise. In order for an understanding to be established between the two, there must be communication and in order for there to be communication there must be a common language.
Jing Shijian was born in Liaoning, China and currently lives in Hangzhou, China. His piece is the first thing you see when you enter through the front gates of the Shanghai Art Museum from Nanjing Road. It is called "Express Train" and is based on the 1960s and 1970s "Down to the Countryside Movement." During this movement, thousands and thousands of Chinese youth were sent into the Chinese countryside to experience what the people's lives were like. Today, the opposite is true -- thousands and thousands of people are migrating out of the Chinese countryside into the cities. The plaque described the youth as "transient guests" and I believe they are the past equivalent of today's "floating population." The youth did not go to the countryside to live but to experience it and then return home to the cities. The "floating population" comes to the cities to work but in the end returns to the countryside to retire. During my studies here in Shanghai not one lesson goes by without some mention of the Mao years or the Cultural Revolution. When I saw this piece I felt that it perfectly linked that China with today's China. There was a mass migration going on then and there is one going on today, except that today the people are moving to the cities instead of the country.
Lin Chuanchu was born and currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan. His piece is called "Instantaneous Memory: Plan of Shanghai's Rice Field." If you do not pay close attention, you can miss his piece, which is located right by the entrance of the Shanghai Art Museum. It is right beneath Bethan Huws' first piece. The plaque describes Lin's piece as depicting "the changes of the site of The People's Square, by reconstructing the historical appearance of the site using a stratigraphic approach frequently used in archaeology." Lin's piece basically reminds the viewer of Shanghai's roots. Before the Treaty of Nanjing was signed in 1842 after China lost the first Opium War (1839-1842), Shanghai was a rather small village and only had a provincial seat on the imperial government. After the treaty was signed, which called for the opening of five Chinese ports, Shanghai became an important port city. Located by the mouth of the Yellow River, Shanghai was perfectly located because it offered access into inner China. Shanghai quickly became the most modern and urban city in China until the Communist party took control in 1949. After Deng Xiaoping opened up China in 1978, Shanghai reclaimed its name as the most metropolitan city in China. Although Shanghai is one of the most metropolitan cities in the world, Lin's piece reminds everyone that just a century and a half ago, Shanghai was nothing more than a small seaside village. Progress and modernization are part of the future but the past is also important because it keeps the people rooted.
I thought the Shanghai Biennale was very interesting although it was too self focused. Most of the pieces depicted modernization and urbanization as "good" and did not really focus on the negative aspects of it. Still, I would definitely recommend the show to anyone.