Thursday, October 16, 2008

Shanghai Biennale's Take on "Better City, Better Life"

Contemporary Art. It is still a form of expression that I frankly have not gotten a clear grasp of. In fact, I see it as an Avant-garde form of art that challenges the closed-mindedness in people with its bold, experimental, and innovate mediums. However, the “translocalmotion” theme of the Shanghai Biennale alleviated much personal pressures of trying to understand it, because this Biennale provided a recurring theme basis that I actually understood—China’s urbanization and its social-political implications.

One of the most striking artworks that left a great impression in my mind was Jeanne van Heeswijk’s Shanghai Dreaming-Holding an Urban Gold Card. Her mediums really brought the Shanghai urban residents and rural migrants to life, especially with the use of actual photographs of the people she met through real one-on-one interviews with them, regarding their dreams and goals in the city. Holding this “Urban Gold Card” as her title says seemed to represent how achieving city life was the golden key to their dreams, reflecting the deeply engraved social and political history (still present in modern day) that urban hukou holders received the most benefits—especially career opportunities, wealth, and social mobility. The extravagance, the wealth, the better life was something the rural hukou holders could not even dream of in the past. Heeswijk’s tophography had goals embedded randomly in all places throughout the city, reflecting the fading of this huge urban and rural social gap towards a life of shared progress in the city. I especially loved how these dreams, like fortune, were printed on t-shirts, expressed in the form of newspapers, gold symbols, etc. This eclectic expression of their identities and dreams connected to all these different places and people by string, hangers, etc. seemed to represent how identity is taking on a new definition as China’s political and economic reforms progress throughout the days. How I interpret this is that people’s identity is no longer chained down to their native hukou-bound residences, but are free to tread into urban life with hopes and dreams of improvement. The eclectic and miscellaneous forms of media also communicated to me the complications, uncertainty, and clash of social tensions that seems to be brewing underneath this rapid urbanization growth.

Yin Xiuzhen’s Flying Machine mixed material piece was interesting, because the more I thought about it and the more I observed its details, the more meaning I could find in its every aspect. When I first saw the air plane meshed with the tractor and the car, my first impression was, “this is too obvious, it almost loses its meaning.” Obviously these methods of transportation represented migration to different parts of China’s landscape and to the outside world. These transportation methods clearly represented rural migrants moving into the cities, urban residents moving to more prospective parts of cities such as the economically booming coastal cities, and even Chinese people flying internationally or foreign investors moving into China with China’s progression towards privatization and marketization. However, there was more than this I realized. To my surprise, the airplane was made of all different types of white clothing. I saw plane white tees, wife-beaters, more fancy white shirts, etc. This to me suggested many social implications. First, the different shirts worn for different occasions and occupations symbolized the different social structures and jobs of the city migrants, rural migrants, and international migrants. For instance, the rural migrants rushed into the cities during Deng’s socialist market and competition-based economy reform, to meet the cheap labor demands of the urban city building, a reform that was practically redeveloping huge skyscrapers and service industries overnight. These rural migrants ended up doing menial labor in the “Three D’s” working conditions—dangerous, dirty, and difficult. The fancier white tops seemed to represent the urban and international migrants who were wealthier and enjoyed more luxuries and benefits. The interesting twist to this was how these clothes were neatly mixed and stitched together in harmony, possibly showing the necessary combination of all their hard work and sweat towards the same goal: urbanization and its prospects for a better life. The plane, also being the biggest, dominating structure of the art piece, could be the artist’s way of saying that foreign investors and powers were the most powerful force, at least financially, that made urban growth and re-development possible in the first place. And even the stairs within the plane. That could be Xiuzhen communicating the migrants’ unanimous goal of upward progress, no matter what this progress may be for each type of migrant—rural, urban, or international. Overall, I found a lot of meaning in Yin Xiuzhen’s piece.

Shanghai Biennale 2008 and its theme of trans-local-motion had the most personal impact on me. Its recurring urbanization theme provided a fundamental basis that I actually understood, which gave me a comfortable start in my analysis of contemporary art, which is such a new territory for me still. But what I liked most about the exhibition was that the theme’s historical implications created a very unique and ironic balance with the bold, experimental, ahead-of-its-time mediums of contemporary art that expressed them. I also loved seeing the Biennale’s diverse embracement of so many art forms: visual arts, media, architecture, etc.

Other Pictures by Other Artists:
(Wang QingSong, Thomas Ruff, Mike Kelley, Tang Maohong, and Lu Hao, in this order)

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