Thursday, March 05, 2009

An Instant in the Process

Common themes among the projects of the Intrude: Art and Life 366 exhibition at the Zendai MoMA were those of identity and change. In a constantly changing world, and especially in a city like Shanghai, how does one define or even create his or her identity? A culture in flux and a city under construction complicate this process, endlessly replacing old cultural landmarks and traditions with newer, arguably less meaningful ones.

Zhang Jianjun’s chalk and painting performance, “An Instant in the Process – 2008 Shanghai Shikumen Scene,” highlights both the endless progression of modern life and the inevitable recession of the present into mere memory. Zhang chose two locations where traditional stone gate shikumen houses were being demolished to make room for new apartments or office buildings as locations for his performance. After painting the scenes on paper with water, he invited young children, the new generation of Shanghai, to come draw the scenes on the sidewalk with chalk. Zhang’s paintings likely faded within a few hours, and the children’s chalk might have lasted a few days, but all eventually faded from sight, as will the shikumen homes, brick by brick. Ultimately, very little will be left of these uniquely Shanghai buildings other than memories, perhaps preserved for another generation in the minds of the children who helped Zhang Jianjun with his project, but in time even these memories will fade.

Interestingly, a project directly beside “An Instant in the Process” provided some comfort for those seeking to reconnect with the past. Huang Dehua’s green tile installation, “Echo,” consisted of patterned green floor tiles from the 1970’s and 1980’s placed in various locations within Shanghai. The patterns of the tiles were supposedly well-known, and had “become part of the collective memory of a whole generation.” In this way, these simple tiles gave people “a sense of nostalgia and security” that the endless cranes and construction sites around the city likely do not. Things that are constant, and images of daily realities, are always comforting to see, “reminding people of the simple beauty of the past.” Though neither a solution to the difficulties of retaining traditional cultural symbols nor a resolution for the tension between old and new, the tiles at least allow for some brief moments to remember a time when things did not feel quite so uncertain.

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