Saturday, December 26, 2009

Robin Peckham’s Notes on Shenzhen/Hong Kong Biennale

CONVERSATIONS: Robin Peckham’s Notes on Shenzhen/Hong Kong Biennale
December 10, 2009 by RedBox Review

Hong Kong-based Robin Peckham offers his impressions of the Shenzhen side of the “Shenzhen/Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism,” which opened December 6 in Shenzhen. Robin is also covering the Biennale in further depth on the Kunsthalle Kowloon blog, but here are some of the quick picks for “highlights” and “lowlights” of the much-hyped event.

Good, Bad, and Ugly at the 2009 Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture

The 2009 Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, affectionately known as “shuang shuang zhan” to its devotees, is now open in full force across a number of sites in Shenzhen. Projects span a range of methodologies, curatorial frameworks, and goals, not to mention venues: from outdoor public art in the city square to shopping malls and urban villages, this exhibition has it all. Here’s a quick look at what to see first, and a few sites to leave off the itinerary.


Bai Xiaoci, “Public Building”

This photography project examines the territory of the “county town” as a site of mutual influence and struggle between urban and rural cultures, offering images of the grandiose municipal buildings constructed by local governments. The photographs appear as an earnest analysis of the ways in which local officials wish to present themselves architecturally. Bai Xiaoci, one of the few contemporary artists remaining in Shenzhen, may yet emerge as a significant outsider figure akin to Zheng Guogu in Yangjiang or Chu Yun’s previous life in Shenzhen.

Inheritance: Shenzhen, “Permanent Migrants”

Organized by London-based curator Claire Staunton, this satellite exhibition in a non-profit space sandwiched between a shopping mall and an urban village presents a modest retrospective of the nascent art history of Shenzhen, including work by current and former residents Bai Xiaoci, Chu Yun, Guy Delisle, Liu Chuang, Christian Jankowski, Jiang Zhi, Daniel Knorr, MAP Office, and Yang Yong. Although the work included is familiar, the format is inventive. Keep an eye on this space for further developments in its program through spring 2010.

Lara Almarcegui, “A Wasteland in the Shenzhen River”

This conceptual intervention focuses on a site on the north bank of the Shenzhen River known as Liu Pok. This fascinating territory once lay to the south of the river and thus belongs to Hong Kong, but due to waterfront reclamation and rerouting projects it is actually contiguous with mainland China. One of the very rare undeveloped pieces of land against the border, the Shenzhen government is lobbying to gain access to the property–a goal Almarcegui works towards by attempting to offer access during the biennale. No resolution has yet been reached.

Lin Chi Wei, “Social Measurement through Sound”

No doubt familiar to followers of the Chinese experimental music scene, Taiwanese sound artist exhibits an installation based on his “sound tape” project. In the context of live performance, the artist passes a long band through the audience, hoping they will collectively read the characters written on the tape. Ideally, the result is a harmonic voice of hive-like poetry. The installation presented here includes videos of such performances under idealized or constructed social situations, adding a layer of the visual surreal to the eery soundtrack.

Tor Lindstrand and Marten Spangberg, “Four Ecologies of International Festival”

This is a party, and don’t let the pretensions of any curator or architect tell you otherwise. In fact, it was such a good party that a significant portion of guests to the biennale opening were drawn away from official opening ceremony and towards this makeshift bar (at which drinks are ordered by color, not ingredient), karaoke rig (with remixed videos, at least until a hardcore local audience demanded a replacement DVD), and t-shirt giveaway (quickly confiscated by the more fashionable of the biennale security guards). One of the few projects reducing architecture to its basic principles, International Festival simply creates a place in the midst of space.

Wang Wei, “Natural History”

One of the subtler participants in the main exhibition of the biennale, Wang Wei is up to his usual architectural interventions. Here, he covers two walls with colorful tile patterns borrowed from antiquated animal enclosures in the Beijing Zoo, bringing the exhibition back towards the idea of architecture as both decoration and constraint–that is to say, hegemony and control. It would be easy to believe that the installation simply belongs here, attached to the car park of the Shenzhen Civic Center.

WEAK! Architects, “The Bug Dome”

Consisting of Hsieh Ying-chun, Roan Ching-yue, and Marco Casagrande, the team working on this project attempts to realign the conversation of architecture from the rhetoric of artistic monumentality towards the discursively “weak.” Their project succeeds magnificently, although their idea of weak architecture loses some of its appeal when its pseduo-utopian aims–the transformation of cities into slum-like super-villages like Taipei’s Treasure Hill–becomes apparent. Nevertheless, the “Bug Dome” itself sits handsomely on a construction site between skyscrapers in the north of the city.


Alterazioni Video and AnotherMountainMan, “Lanwei”

Research into the “lanwei lou,” or uncompleted construction project, as a figure on the cultural landscape can be fascinating, but here Hong Kong-based artist Stanley Wong and his Italian collaborators do little more than present their photographs and point out the fact that construction projects have been halted globally, often as a result of the continuing economic slowdown. Perhaps most interesting is the reuse and habitation of these unfinished structures, a phenomenon just barely touched upon here.

Chen Zhen, “Danser la Musique”

Although little blame can be placed with the artist, this debut realization of a participatory sculpture may end up doing more harm than good to the legacy of Chen Zhen. Consisting of a trampoline draped with a number of bells with bullets for clappers, the work is “completed” when children are allowed to jump on the structure. Dated multicultural conceptualism aside, the project ends up looking like a trashy amusement park attraction situated in a shopping mall parking lot between a 15 meter Christmas tree and a “Happy Vallery” neon billboard.

DnA Design and Architecture, “Construction Noise”

The ideas of sound art and field recording are apparently quite new to the world of architecture. This piece consists simply of the recorded sounds of a construction site replayed in an open space on the Civic Square–unfortunately, the site is physically and audibly overwhelmed by an actual construction site on one side. The project is also packaged in awkward rhetoric of drawing attention to migrant workers, another idea lost in the din of industrial machinery.

feld72, “Public Trailer”

Foreign architects and researchers studying China are often drawn to a strikingly similar set of phenomena; one feature figuring prominently in so many of these exhibitions is the cargo tricycle. Here the Austrian architects imagine themselves redefining public space by crossing the tricycle with karaoke and public address systems. Lack of creativity in conceiving an architectural installation would be understandable–there is, after all, a place for archival analysis–but such a failure of observation is unforgivable.

Neville Mars/DCF “10,000 Flowers”

The Dynamic City Foundation may be the best representative of a specific school of Chinese urbanism, one that celebrates speed, scale, and monumentality coupled with pretensions to artistic production. This video similarly presents a vision of Beijing highways as a kaleidoscope, recalling the Italian Futurists as read through the lens of contemporary China’s will towards development at any cost. Exhibitions such as this should reflect upon the shortcomings of this status quo, not provide an easy rationale for the inhumane pressures of reckless urban development.

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