Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Tale of Two Biennales

Courtesy Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale
The Hong Kong side of the two-city biennale featured a "Bring Your Own Biennale" component.

By David Spalding
Published: December 11, 2009
SHENZHEN/HONG KONG— The story of China’s rapid urbanization has long held the public’s imagination in its grip, and rightfully so: With so much history to preserve or demolish, a booming economy, and a top-down approach to city planning that has encouraged architects from around the world to realize some of their most outlandish and outstanding designs there, the rebuilding of China’s cities can sometimes seem like a high-speed dream sequence. Dazzled by the morphing skylines, it is easy to lose sight of the country’s citizens: those unpredictable individuals who inhabit, customize, and continually reinvent urban space. In an effort to redirect our sightlines and activate local debate, “City Mobilization,” the 2009 Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture (as it is called in Shenzhen — each city gives itself top billing) opened last week with a mission: to create a large-scale exhibition with an international perspective that engages local residents about the experience of living in two of Asia’s largest and most dynamic cities. Rather than offering halls filled with architectural models and explanatory signage, the biennale’s two curatorial teams (headed by Ou Ning in Shenzhen and Marisa Yiu in Hong Kong) have taken the third edition of the biennale to the streets — and promenades, plazas and shopping malls — giving the public a multitude of opportunities to reconsider city life from a number of vantages.
It’s not surprising that an architectural biennale take place in Shenzhen and Hong Kong — these twin cities were among the earliest to urbanize within the region. Shenzhen, a former fishing village in Southern China, became a case study in steroid-induced urban development 30 years ago, when former Chinese Communist Party Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping declared it the first of China’s Special Economic Zones. Presenting newly commissioned works by 64 participating artists, designers, architects, and collaborative teams, the biennale occupies three bustling venues on the Shenzhen side of the border that could not have been secured without government support: Shenzhen’s Civic Square, with its huge, Tiananmen-like plaza and underground exhibition space; Shenzhenwan Avenue, an outdoor, elevated walkway that is part of a busy shopping area; and the Yitian Holiday Plaza, an upscale mall. Throughout these sites, the curators have made every effort to draw the general public into discussions about urban forms, practices, and possibilities, and the results certainly seemed successful.

On opening day at the Shenzhenwan site, dozens of children and their parents were waiting to take a spin on Franceschini & Allende / Futurefarmers’ People’s Roulette (all works 2009), an octagonal, rotating wooden platform that is meant to suggest the mass migrations that accompanied China’s urbanization. Whether this was in the forefront of the participants’ minds is questionable, but the work is a place to pause, gather, and socialize in what would otherwise be a thruway between some clothing shops and a Starbucks. Remarkably, cornstalks could be seen growing in the distance, part of Land Grab City: A Geography of Spatial Prostheses, Joseph Grima, Jeffrey Johnson and Jose Esparza’s well-tended vegetable garden that doubles as a meditation on how megacities like Shenzhen tap the agricultural resources of rural areas near and far in their constant need for sustenance. As older people gathered around the work and discussed the quality of the crops, I couldn’t help but also see the work as a piece of Shenzhen’s not-so-distance past, miraculously restored. While the project was conceived as a temporary intervention, the artists and curators are now hoping that the garden will remain after the exhibition closes — a fantastic gift for the community.

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The Biennale works located at the Yitian Holiday Plaza — a tonier, self-enclosed shopping center — were also inspiring curiosity and sparking conversation when I visited. In the basement level, crowds were gathered around the work of two photographers: American Leroy Demery, Jr., shot Shenzhen in Kodachrome color slide film back in 1980, just as the city stood on the precipice of redevelopment. In his images, one sees a sleepy town of open roads and endless skies that now lives only in the memories of long-term residents. He Huangyou’s stark black-and-white photographs date back to the 1960s, and are remarkable both for their formal beauty and their striking candor: Through them we see moments of everyday life, the rising tide of urban development, and the changing political climate — a working people’s history of Shenzhen. He and Demery’s photographs make a great backdrop for considering both the other works in the biennale and the city itself. As curator Ou Ning points out in his writing on He’s work, “When there is a need to establish a city’s collective memory and identity, the collection of historical resources becomes even more urgent.”

The 38 projects on view in the underground galleries at the Civic Square location may be less interactive in nature, but they are no less engaging. These include renowned Slovenian artist and architect Marjetica Potrc’s Diagrams for New Orleans, Tirana, Shenzhen and Elsewhere, a series of poetic, colorful wall drawings Potrc uses to tell stories about her experiences in each place. In an exhibition understandably filled with video, photography, and installation, it’s a pleasure to discover the delicate line of the artist’s hand as she maps her associations and reflections. Shenzhen-based photographer Bai Xiaoci’s (aka Shen Xiaoming) large, horizontal-format pictures are anything but poetic: The perfectly centered, full-frontal shots of newly build county government buildings are direct, as if the artist has tried to get out of the way and let the architecture speak for itself. And it does speak — volumes, in fact — about the ways that official power chooses to represent itself through the language of civic building projects, sometimes in vernaculars that seems radically out of context.

Questions linking power and architecture are also overlaid onto the exhibition venue itself, through Beijing artist Wang Wei’s Natural History. A simple, subtle transposition that covers a section of the walls with the same colorful ceramic tiles used in the animal enclosures at the Beijing Zoo, the installation creates a sense of artifice and containment within the otherwise “neutral” exhibition space. As if seeking an alternative to the controlled confines of the built environment, Rotterdam-based, Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui’s fascinating project investigates and documents a small, unused piece of land that exists in a nether-zone between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, a flourishing patch of greenery that officially belongs to Hong Kong but is located within Shenzhen’s city limits. For Almarcegui, the project is a case study in how such non-sites can thrive according to natural processes, in sharp contrast to the heavily developed land that surrounds them. Looking outward, China-based photographer Charlie Koolhaas’s (daughter of architect Rem Koolhaas) installation Comparisons of Lagos and Dubai is a sweeping, curving lightbox filled with detailed photographic transparencies depicting the beauty, entropy, and commercialization of these two quickly growing cities — helping viewers to locate Shenzhen within the global context of expanding cities.

Crossing the border to reach the 2009 Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale, one discovers a remarkably different interpretation of the “City Mobilization” theme. The subtitle for the Hong Kong incarnation of the Bi-City Biennale is “BYOB,” which stands for “Bring Your Own Biennale.” I wish I had. Located on the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade — a walkway and adjacent piece of relatively undeveloped land along Victoria Harbor that is slated for incorporation into the controversial West Kowloon Cultural District project — the Hong Kong Biennale is not easy to find, and even more difficult to critically engage. Of course, “BYOB” is not meant to be taken literally, but to instead suggest heightened levels of public participation within the exhibition structure. Yet when I visited the biennale on the day after the opening, during the presentation of a forum called “Mediascapes / Narrative Cities,” the place was nearly deserted. Panelists, including RMB City artist Cao Fei, sat on a platform facing an audience of mostly empty chairs. This was not a reflection of the quality of the public programming, but perhaps a result of what must be, for many, the Biennale’s remote and rather isolated location.

To enter the exhibition, one passes under Shigeru Ban’s impressive Pavilion, a large, arching latticework made from the architect’s signature paper tubes. With its austere elegance and nod toward sustainability, Pavilion is visually striking, though its design was reportedly “compromised” to accommodate demands from the Hong Kong building authorities, whose “reluctance to approve the building” required an “over-engineered structure,” according to the Hong Kong Biennale’s Web site. Seen in this light, Ban’s work is also a monument to the red tape and bureaucratic barriers that must have stood between the biennale’s ambitions and its execution.

Unlike pavilions at other biennales, Ban’s Hong Kong project doesn’t contain anything. Instead, it serves as a archway, opening onto a wide dirt footpath that winds around many of the biennale’s other works, which are sited either directly within the landscape or nestled into shipping containers. While the Hong Kong Biennale’s curatorial team has taken a populist and inclusive approach, the result is a wildly uneven experience for visitors hoping to investigate “the possibility of bottom-up mobilization and the organization of social life in the content of China’s contemporary urbanity.” The BYOB Challenge, created by staff at Time Out Hong Kong, one of the Biennale’s advertising partners, consists of “an installation that is a giant B” around six feet high. I missed it in situ, but in a text that appears in the Hong Kong Biennale’s “Catalogue in Progress,” its creators explain: “Besides old magazines, our only materials were one writer, 2 interns, 6 hours, and a whole lot of tape and string.” Design also figured prominently, with several works of outdoor furniture available for use, created by professional design studios or Hong Kong college students involved in class projects or short-term workshops. These are labeled variously as “BYOBenches,” and complimented by “BYOBooths,” and all were given equal status within the exhibition.

It may seem unfair to judge these biennale projects against the more conceptually and formally refined works with which they share space. Yet by placing them close together within the same exhibition, isn’t that exactly what the curators have intended? Or, caught up in the spirit of egalitarianism, are visitors required to suspend judgment altogether? Such questions are worthy of consideration, but cannot preoccupy an entire biennale.

A few works on view in Hong Kong stand out for their ability to connect to the location and ultimately alter one’s perception of the Waterfront Promenade. Excavation, a brilliant site-specific intervention by Kingsley Ng, Syren Johnstone, and Daniel Patzold, stages an archeological dig where an imagined future of the Promenade is seen partially unearthed. By taping off a large section of land and appropriating the visual cues of an excavation site — typed signage, maps, and inventory lists, nominal evidence of a now buried marketplace, as well as a shed belonging to a mysterious Uncle Hung — the artists create a parallel spatio-temporal experience that recasts the entire Biennale site as a ruin-in-progress. Another strong work, Douglas Young / G.O.D. Limited’s West Kowloon Walled City, is a large-scale modular structure designed to invoke the famous Kowloon Walled city, a dense slum where some residents thrived despite the danger of gang warfare, drug trade, and prostitution, and that was demolished between in 1993 and 1994. Standing defiantly in an area largely defined by luxury housing, shopping malls, and untapped cultural capital, the work is an anti-monument designed to activate public memory.

In practical terms, this year’s Bi-City Biennale is not only a tale of two cities; it is essentially a tale of two biennials, connected by little more than an ampersand. With separate curators, administrative offices, catalogues, and even Web sites, it appears that this arranged marriage is strained. Perhaps an annulment is in order. The two cities’ approaches to the theme of “City Mobilization” and all its democratic implications can be summarized as follows: in Shenzhen, the biennale has been produced to engage the public, while in Hong Kong, the public has been engaged to produce the biennale. Regardless, as Asia’s only biennale focusing on architecture and urbanism, both sites should be visited by anyone interested in the key debates, creative responses, and tactics for survival related to the built environment — concerns that define the texture of our daily lives with increasing urgency.

The 2009 Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture is on view through Jan. 23 in Shenzhen and through Feb. 27 in Hong Kong. See and for current information about upcoming related public events.

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