research > urban > Build Your Own City
Anthony Auerbach

‘Build Your Own City’ report on the Shanghai Bienniale by Anthony Auerbach, published in German in Kulturisse, No. 1 (Vienna, 2003), pp. 32–33.

Shanghai Biennial 2002

The fourth Shanghai Biennale opened in November 2002 under the banner ‘Urban Creation’. For me, like most visitors or exhibitors from the west, the title did not suggest much to influence my expectations of the event. We have learned what to expect from the circus of international art fairs and biennials and have come to understand them as just one of the phenomena of the symbiosis between modern art and the city. It was the capitalist city, its institutions and its markets that made the life of the modern freelance artist possible in the first place and in return, Modernism paid tribute to its bourgeois clientele. The ‘painter of modern life’ hailed in the second half of the nineteenth century was synonymous with the painter of urban life. It has been suggested that in all its diversity Modernism is best defined as a set of prohibitions, among them the ban on depictions of rural life, natural landscapes and landed property. Although such prohibitions became relaxed in the post-modern era — with the recuperation of the sublime and of kitsch — contemporary art has largely upheld the orthodoxy established early in the last century. Contemporary art in the west has furthermore kept pace with industrial and now so-called ‘post-industrial’ society by excluding the images of work, not to mention rural labour. While the market for paintings celebrating the beauty of nature, rural idylls, country sports and the like continues to flourish in Paris, London and New York, along with the market for the direct consumption of landscape through mass-tourism, the art institutions have vigorously defended the restricted repertoire of what counts as contemporary art and propagated a globalised norm by just such means as biennial exhibitions, Guggenheim franchises and the like. So the curators of the Shanghai Biennale could hardly go wrong with ‘Urban Creation’. It might be banal, but it could not be irrelevant.

The Biennale offered sixty exhibits, half from China, picked by Chinese curators and half chosen by ‘international’ curators (from Japan, Germany and USA). Half of works were by artists and half by architects. There seemed to have been no opportunity for the Chinese curators to offer an interpretation of art production in the developed economies and little interest on the part of the foreign curators to get to know what is happening in China today. So, with the spirit of internationalism there to prevent anyone from crossing borders, it looked as if everything was going to be normal, complacent and compliant. But like many things in Shanghai, for an outsider, it is the similarities with what we are used to that really make us loose our bearings. Like the drink that is sold in China in a plastic bottle with a ‘sports’ cap like many brands of mineral water or soft drinks, but which turns out to be 50% alcohol, the Shanghai Biennale’s familiar packaging contained a startling ideological substitution.

In China today, ‘Urban Creation’ is the main theme of the aggressive development policy being pursued by the Communist government. Urbanisation, industrialisation, modernisation and international integration constitute the next ‘great leap forward’ towards establishing the ‘socialist market economy’. China’s urban population has increased in the last twenty years from about 20% to 30% of its total (now estimated at 1.3 billion) and it is expected that a further 12 million people a year will leave the countryside in the coming years, making urban dwellers 45% of the population by 2010. (At this rate the countryside of Austria would be emptied in a matter of weeks.)

Shanghai is already a building site of 16.74 million inhabitants. It is the largest city in China and the industrial, commercial and financial centre of the world’s second largest economy (after USA). From the top of the prestige eighty-eight storey Jin Mao Tower (developed by the state-owned trade and finance concern Jin Mao) Shanghai’s urban sprawl seems as if it is high-rise as far as the eye can see.

At street level, one is struck by a young city, vibrant commerce (from street-sellers to department stores) and everywhere construction.

Even if a lot of the shiny new skyscrapers seem to be vacant from the second floor up, the air is confident and busy. High-rise is supposed to be a sign of rising land prices as demand for accommodation outstrips supply in certain areas (this is the American model), or it can be a sign of urban planning control where the city authorities wish to create concentrated areas of economic activity (this is the European model). In Shanghai, tall buildings seem to go up like flags or banners, uninhibited by market forces or the kind of urban planning we would recognise, as if for no other reason than to advertise and celebrate urban creation.

As a foreigner moving through the city, one has to come to terms with becoming illiterate. Chinese exists beyond the realm of the alphabet that consoles with its legibility even when one does not understand the language it inscribes. One also begins to doubt how to ‘read’ the city. Shanghai is obviously sure of its future, but it is being shaped in a way that doesn’t seem to go with the ABC of urbanism learned from the historic cities of the west.

So, what could the city possibly have wanted from a biennial exhibition? The official answer was advertised in the slogans for the city’s arts festival — kindly translated for foreigners on a giant screen in the People’s Park: ‘More cultural activities for the people, Higher degree of spiritual civilization. — Serve the Mass, enter the life of people! — Enhance the overall qualities of our citizens, Promote the cultural civilization of our city — Welcome, Artists from all over the World!’

The People’s Park is what used to be the city’s race course and the Shanghai Art Museum which hosted the biennial occupies what was the main race course building from colonial times, now dwarfed by skyscrapers on all sides.

It seems almost pointless to criticise the collection of leftovers and avatars of the European civilisation of the last century it contained (though there was much to disappoint), when it could hardly avoid being overwhelmed by its surroundings. The exhibition seemed to be the result of an integration project carried on at crossed purposes. But it is worth reflecting on architectural contributions in the show. Allowing for the fact that the architects invited had not been given any clear brief by curators more accustomed to catalogue shopping, what was striking in the Shanghai context was just how remote the institutionalised self-image of architecture is from the forces which shape cities. The representative genres (apart from trade-fair-type sales pitches) remain ‘master plans’ (the realisation of which has not been seriously considered except under totalitarian regimes) or country houses. These are predominantly narcissistic projects and it would be easy to dismiss them, but in hesitating to dismiss them or be seduced by them, the question arises of what role narcissism (mediated by visual culture) must play in urban creation.

Gelatin Shanghia Biennial

Perhaps the contribution that made the most sense in the biennial was to be found just outside the museum and was the result of a multiplicity of crossed purposes. The chief curator of the biennial seems to have mistaken the four-man artist-group Gelatin for a group of architects (according to her catalogue text). The boys arrived early with tools but without any work to unpack, because they always make their work in situ. Their original project proposal was rejected because of worries it might be exploited by Falun Gong. They needed to buy some materials. The curators promised to mention it at their next committee meeting. Frustration was allowed to come to a head before construction could start. Gelatin’s ‘Win-Win Project’, as it was later entitled, was slum built in the museum garden: an improvised dwelling and outside toilet, made from waste materials from the biennial and odds and ends from the local market. In the end it was the only space in the exhibition where any dialogue took place.

Anthony Auerbach, 2002

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Photographs by Anthony Auerbach