-- artists positions in China's current urban explosion


Today, economic, cultural and even political life in China is shifting extremely rapid. A "Socialist Market Economy" is being created; and a related system of social re-organisation is taking place. The most visible and typical phenomenon of such a fervent development is the speed of construction in cities of different scales. Connected to this is the expansion and explosion of urban space and metropolitanization. A good number of new cities have emerged all around the country, especially in "Special Economic Zones" such as Shenzhen, Zhuhai in the 1980's and most remarkably, the Pudong Area of Shanghai in the mid-1990's. Thousands of high rising buildings have been erected from grounds which were agricultural fields or abandoned land until a very recent past.

The urbanisation and high speed construction in Chinese cities are also a process of international exchange of architectural and urban ideas and practices between Chinese and foreign professionals. Many internationally known architects begin adventuring in such a tremendous new market while Chinese architects are increasingly exposed to international influences. This process of confrontation and exchange has generated some very special, innovative but also controversial models of architectural/urban conception and practice specific to the particular context of China and the neighbour region which shares a similar development. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas observes on his research trips to China that "some architects can design a skyscraper in three day or four in Shenzhen". This proves to be a new system of speed and efficiency which human beings have never known before. The suddenly emerged urban areas are often situated in between the original agricultural land, coexisting with its immediate past and expanding themselves violently into Nature. Very often, high rising buildings are surrounded with rice field and wild green areas. Koolhaas coins this as -SCAPE, or a new genre of urban situation which is in-between the classical city and landscape(countryside), or a new kind of post-urban condition. (ref. Rem Koolhaas' speech at the ANYHOW conference in INA, Rotterdam, June 1997)

No doubt, it is a spectacular process of modernisation and also a part of the current globalisation. It is a process of re-negotiation between the established social structure and influences of foreign, especially Western, models of social structure, values and ways of living. These models are mostly imported via images produced by the mass media of Hong Kong, Taiwan and other overseas Chinese connections. In the meantime, a kind of mixture of liberal Capitalist market economy and Asian, post-totalitarian social control is being established as a new social order. Culture, in such a context, is by nature hybrid, impure and contradictory. Accordingly, the new architectures and urban environment are being renovated and transformed into a sort of "Theme Park" orientated cityscape. Signs of different cultures are emphasised to celebrate the Globalisation and China's joining into the global market. Again, to use Koolhaas' term, the new urban growth in the country is bringing about a kind of Cities of Exacerbated Difference (COED).

Of course, prices have to be paid in such a rage of urban transformation. The most costly one is no doubt the erasing of historic areas in the cities, notably cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an, where heritages of Chinese traditional culture and art are concentrated. To extend the Central Business Districts (CBD) and to attract investments, tabla rasa is systematically resorted to as the most "economic" and "efficient" method. Some historically significant areas like Wang Fu Jing in the centre of Beijing are simply demolished and razed to the ground to provide terrain for high rising commercial complexes?

All these brutal changes certainly exert dramatic effects on the population. Artists are of course among the most sensitive to the effects.

The Beijing based woman artist Yin Xiuzhen focuses her work on the issue of memory of a woman grown up in the changes of Beijing, the very centre of mutation, turmoil and revolution in China's modern history. The experience of the intense transformation of her city in the 1990's has become a catalysis for her work. In an immense installation "The Ruined Capital", she collected old furniture and debris from destroyed houses in her neighbourhood and recomposed them into a poetical and somehow nostalgic scene of a ruined city. The silence, the interweaving of rough materials, dust and soft light beams in the space not only reveals a contrast with the noise of the busy construction and traffic outside, but also transmits messages of (female) resistance to the noises.

Zhan Wang's action "Ruin Cleaning Project '94" manifests a more explicitly ironical and critical intervention in the general destruction/construction. One day in October 1994, he came to a demolished neighbourhood in Central Beijing. He cleaned walls, windows and doors of a destroyed house and redecorated them carefully with paint in order to "renovate" the ruin. The action was interrupted when the house was razed to the ground. The very interest of the work lies exactly in evoking art as an everyday exercise and, ironically, the powerlessness of art in a rapidly changing reality, symbolised by the "new system of speed " of destruction/construction.

One year later, together with Shan Fan and Xu Jianguo, Zhan Wang realised another intervention in the ruined of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in the very centre of Beijing which was demolished after the land was sold to a Hong Kong developer who intended to build a huge shopping mall at the place. It is a typical transition, or destiny, of many significant and historic sites in Chinese cities today to be turned into Central Business District. To say the last farewell to a place marked by the very special r鬺e and history of the most important art school in China, the artists collected the debris and built a temporal "sculpture park". More pungent is Yu Fan's work consisting of a minuscule swimming pool in the middle of the ruin. He named it, with a great sense of humour, "Beautiful Landscape".

Such a process of urban transformation causes inevitably contradictions, chaos and even violence. It lays bare a fundamental paradox behind the pragmatic conviction, promoted as an official ideology of development in China's modernisation, which believes in the co-operation between a transitional communist system (of Chinese style) and a globalising liberal consumer economy. Meanwhile, this incarnates perfectly the image of the post-colonial and post totalitarian modernisation in the region, and in our world today: the impulsive and almost fanatical pursuit of economic and monetary power becomes the ultimate goal of development. But, as a resistance to this new totalitarian power, new freedoms and social, cultural and even political claims are also made by the society itself. These new claims are pushing all the social actors to reconsider our society's structure and order, especially in urban spaces which are called "Global Cities" because of their active roles in the global economy and relationship between established economic, political powers and emerging powers.

This is a period of chaotic transition. Nothing is harmonious and "normal" but inconsistent and paradoxical. The results of urban expansion and speculation are not always reasonable and logic as the planners expected. Sometimes it is totally "entropian": according to some studies, 80% of the high rising buildings constructed for the last 4-5 years in Shanghai are in fact empty, especially in the spectaculer area of the Special Economic Zone of Pudong. In the meantime, the speculation of the developers continues to accelerate and the prices of real estate remain excessively high. The Guangzhou based artist Xu Tan describes this phenomenon as a symptom of a time of madness, or schizophrenia. His own work actually focuses on such a "mad" transition, with critical inspections of notions of power, international laws and territorial claiming, of renegotiations between the "First World" and "Third World", between the centre and the margin, and the complication of the simultaneous entanglement of decolonization and neo-colonisation. etc. His installation "New Order" combines images and elements of current events in geo-political conflicts in the world today and proposes a total chaos as a new "order" of the world. In another work "The Project of Refurbishment of a House in San Yu Road", he propose to transform an old colonial house into an underground brothel behind an appearance of a barber shop, which is a prevailing phenomenon (re)emerging in Chinese urbanisation today; it reflects accurately the madness and the irony of urban restructuring and modernisation.

The current transition of Hong Kong has attracted an unprecedented attention to the ex-colony. In fact, Hong Kong as a transitional space, with its economic success and unique historico-geopolitical position, has been contributing actively to China's modernisation with a model of modernisation which combines both Western and Eastern, global and local factors. This is also embodied perfectly in terms of urban-architectural development. The current urban renovation and expansion of Chinese cities, with their new skylines formed by new high rising building and new spaces shaped by new congestion of urban population, traffic and so on, are largely inspired by the model of Hong Kong's urban condition and image. Many Hong Kong architects are also working in the mainland. In the meantime, one should not ignore that an eventual "Chinesization" is taking place in Hong Kong along with the hand-over of the city. Hong Kong and China are gradually approaching each other although, historically, the relations between the two sides have been extremely complicated and uneasy. The involvement of both sides in the current globalisation makes such a relationship even more complex. Again, in the process of the reunification, an "art" of surviving and negotiating the transitional contradictions and chaos becomes a new necessity for both sides. It is at such a moment that the Guangzhou artist Lin Yilin realised an action in the centre of Hong Kong a year before the transition. Using the urban situation of Hong Kong as a background, he "transported" a brick wall piece by piece throughout one of the most congested area in the city. He inscribed tens of names of main Hong Kong political organisations, institutions and companies on both sides of the brick wall. When the wall arrived at the Arts Centre after hours of arduous transporting, the names were totally decomposed into illegible traces on the "reconstructed" wall. This clearly points to the confusion and chaos generated in the period of transition. What is equally remarkable is the constant negotiation with the urban reality itself during the action, in which the artist was confronting inquiries and interventions of Hong Kong people and police.


China's modernisation and its partaking in globalisation are also a process of opening to other cultures. It should be noted that the fundamental motivation of such a process is a collective consciousness or desire to re-establish China's powerful position in a modern world through competing with other powers, especially Western powers. It is a historic choice. This has always been identified, in spite of extremely different strategies resorted by different regimes, by all Chinese authorities and intellectuals for the last hundred years. This signifies inevitably opening to other "more advanced", modern cultures and a volunteered embracing of Modernity. Even the communist regime itself is in fact a product of such an opening towards Western/modern social ideal. This historic shift implies an re-definition of the national identity, or a deconstruction of the established identity and transcendence of the Self. In the last ten years, especially in the 1990's, China's new opening policy coincides with the rapid expansion of globalisation of a late-Capitalist market economy, of the electronic mass media and communication, as well as a general disintegration of all established notions of boundary, nation, identity, morality and other references. Modernisation in China, which has been considered as process of the re-enforcement of the national identity, is ironically but naturally enduring a general deconstruction and disintegration of many established values and cultural modes. The present restructuring in all these fields will, "by destiny", lead to further complication with Modernity and globalisation. A schizophrenic, anxious but enthusiastic aspiration for a more modernised, somehow Westernised way of living and a society with more freedom and "democracy" is becoming the dominant dynamics in social life as well as in individual identification. Very often, such an aspiration is in insoluble conflicts with traditional values and even the very humanistic goal of modernisation itself. This renders the situation more and more uncertain and unstable. The population of all social classes have to constantly confront this uncertainty. Schizophrenia and uncertainty, along with the disintegration of the Self as well integration of the Self into a global perspective of de-identification, hence become the main issues that Chinese people, especially intellectuals and artists have to cope with. The "theme-parkisation" of the urban space which mixes cultural clich閟 of different cultures that we mentioned above is a clear symptom of such an anxiety. At the same time, many artist have developed, often in an ironical, self-mocking manner, certain deconstructive strategies to express such an anxiety of living in permanent uncertainty. Their work becomes expressions of a certain "volunteered schizophrenia".

Zhang Peili has been an important figure in the China Avant-Garde movement since the 1980's. His work explores the uncanny, contradictory situation of alienation of humanity, which is intensified in the time of "marketisation" of the society. A kind of "black humour" has been invented and utilised to criticise such an alienation. His recent video installation "Uncertain Pleasure" is a representative piece of his strategy. Noticing the alienating uncertainty in today's social changes can be turned into a kind of pervert pleasure, through close-up images of someone itching unceasingly his body, he reveals, with a pungent sense of humour, the pervert nature of a new reality which human beings are making so much effort to create.

Zhou Tiehai from Shanghai is a singular figure in the Chinese art scene. His work is poignant sarcasm directed at power plays in international artistic, cultural and commercial exchanges, especially the omnipotent Western mass media which is exerting increasing influences on China's everyday life and the artistic milieu as a side effect of the opening to Western influences and involvement with a Global market. He uses a diverse range of media, from gouache to computer, from sound to the internet, to demonstrate his critique. In his "Cover" series, he uses a computer to regenerate his own image into cover figures of major international magazines like "Newsweek" or "Time". This is to demonstrate ironically the fantasy of becoming media stars, or the fantasy to transform the Self into the famous, rich, Western and fancy Other, shared by many urban young Chinese of his generation. One of the recomposed "Newsweek" covers with his own portrait is subtitled "Too Materialistic; Too Spiritualizd.". Such a self-mockery reflects profoundly the schizophrenic condition of existence of a generation who live in and play decisive roles in a period of uncertainty and great changes.


The globalizing modernisation as a form of social, economic and cultural development, is also a process of "invasion" of international capitals and global Capitalism. It also unavoidably opens up a window towards Western cultural modes and values promoted by the late Capitalist media, especially electronic media. Urban culture in China has hence been considerably influenced by the Western modes and changed towards a commodity orientated mode of production and consumption. This liberal mode of cultural work is obviously opposite to the established official ideology and its cultural values. Confrontations and conflicts between the two camps have become a catalysis which drives the Chinese urban cultural life for the last decade, embodied by constant shifts between openness, freedom claims, criticism, oppression and resistance? However, in the long run, and for the common interests which are mainly to increase the condition of investment and development, local, national authorities and international incorporations, especially the media and art market, have tried to go around the ideological obstacles in order to attain a certain compromise. Culture, or creative activities, including art, and especially popular culture and media, are being deliberately sterilised into a certain commonly acceptable and profitable formulas. One of them, as a Hong Kong television tycoon puts it, is that the TV programs should be "no news, no sex, no violence." One of the results is that, since the early 1990's the Hong Kong based Star TV has succeeded in covering almost all major cities in China with its spectacular but somehow sterilised entertaining programs such as Pop Music, Soap Operas and so on.

All this actually means a soft, almost "comfortable", censorship and deliberated reduction of spaces for non-commercial cultural activities, especially those for experimental activities and critical voices. On the contrary to the boom of new skylines full of high rising buildings and commercial spaces in almost all cities, artists and intellectuals are losing considerable supports and infrastructures for creation. Reacting to this, a new task for Chinese artist now is to invent alternative "sub-space" or non-institutional spaces and forms of expression. This is often spontaneous, ephemeral and highly flexible and even immaterial and by nature un-marketable. By these kinds of gestures, the artists introduce a critical regard into the debate of globalisation which, on the one hand, necessitate the border-crossing and even boundary breaking; while on the other hand, sterilising cultural differences and subverting cultural hierarchies.

These gestures are often temporal interruptions of the high speed of urban mutation in order to open a kind of "emptiness", or moments of suspension, in the very centre of turbulence of construction, traffic and business. It is at those moment of emptiness or suspension that reflections and resistance become possible. Alternative languages, informal expressions and temporal actions are resorted to be effective strategy of intervention. The urban fl鈔eurs are now turned into city guerrillas.

If Hong Kong's cultural and artistic position should somehow be taken into consideration when one tries to understand China's current changes, especially at the historic moment of transition. The 75 years old "artist" Tsang Tsou Choi's legendary story is a rather inspiring example. As a poor worker with certain mental difficulties, Tsang Tsou Choi belongs to the lowest, marginalised class in Hong Kong's social hierarchy. For the last forty years, he has been writing a kind of graffiti at every corner of the territory, from Central to New Territory via Kowloon. Claiming to be the "King of Kowloon", he uses his natural, rough and strong black calligraphy to recount a kind of family history which is something between pure fantasy and reality. This should be seen as a very special testimony to a half century of Hong Kong's history. Or, it is an alternative history of the territory from the very bottom of the society. Writing graffiti has become his quotidian exercise while confrontation and troubles with police and other people on the street become a way of survival. What is interesting is not only that his "work" is extremely original, unique and impressive, full of imagination and consistence, but also the fact that the art and culture world of Hong Kong, which has been always dominated by a certain colonial bourgeois taste and fashion, now starts being interested in and even promoting Tsang Tsou Choi's work. The recognition of a humble person's "in-cultivated", "low" work by the high class and its media, not only proves to be a snob, exotic appropriation of the eccentric Other, but also reveals a need of rebellion in the transitional period, or an unsaid crisis, in the current urban life which is getting more and more uncertain and contradictory. Tsang Tsuo Choi's alternative language (which has been formed in a probably unconscious manner) has provided a reference for a intrigued urban middle class to negotiate with the void caused by the imminent restructuring of the urban life and identity of the population at the moment of historic mutation.

Actually, negotiation with the emptiness provoked by the historic mutation of urban life can also be sensed in mainland Chinese cities today. Shanghai as the centre of urban metamorphose in the 1990's, as demonstrated above, is of course the very central space in which the city inhabitants, for the sake of survival, have to renegotiate the relationship with their constantly shifting urban environment. Again, artists play a significant role in the process. Shi Yong's action "City Space: Moving - Leaping 12 Hours" is a remarkable example. In this action of 12 hours, he becomes a city fl鈔eur who evades every corner of the city and is ready to open himself to all spontaneous changes and incidental discoveries. He walks on the street and receives regularly telephone indications from other people at public telephone booths in order to know where to go next. The result is that within 12 hours he has traced a completely disorientated itinerary. At each point along the route, he has to redefine his own position and plan, as if he has to remake a new self. This is perhaps the most common situation of surviving in today's ever changing metropolis.

Guangzhou as Hong Kong's neighbour and the first Chinese city opened to the outside after the Cultural Revolution has been one of the most dynamic and vital metropolis. As one of the major actors in China's modernisation, the urban transformation and expansion of Guangzhou is equally significant as Shanghai. Equally, artists are also responding to the drastic changes in their own city, the most remarkable among them is the group "Big Tail Elephants" consisted of Lin Yilin, Xu Tan, Chen Shaoxiong and Liang Juhui. Lin Yilin's actions are often direct reactions to the urban changes, as we have seen above in his Hong Kong action. As we have noticed, his work focuses on building walls with bricks. The brick wall can be interpreted as a cultural and even political metaphor in the shifting urban context, marked by great quantity and speed of constructions. In his action "Manoeuvre across the Lin He Road", against a "background" of a skyscraper construction site, he erected a brick wall on one side of the avenue busy with traffic. Then he transported the wall brick by brick across the avenue. The busy traffic, which is a symptomatic factor of the urban development, was interrupted by the action for a few hours, until the brick wall was transported to another side of the avenue, where another construction site was also at work. The physical labour of the artist and the traffic jam caused by his action are no doubt natural but ironical echo of the noises of the construction site. The momentary interruptions of the traffic create moments of emptiness. These moment of emptiness are not only in clear contrast with the 24 hour non-stop city expansion but also carrying out critical resistance to such an omnipresent, violent transformation.

The rapid urbanisation and expansion of metropolitan spaces have also their considerable consequences in terms of modification of people's ways of living as well as reformation of relationships between social groups. The traditional human relationships which was based on Confucian family links and values are now turned into a Westernised legal system which favours the market economy activities and the integration of China's economy in the globalisation. This is also a fundamental aspect that one should not overlook in observation of the urban changes in China today. Geng Jianyi's project "The Reasonable Relation" is a effective revelation of the shift. This is a satirical mimic of the commercial contract that Chinese people start adapting to adjust their social relationship, especially in urban life, along with the introduction of a "Socialist market economy" which combines the liberal, global Capitalism and the established, "Socialist" way of social control. Geng Jianyi, living in Hangzhou, pretended he was mentally incapable to go out for a trip to Shanghai, the showcase of China's metropolitan development, but envied enormously to catch the latest developments of the metropolis. Therefore, he decided to employ another person to make the trip at his own place. He settled a contract with this person promising to take charge of her trip to Shanghai to observe the city's changes. The employee was supposed to prove that she had actually realised the trip with as many as possible details, such as train tickets, hotel invoice, photographs and so on. In this situation, the mutually trustful relationship between people in the traditional Chinese ethics is now turned into a "reasonable relationship" of money and commodity exchanges, conditioned by commercial rules, behind it lies a whole drama of social reform brought about by the spectacular urban transformation.


As we have seen above, China's urban explosion is also an opening to other cultures. It certainly implies a process of cultural translation. Obviously, it signifies motion, displacement and transformation in terms of cultural reconstruction in the city. A new cultural identity is claimed to be open, unstable, ever-changing, impure and transgressive of established boundaries. This process has considerable impacts on the urban/architectural projects conceived by architects, urban planners and even artists which are changing gradually the image of Chinese cities.

The architect Yung Ho Chang(Zhang Yonghe) established one of the first private architectural firm in Beijing in 1993 after 15 years of studying, practising and teaching in the US. In his analysis of Beijing's current urban expansion and reorganisation, he has discovered that the traditional structure of the city expanded along the axis of the Forbidden City is now being dismantled and boundaries between different established zones are being transgressed. The city is now being re-organised both horizontally and vertically into new zones or layers which can be marked and measured by different speeds of displacements, by car, by bicycle, and by... Chang realises that different notions of time are being generated from these different new zones and such a diversity actually represents different degrees of translation and digestion of 'foreign' cultures in Chinese society. The different speeds of displacements and notions of time testify to the paces of different zones of Chinese society's integration into the "global village", or the "network of global cities" (Saskia Sassen). In the meantime, they provoke immense visual impacts in the everyday environment of the city and hence become a 'sign of the time'. Chang, based on such a reading of the city, has proposed some extremely interesting projects to investigate such important shifts. In his "Xishu Book Store" project in Beijing, he introduces bicycle, the most popular vehicle of mass transportation in China, as the main motive and module of the design. He uses bicycle wheels to support the whole structure of the compact book store in order to form up a "passageway" space which connects the increasingly motorised street traffic with the corridor function of the space in the past via the motion of the bicycle wheels. Thus a picture of a "City of Wheels" as a complex system of physical displacements and cultural translation is drawn.

Another Beijing based artist Zhu Jia, in his video piece "Forever", has also made his witness to the current mutation of the cityscape in Beijing by using bicycle wheels. He attached a Hi 8 camera onto a bicycle wheel and rode the bicycle on the streets and travelled through the city. The camera recorded an astonishing sequence of images of the fragmentation of the cityscape. The video work as a result of such process involves the audience into the 'whirlpool' of time compressing and vision of deconstruction.


Here one can recognise a necessity of conceiving new urban project identified by the actors of urban transformation, in spite of the accentuation of flexibility and motion. In fact, interests in displacement, speed, exchange and border transgression suggest exactly a desire to go beyond the established notion of the city and to imagine new possibilities to restructure our living environment. It implies an aspiration for a new Utopia. This is perhaps the most important aspect revealed in the current urban mutation in China and its neighbouring area.

However, today's Utopian projects are actually based on a consideration of reality, and confrontation with the chaotic, disorder nature of our world. In other words, the aspiration and efforts to imagine a new Utopia are in deed leading to a new understanding of the notion of utopia itself. It is here that the new term "Dystopia" is introduced in present urban and cultural debates to describe such a tendency. It signifies an alternative envisioning of the future, which is essentially distinguished from the traditional notion of Utopia.

The Japanese architect Arata Isozaki's recent project, Kaishi/Haishi, the Mirage City, Another Utopia is a valuable example of this alternative vision of the future. This project proposes to construct an artificial island out of Zhuhai, a Special Economic Zone close to Macau and Hong, in order to provide larger urban spaces for the development of the area. Using the Chinese term Haishi, which means both "city on the sea" and "mirage", Isozaki proposes to reconsider both the possibility and necessity of imagining a New Utopia, allowing for new perspectives in the time of globalisation. Combining the principles of Feng Shui, geomantic prototypes of traditional Chinese architectural and urban concepts, and the most advanced technologies, this project intends to present an innovative vision of a Global City which is at once harmonious with Nature and connected to the global Cyber-network. To emphasise global connectivity, Isozaki also opens his project up to the contributions of international architects and the public through an Internet web site. Transgressing "(dominant Western) modernity's three conceptual bases: the frontier, the boundary, and the vanishing point," this "Another Utopia", or "heterotopia(to use Isozaki s term)", will become a "new which the West wind and the East wind encounter each other."

Whether this "New Utopia" will be realised or not at the end, it shows us a destiny that we have to face: we are living in the time of Global Cities which are the very "tourbillon? in which the West wind and the East wind encounter each other".