Art. Right Now
Constructing megacities is difficult. If only the fragile fragments of culture were made of steel, then perhaps society would be immune to the changing urban landscape. Instead, these fragments must find resilience through the constant rubble of technology that hurtles through the streets. Smash Palace, the current exhibition at White Rabbit Gallery, presents a showcase of contemporary Chinese art that responds to the ever-changing landscape of ‘New China.’ The collision of old versus new tradition hits home for many of the artists who share stories of loss, tragedy and resilience.
The narrative of loss is most evident in Jin Feng’s work Appeals without words (2006). Feng, creates a fifteen metre long photograph of Chinese villagers lined up against a wall, holding blank petition signs and suggests in many ways, that their loss runs deeper than the words erased from their cardboard signs. The photographic subjects are dressed in grey, appear helpless, stuck in a solitary waiting position and are painted like statues bronzed over time. The articulation of these details symbolises the struggle for poverty-stricken individuals to be seen; and the agonising wait for them to be heard. The overwhelming sombre tone urges viewers to look across their faces, with a degree of empathy, searching for a sign of hope or escape for these subjects. However, the image of a flattened corner suggests that the line of people extends past the end of the photograph. Perhaps there is no sign of hope? How long is this line and where does it end? Feng seems to have lifted a politically sensitive rug, only to find the dusty remnants of societal issues waiting to be solved.
Similarly in the artworks Await (2006) and Inter nation (2006), Miao Xiaochun creates panoramic photographs of citizens waiting in a crowd, each lost in a trance within a capitalistic environment. However, unlike Feng’s subjects, Xiaochun portrays people as distant crowds and focuses on the man-made structures that act like 21st century waiting rooms. Also, the artist remarks on the expanse of advertising in contemporary life, portraying billboards as prominent features of urban landscapes. The artist questions whether people have become overwhelmed by man-made structures and if society has lost touch with humanity and connection. The juxtaposition of the Motorola mobile advertisement in Await (2006) suggests this may be true. The giant phone hovers above the crowd as a symbol of man-made connection, yet directly underneath stands a crowd of people, flocked together but appearing motionless and disconnected. Furthermore, in Inter nation (2006) the image of the public seats available at the train station appear to encase figures like strait jackets; representing a similar sentiment of disconnection. Xiaochun effectively creates a heightened sense of isolation, leaving viewers with a feeling of distaste for this urban environment.
Interestingly, artist Yang Yongliang also responds to the void between urban landscapes and human connection in his work Infinite landscape (2011). He is concerned with the tragic loss of culture and tradition; due to the rise of capitalism that swept over his beloved city of Shanghai.His video work depicts a serene environment, until the viewer is met with a soaring blimp that crashes and burns in the far distance. Viewers are left helpless to the destruction, watching the blimp blow up and destroy the surrounding buildings in the explosion. This scene echoes the artist’s feelings of powerlessness against the destruction of Shanghai’s natural environment. The viewer is also left at a loss – what happened to the blimp? Why was it blown up, only to be coveredup and erased from the landscape? In parallel, the artist contemplates what is lost, covered up and erased from environments that once appeared traditional and serene.
What direction is the ‘New China’ heading towards? At every turn of the Smash Palace exhibition, the viewer is met with varying degrees of dystopia, troubled pasts and broken realities to emphasise the complexities of megacities in the 21st century. The complex nature of building such a city is explored by Cheng Dapeng in Wonderful City (2011) showcasing an effervescent and grotesque 3D printed metropolis. The sculptures appear natural, organic and beautiful from a distance, however upon closer view the sculptures transform into bizarre and twisted shapes. Everything about the work is unnatural and on some levels disconcerting. The viewer is led to envision a wild and monstrous urban landscape; commenting on the artist’s shock and despair felt towards China’s changing cultural identity. Additionally, the unnatural lighting from the light-box and the abnormal figures make it difficult for the viewer to relate to the landscape. The artist prompts viewers to search for things that resemble nature and humanity; whether it be a dismembered limb or fragment of a flower. Perhaps this echoes the artist’s own search for humanity amongst the unnatural environments he finds himself facing.
Consequently, Dapeng like many of the other exhibiting artists is concerned with the identity crisis of ‘New China.’ Has urbanisation changed the identity of China for the better and what has been lost along the way? Feng and Xiaochun suggest fragments of Chinese identity have been lost in the hustle of crowds disillusioned by capitalism. Also, Yongliang considers the disparity between cultural identities and urbanised landscapes; isolated from each other and yearning for the human connection of the past. Furthermore, Dapeng warns of more drastic changes ahead but hopes that humanity will remain a resilient force that informs the values of Chinese society. Each artist in the exhibition has created provoking narratives that take the viewer on a journey to their homeland and leave them with a greater understanding of contemporary Chinese cultural issues.
Smash Palace proves to shake up the pillars of Chinese customs, culture, habits and ideas in a provocative way. The tales of loss and tragedy within the works provide an insight into the changing cultural identity of China right now. The values presented by the artists can be interpreted universally, providing an avenue to reflect on our own identities within an urbanised environment.