中国观澜版画基地: What is a cultural resource?

Yesterday, Wenzi and I visited her classmate, Zhao Jiachun who works at the Guanlan Woodblock Print Base (中国观澜版画基地). Jiachun generously showed us the Base and briefly introduced its history.

Guanlan interests me for three reasons (in addition to the beautiful setting, pictures here):

Guanlan is, at the moment, a purely municipal government funded project. This points to the growing ideological importance of culture in Shenzhen’s identity – both domestic and international.

Guanlan is part of the movement to recuperate elements of Shenzhen’s pre-reform history as a cultural resource. What’s interesting is that this recuperation is happening village by village. Consequently, what emerges is a loose network of sites, rather than an overall “history” of the city. In this case, Guanlan is the third Hakka site incorporated into the municipal cultural apparatus. The first was Dapeng Suocheng (大鹏所城), a military installation in the eastern part of the city. The second was Crane Lake Compound, which is now the Hakka Folk Custom Museum (深圳客家民俗博物馆鹤湖新居) in Luoruihe Village, Longgang (罗瑞合村).

Guanlan is an example of using pre-modern architecture to incorporate international art production into local identity. More specifically, the experience of architectural difference (such as living in a Hakka compound) bridges even as it creates cultural difference. Thus, the Base invites foreign and Chinese artists for residencies. These residencies allow foreign artists to “understand” China / Shenzhen and incorporate these new experiences into their art. At the same time, these exchanges also refigure a local art form (woodblock printmaking) as international cultural heritage. Importantly, this kind of “experience” of the local past as a cultural bridge seems a global trend. In Switzerland, we visited Romainmotier, which also offers artist residencies in a beautiful, restored, pre-modern setting.

This has me wondering about the ideological relationship between past and present urban settlements: Is “history” now the location of “culture”, while the “present” is all about one’s location on a scale of relative modernity? In other words, do Shenzhen and NYC participate in the same “culture”, their real differences explained away as “levels of modernity”? While their cultural “difference” must be found by excavating the past?

Founded in 2006, Guanlan held its first woodblock print biennale in 2007, and is currently holding its 2009 biennale–although it is difficult to tell how important the biennale is now that the opening events have finished. When Wenzi and I were there only a few of the galleries were open, and they closed for lunch!

The Base moved to Ox Lake Paddy Village (牛湖大水田村) in 2008, occupying and renovating three Hakka Compounds as artist residences and office space. In addition, the Base includes a state-of-the-art print studio. Currently, the third compound is being renovated and a competition for designs for a print museum have just closed.

The Hakka compounds were built during the last decades of the Qing Dynasty. Importantly, much of the construction funding came from overseas Chinese remittances and building details (as at Kaiping) reflect elements of western architecture. More interestingly, Guanlan is located at the cultural border between Cantonese and Hakka settlements. Thus, in addition to the western architectural details, the layout of the buildings is itself a cross between a Hakka compound (completely enclosed as at Crane Lake) and a Cantonese settlement. In many ways, the layout resembles that of Dapeng Suocheng, but smaller and with artists and prints.

Located at the Shenzhen-Dongguan border, Guanlan is itself, one of Shenzhen’s more remote zhen (镇). Indeed, it is closer to Dongguan than it is to downtown Shenzhen. The area is under construction as an upscale resort area. The most famous of which is neighbor Mission Hills Golf, which is revving up its summer program. In addition the Guanlan Mountain Lake Garden Farm (观谰山水田园农庄) provides food, rooms, and hot springs for visitor who can’t afford to stay at Mission Hills.

Tellingly, Guanlan’s website includes an English link that doesn’t always work. In contrast, the website for Mission Hills includes detailed and useful Korean and Japanese links. The Garden Farm can be accessed through Japanese. So, five thoughts on what kind of cultural resource the Base might be.

First, international art is an English language phenomenon, unlike luxury golf, which seems to thrive in East Asia. The Base’s appeal would thus be to people who use English to create their cultural indentity.

Second, golf clubs brings in more revenue than does art, but do not attract people who are creating their cultural identity out of English. Indeed, most golfers may want to golf with friends and family – a more traditional tourist goal. Consequently, Mission Hills and Garden Farm can not only afford more translators, they need these translators in order to reach their market. Question: do people who read English and visit the Base also play golf at upscale resorts? In other words, if the Base is currently reaching out to golfers, shouldn’t they include Korean and Japanese?

Third, unlike Dafen (commercial copies) and OCT loft (hip pop), the Base is building its reputation on the idea of “pure” art. This means the city is subsidizing all this artistic production. How long can such a project remain economically viable if the Base doesn’t reach out to the golfers?

Four, there were many locals eating at the Garden Farm. Clearly, food and hot springs have more local appeal than either art or golf, which is more expensive than most can afford. Thus, international here also means can afford international luxuries.

Fifth (actually more of a summary of thoughts one, two, three, and four), there are very different kinds of international at play in Guanlan. Shenzhen is trying to become international at many levels and in many venues all at the same time. Once again, the scale of ambition fascinates. Equally fascinating, the scale of ambition diverges from the everyday lives of most Shenzhen residents, begging the question of how “pure” art is being re-deployed (again) to create upper class aesthetics. (Here, the classic work is Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.)

Importantly, being international is an important element of the new upper class. A form of being which presumably includes diverse experiences of pre-modern architecture from a variety of places. Thus, Shenzhen’s recuperation of its past supports the City’s bid for world city status.

The easiest way to get to the Base is to drive. Simply go to Mission Hills and then look across the street. The way entrance is well marked. When you get to the Base, private cars are not allowed in, so if you’ve brought your own car, you’ll have to park in the Base’s parking lot and walk over. From downtown Shenzhen, it takes about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic.

If you decide to take public transportation, prepare for a two hour trip and a bus change. The upside to the bus is that you’ll ride with many migrant workers on your way to one of Shenzhen’s luxury resort areas. The contrast is instructive. As is the name of your destination. The 332 (leaving from Shekou) will eventually get you to Ox Lake Paddy Village Center, and then you can walk over to the Base. To see all of the sites in Guanlan, you can also book a trip through a tour agency.

2 thoughts on “中国观澜版画基地: What is a cultural resource?

  1. Pingback: SZ8X80103//The_Myriad_Transformations//Cut and Pastiche: Hakka-scapes | Shenzhen Noted

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