wither the craftsmen?

This past few days I’ve been in Changde, participating in the “Chance Encounter” Contemporary Arts Festival. Its the first of its kind in the city, and attempts to bridge between the city’s rich heritage of carpentry and stone-cutting with the capitalist juggernaut that has made its way to China’s so-called “third tier” cities.

Changde is a small, relatively off the beaten trail kind of city and most people arrive via the provincial capital, Changsha. However, given the number of Changde immigrants in Shenzhen (yes, there are Hunanese restaurants that specialize in Changde cuisine) there is a daily direct flight to the city. Indeed, it turns out that the flight from Chongqing to Changde goes by way of Shenzhen! A small fact that indicates, in part, how Shenzhen has shaped post Mao Chinese cityscapes.

What else? Changde was destroyed during WWII and was rebuilt in socialist style–grey blocks and wide streets. The arts festival itself is sponsored by the Tianyuan Company, a local real estate developer to promote the New West Gate, a project that has remade the area in neb-traditional terms. Architects He Qiong and Qu Lei have constructed a walkable and visually stimulating environment, albeit one that’s much too expensive for the locals. Instead, the mall anticipates a new level of consumption that combines a yearning for tradition with modern conveniences. The Changde tourism festival highlights the older (still standing) parts of the city, which harken back to two thousand years of making crafts for the emperors off in Xi’an and Beijing.

So yes, the specter of redundant craftsmen haunts the city, and its attempts to “craft” an identity for itself amidst industrialization and modern aesthetics. During the opening salon, curator Yang Qian mentioned how difficult it had been to bring tradition into meaningful conversation with both the building and contemporary art. Displaced from their historic context, these artifacts suddenly appeared as either outdated or collectors’ items. To navigate this distance, Yang Qian interpreted objects and artworks through a narrative of yearning: carpenter Bear fell in love with and lost Cuicui, a young girl who left for the big city; will she return? Each of the installations becomes a station in understanding carpenter Bear’s life.

Critical theorists Li Yifan and Man Yu (who together curated the 5+1 exhibition in Beijing) also joined the conversation, focusing on the important distinction between “site specific praxis,” which starts from particular bodies and experiences and “regionalism,” which creates a defensive ideology with respect to globalization. They saw in site specific praxis an opportunity to disrupt the abstracting and solid concepts of a regionalism which makes global inequalities acceptable because “my food tastes better than yours.”

Below, impressions from the first day of the festival, which is ongoing until November 3. The iconic “carpenter Bear” was created by Zhang Kaiqin of woodblocks that appear as out-of-focus pixels in any photograph. As they say in Chinese, “You get the idea (你懂的).”

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