free associations, or, what does baishizhou mean to you?

Yesterday, I visited the two-day exhibition that Xu Lan (徐岚) put up in a one-bedroom apartment (2,400 / month) in Tangtou Block 6, Baishizhou. The exhibition took place over two days (Jan 8 and 9, 2017) and comprised mountain and water sketches / illustrations from a week-long stay (previous) in Baishizhou. The series itself is part of an ongoing project of travelling and documenting those travels. The inspiration for the exhibition (as narrated by Xu Lan) was random (偶然). He was thinking of the painter Qi Baishi (齐白石) and painted his own “Baishizhou” and then decided to show the works in Baishizhou, Shenzhen because he remembered having been here once.

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I have mixed feelings about this exhibition and would probably be better disposed to it if Xu Lan hadn’t framed his work within a discourse of “end of countryside, end of Chinese culture” lament and then held up Baishizhou as an example of the transitional state from countryside to megacity. On the one hand, I like Xu Lan’s sketches and I really like the abstraction of re-contextualizing moments in Baishizhou via shanshui illustration conventions. People and things do seem to be “floating (漂)” in Baishizhou, unmoored from convention and relationships, drifting in the sea of commerce, deterritorialized for all sorts of practical reasons which range from pressure to find a job to a lack of hukou.

On the other hand, the facile explanation of  “the Baishizhou in my heart is different from the Baishizhou out there” hovers at the edge of ongoing intellectual and political indifference to the actual existence of Baishizhou; as a transitional state the neighborhood’s fate is to disappear once a “proper” form has been achieved. Indeed in Xu Lan’s representation the neighborhood has already been disappeared in nostalgia for some rural past that may or may not have ever been, begging the question, what differentiates this–admittedly well-executed and provocative–representation of an urban village from those of photographers who parachute in, snip snap, anticipating the demolition of Baishizhou and consequently leave without an understanding of what the neighborhood is or could be because they’re so focused on “urban transformation” that they fail to address its role within Shenzhen’s migrant ecology?

What if, we might ask, the point of Baishizhou and other urban villages isn’t that they are transitional spaces, but rather they are spaces that enable individual transformations?

Impressions from the small, short exhibition, below:

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