SZ8X80102//The_Myriad_Transformations//Cut and Pastiche: Of Global Bullies and Their Girlfriends

In 2006, I visited Dafen Oil Painting Village for the first time. This was several years before Dafen became an important landmark–both in and outside China–in the Shenzhen imaginary. This was also over a decade before the metro system connected Dafen to downtown. In fact, even the road signs reflected the segregation between “Shenzhen” and the rest of the city. Consequently, the first time I visited Dafen I experienced it as a typical urban village that produced an atypical product.


In 2006, this road sign outside the main entrance to Dafen Oil Painting Village still gave directions to four market towns–Bantian, Longhua, Shiyan, and Longgang–as well as to “Shenzhen,” which referred to the Luohu “Downtown” area.

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In 2007, one of Shenzhen’s most influential architecture firm, Urbanus completed construction of the Dafen Art Museum. The design aimed to transvalue Dafen’s “strange mix of pop art, bad taste, and commercialism,” helping the urbanized village bootstrap from being a copy painting hub to being a catalyst for originality and culture. The black building was flat and horizontal, creating a direct contrast with the colorful and vertical handshake buildings of Dafen. The project was part of the firm’s ongoing commitment to researching and redeploying the city’s urban villages, which of course culminated in their designation as executive curators of the 2017 edition of the Shenzhen Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism / Architecture.

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Although a direct dismissal of the copy paintings that were once manufactured and now sold in the first floor shops of Dafen’s handshake buildings, nevertheless this quotation could have been applied to any of Shenzhen’s urban villages, which by 2007 had been officially labeled “dirty, chaotic, and substandard.” Dafen, in many respects, was a typical Shenzhen urban village. In this respect, it is important to note that although the museum design took into account the diversity and densities of an urban village, nevertheless, the village itself was (and remains) more appealing than the museum. One goes to Dafen to experience postmodern hodgepodge and not curated commentaries–however interesting–on global mishmash, begging the question: What does the postmodern jumble of Che and Mao, Buddha and Napoleon that amassed in the alleyways of Dafen teach us about the logics that produced the Liberty Leading the People \ Lifestyle Leading the World mashup (for more on Dafen, see Winnie Wong’s book, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade)?

In 2003, the same year that Vanke transvalued the French revolution in order to sell real estate and a year before the Shenzhen government rebranded Dafen Village as Dafen Oil Painting Village, Fredric Jameson published the article, The End of Temporality, arguing “[T]ime governs the realm of interiority, in which both subjectivity and logic, the private and the epistemological, self-consciousness and desire, are to be found.” In contrast, he continues, “Space, as the realm of exteriority, includes cities and globalization, but also other people and Nature.” On Jameson’s reading, the experience of postmodernity is one of increasing spatialization and concomitant obliviousness to ongoing transformation–exteriority at the expense of interiority. I read Jameson’s point to be that postmodern architecture, specifically and postmodern cultural practices, more generally create an increasingly insistent and disruptive present by bringing together and recombining different elements of the past; one gets lost in unfamiliar layouts. 

The appropriation of classical painting to modern purpose seem all of a piece with the way that postmodernism (as defined above) was re-deployed in Shenzhen; not high-end ironically (in ways that delight internationalized elites), but rather in a pedestrian way that enabled the realization of practical goals. The Vanke campaign, for example, did not connect Reform and Opening praxis to that of the Trois Glorieuses, deepening awareness of how urbanization in Shenzhen has extended and appropriated capitalist logic. Instead, the campaign hijacked the desire for liberty, flattening the history of “liberation”–here and there, now and then–into an impulse to buy. Similarly, the array of paintings available for purchase in Dafen does not refer back to any kind of art history, but rather suggests the contours of a global market for cheap paintings.

And yet. We are not completely lost. An (admittedly) cursory selection of paintings available for purchase in August 2006 would lead one to believe that men are eternally heroic and women are ever always cute, beautiful, and sexually available. This gender order is not particularly Chinese, even if the artists come from China, but seems rather to speak to the way in which the world has increasingly turned to strongmen—or at least the performance of strength—in its overwhelmingly male leaders. Its not just the feeling that painters were selling art for boardrooms and bedrooms and each space had been gendered accordingly. But rather that the collection of heroes and undressed women scattered throughout the alleys of Dafen suggests that gender provides a logic that finesses the temporality of postmodern displacements. Increasingly isolated from community and history, we navigate cut and pastiche landscapes like Dafen specifically and Shenzhen more generally through gendered bodies and stoked up desires. We experience our gender as universal, as eternal, as that which allows us to cross borders.

Strong men, their wives and would be lovers, the impression of girlish laughter and innocence–all this fuels a tsunami of plus ça change despair. Suddenly and abruptly we choke on the certainty that men have always dominated women and that authoritarianism is the natural state of the world, begging the question: to what purpose are we modernizing?

Postscript: The museum’s 2017 Dafen Tenth Anniversary Retrospective brought the work of Ying Tianqi and Dafen painters together with an obvious division of labor. Ying Tianqi presented “original” work, while the painters “created” images of from Shenzhen’s history as well s from its “10 great ideas” campaign. As evidenced in these images, militarized masculinity and commodified feminity help us to “make sense” of the SEZ’s rush to the front of the global pack. In the images below, for example, note the phallic heroism of construction, the military presence at the border, and the heavenly angels of the SARS epidemic. Point and counterpoint, theory and practice, original and copy–the organization of the exhibition was itself simultaneously a critique and celebration of global pretensions, postmodern gender, and the human desire to make something of ourselves and each other.

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