where to go for information on shenzhen?

If you are interested in government approved daily updates on what’s happening with the coronavirus in Shenzhen, you could do worse than visiting EYESHENZHEN, which provides translations of city briefings. The site also includes a comprehensive introduction to the city’s mainstream art scene.

what is worth passing on?

Friday August 25, 2017 I had the honor of participating in the closing meeting of the second edition of the “Shenzhen Oral History” project. It was a high level and exciting cultural event that commemorated the people who contributed to Shenzhen’s second decade, 1992-2002. A week later on Friday September 1, I attended the salon for Wu Xingyu and Zhong Yuxiao’s art project “Demolition.” Continue reading

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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seeing clearly

Yesterday, Marco taught “enlargement” at the P+V Art Sprouts program. The class itself had four components: a warm-up (taking pictures of each other jumping), a critique of last week’s photos, a treasure hunt for details that Marco had taken of objects around the P+V, and a lesson in enlarging images, including photos. Observing the class, I remembered how difficult it is to see clearly because we manipulate images–scale and intensity–in order to create responses in an audience. Sometimes, we’re going for “beauty,” but at other times we’re aiming for disgust and fear, lust and laughter. Confusion? Continue reading

emptied out / true emptiness

Last week, I participated in the “真空” art week. 真空  means emptied out or true emptiness. The curatorial statement (translated below) emphasizes how urban renewal is “emptying out” the villages and what remains is neither this, nor that. Almost buddhist, except we’re still yearning and true emptiness alludes us.  Continue reading

Digging a Hole in China

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the Digging a Hole in China (事件的地貌) exhibition, curated by Venus Lau. the exhibition features a range of works that were produced from the mid-1990s forward, roughly a decade after the idea of land art had been picked up by Chinese artists and only a few years after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, where he confirmed that China would continue to liberalize its economy. The stated goal of the exhibition, which positions itself between China and the West is,

[T]o expose and analyze the discrepancies between this genre of work and ‘conventional’ land art understood in the Western-centric art historical context, thereby probing the potential of ‘land’–as a cultural and political concept–in artistic practice.

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handshake 302 at berkeley!

Happy happy to have been part of the wonderful exhibit, Art+Village+City. Margaret Crawford and Winnie Wong curated the exhibition. Featuring the work of the Art+Village+City Research Studio, SHIMURAbros (as researchers at Studio Olafur Eliasson), Sascha Pohle, Jing Wen, and José Figueroa. The exhibition is on in Berkeley and Shanghai; those in either area, check out the challenges and opportunities that urban(izing) villages in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou present.

Main Exhibition:
Wurster Gallery, Wurster Hall, UC Berkeley
October 13-November 14
Tuesdays-Saturdays 12-6pm

Satellite Venue:
Shanghai West Bund Biennale/Urban Art Space Season
West Bund Cultural Center, Shanghai
October 1-December 31, 2015

mega-thinking at MoMA

Yesterday at MoMA I saw an exhibition curated by the Network Architecture Lab, Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms For Expanding Mega-Cities. The exhibition struck me as very house of representatives with archi-biennale characteristics; the curators chose a representative city from each continent and then presented these cities through blow-up charts and video. Thus: NYC represented North America; Rio represent South America; Istanbul represented Europe; Lagos represented Africa; Hong Kong represented East Asia, and; Mumbai represented the Indian subcontinent. More interestingly, perhaps, the museum layout, especially in context of the third floor’s permanent architecture exhibitions, had me thinking about the looming, unrecognized figure of China and how we need to re-think not only urbanization, but also the critical frameworks in which we think about mega-cities. Continue reading

steamboat mao

Reading Walter Benjamin’s Mickey Mouse fragment after the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art by way of the Cultural Revolution and rural urbanization in Shenzhen reminds us that the revolutionary and the subversive refers to potential here and now, not any particular artistic form or genre. Anyway, I was reminded that the Mickey Mao pun is compelling and not actually shocking: they really do go together like vinegar and oil on a global word salad. Anyway, I was playing with photoshop and mashed up Mickey and Mao and came up with Steamboat Mao, a tribute to Benjamin that plays on Mao’s status as the Great Helmsman and Mickey’s former status as the ultimate underdog:

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The Mickey Mouse fragment comes from from a conversation among Walter Benjamin, Gustav Gluck and Kurt Weill:

Property relations in Mickey Mouse cartoons: here we see for the first time that it is possible to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen.

The route taken by Mickey Mouse is more like that of a file in an office than it is like that of a marathon runner.

In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization.

Mickey Mouse proves that a creature can still survive even when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being. He disrupts the entire hierarchy of creatures that is supposed to culminate in mankind.

These films disavow experience more radically than ever before. In such a world, it is not worthwhile to have experience.

Similarity to folk tales. Not since fairy tales have the most important and most vital events been evoked more unsymbolically and more unatmospherically. All Mickey Mouse films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order to learn what fear is.

So the explanation for the huge popularity of these films is not mechanization, their form; nor is it a misunderstanding. It is simply the fact that the public recognizes its own life in them.

after whose history?

As an anthropologist, I understand the question “what is history” to be empirical; history and its concomitant social value is what a group makes of it. I ask simple questions, such as – how does a group teach its history? Through songs? On game shows? In detective novels set in the Victorian age? As a museum exhibition or perhaps through national curriculum and standardized tests?

After I have a sense of the range of historical genres, I do close readings of a few exemplars, comparing and contrasting respective content. Based on what remains constant throughout the different texts, I come up with a working definition of core history for a particular group. In the US, for example, the Revolution is an unquestioned element of the history that makes us Americans; after all the Tories and their ilk ran off to Canada in order to remain British subjects. Indeed, 1776 as the defining moment of being American not only appears in classrooms and textbooks, but also in musical theatre, commentary during baseball games, and automobile commercials. Similarly, based on what varies in these same texts, I get a sense of ongoing debates how this history is interpreted, and by extension, how we should be using it to create particular kinds of Americans. Thus, the Civil War looms in American consciousness, precisely because we still grapple with the contradiction between the self-evident truth (to us as heirs to the Revolution) of all men being created equal and the historic facts of slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, not to mention contemporary debates over the status of First Nations and immigrants.

I contextualize all this analysis with respect to the relative status of sites where these texts are produced, disseminated, read, and sometimes debated. In the United States, universities have higher status but are less a feature of everyday life than are supermarkets. Consequently, I know that Americans recognize the texts used in university history classes to be more accurate, but not as accessible as the historical fictions sold in supermarkets. I know this because Americans read and enjoy pulp fiction – Abraham Lincoln vampire slayer, for contemporary example – more often than we struggle to make sense of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Likewise, I also know that accessibility is often confused with democratic practice, so that reading Louis Lamour’s western adventures can be considered as valuable as reading Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History.

I mention my intellectual predilections and cultural heritage because yesterday I attended the opening of OCAT’s exhibition After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer, which struck me as quintessentially European in its preoccupation with the philosophical status of history. Moreover, it raised questions about how this preoccupation might inform understanding history in and of and for Shenzhen, where the point of reform and opening has been to launch China into the future.

As curated by Boris Groys, the exhibit highlights the philosophical continuities and contradictions within and between Kojève’s public and private lives. On the one hand, as a philosopher, Kojève followed Hegel in understanding the desire for equal and universal recognition as being the motor of history. This was explicitly a political project that was realized through the French Revolution. On Kojève’s reading, our lives are post-historical precisely because once the French Revolution brought to consciousness the understanding that the role of the State is to facilitate the realization of universal desire, history as such ended. In turn, it is the task of those of us living in post-historical societies to perfect our States, so that forms of political recognition are increasingly equitable and just, allowing for individuals to achieve their desires. This understanding of history shaped Kojève’s public life in two ways. First, as a philosophy professor in Paris, he maintained that he was not teaching anything new, but rather transmitting Hegel’s thought to a new generation of students. Second, at the end of WWII, Kojève abandoned philosophy altogether and became a diplomat, working to establish the European Union.

On the other hand, as a private citizen, Kojève remained fascinated by history, even as his methodology remained Hegalian. At the same time that he began his diplomatic career, Kojève began collecting postcards of historical important buildings and monuments. These postcards were post historical in that they ignored the present in favor of commemorating that which the French Revolution had already made obsolete. Importantly, these postcards became the template for Kojève’s photography, which, on Groys’ interpretation, aimed to bring the philosopher’s idiosyncratic vision of the world in line with that of the dominant vision of the era. Indeed, Kojève’s photographic practice manifested the Hegelian values of “objectivity” and “neutrality” as defined by the dominant trends of an era. Altogether, Kojève collected over 10,000 postcards and took over 5,000 photographs, none of which he displayed to the public. Instead, he filed the postcards and one slide of each image by location and time, creating a massive – but unknown – private visual archive that complimented and contextualized his public work.

At OCAT, Kojève’s importance as a philosopher of history is not evident from the displays themselves. Perhaps at the original installation at BAK-Utrecht (May 20 – July 15, 2012), visitors might have found Kojève’s private obsession to be intuitively interesting. After all Utrecht is just down the road from Haag (the Hague) and debates about the European Union must resonate in the Netherlands in ways that they cannot in China or the United States. Indeed, in a place where Kojève’s work in creating a new political public had concrete effects, I can also imagine a certain fascination with his private life, a desire to examine individualizing obsessions against the background of Hegelian neutrality. Moreover, Kojève’s itineraries began and ended in European cities. Consequently, visitors to the BAK exhibit could imagine themselves as departing from Ultrect and then on to Hong Kong, Calcutta and Madras before returning to Paris by way of Rome.

In contrast to my imagined BAK exhibition, at OCAT, Kojève’s appeal requires contextualization before it begins to make sense, let alone stimulate conversations about what history is and might be. His postcard collection has been represented on nine printed tablecloths and the photographic slides have been digitally reproduced and projected on concrete walls, but what to make of them? We might, for example, specify the question in terms of European history: how have Europeans conceptualized and deployed history such that it became a matter of philosophical debate, rather than say (as in Confucian societies) a matter of ordering the moral society? Moreover, in Shenzhen, we are aware that international journeys begin with the visas that may or may not be granted to Chinese nationals so the question is also practical and not merely academic. Even those with Shenzhen hukou, for example, need a travel pass to visit Hong Kong. In additin, political class and economic status also determine access to an education in western philosophy because international schools can only accept holders of foreign passports, while Chinese schools continue to prepare students for the gaokao, which emphasizes mathematics, science, Chinese, and English to the exclusion of all other subjects.

There are, of course, other challenges to bringing European concerns to a Chinese public. An important one is mutual recognition as an element of international politics. Crudely, the desire for political recognition within China was not the only motive for the Chinese Revolution. Instead, one of the motivations of Chinese revolutionaries was achieving national recognition within the capitalist world system. From this perspective, the establishment of Shenzhen marked the beginning of history in the area and thus Shenzhen’s futurism becomes legible not only as an effort to move beyond Chinese history, but also as making that history legible to those outside China.

It is not my intention to rehearse an argument of Chinese exceptionalism, but rather to elucidate the challenges inherent to any cross-cultural conversation, whether it takes place linguistically or visually or musically. Many have argued that contemporary art accommodates cross-cultural dialogue more easily than language does because languages constrict possible enunciations, while anyone with eyes can understand works of art. And that’s my point. When we think of cross-cultural discourse as a linguistic practice, we are forced to come to terms with the work it takes to learn our native languages, let alone a foreign language. In contrast, when viewing contemporary art, we often forget that just as we learn grammar in order to understand what we hear, we also learn conventions for understanding and evaluating what see. In other words, for a postcard to become a philosophical statement and an exhibition of touristic slides to become a political act, gallery visitors need more than two eyes; we also need history lessons.

This weekend, OCAT has organized lectures to help contextualize the Kojève exhibition. All involved have worked to make the exhibit more accessible to the public, allowing the gallery to become a site of philosophical re-consideration of the meaning and practice of history. However, I suspect that making this history part of the exhibition itself – in addition to holding a series of lectures – might have been a more practical solution to the challenge of making the end of European history relevant to Shenzhen audiences, where we’ve launched into the future.