‘Only Products, No Art’: honesty and irony in the new market
In the Beijing autumn of 2011, I saw the above billboard at 798, in which two images are accompanied by the slightly odd English: ‘Only Products, No Art.’ In Chinese, the sign is only slightly less mysterious, announcing that ‘Li Qing’s Products Are Not Art’, and then giving an email address, presumably as a contact for curious customers. At first glance it wasn’t clear whether the sign was supposed to be ironic or not. If it was it would contain an extra meaning, translatable to a certain audience; it would be a comment that cut both ways, both telling it like it is yet critiquing its own message in a coded language. If it wasn’t, however, it was simply a straightforward statement, upfront about its products’ social function and declaring plainly its lack of pretensions.
The context was what made it confusing. 798 is a collection of both local and international high-end galleries – a so-called ‘international art district’ – but it’s also a bustling commercial market selling contemporary art, furniture, homewares, art souvenirs and other dinky design objects. It’s already difficult at 798 to tell exactly where the art ends and the retail begins, the galleries blurring into shops and each often resembling the other. Was this a clever and Warhol-esque comment on 798 and its relationship with consumer culture – ala Chinese artist, Zhao Bandi, or American artists, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holtzer, all of whom have rented advertising space with which to exhibit similarly ambiguous works – or simply the advertisement of a local entrepreneur? In other words, was the sign deliberately ambiguous, or only so because of its situation at a crossroads of expectations of contemporary art, and of market and avant-garde definitions?
I thought it would be good to follow this up with a feature on a local artist, and even better one who is from the city of Wuhan – one of the Chinese cities best known for street and general counter-cultural activity, from hip hop to art to rock. Ray was one of the first to start spray-painting the Wuhan streets in the early to mid-2000s, and speaks confidently about why he hasn’t moved to Beijing or Shanghai yet.
Ray’s work is like rock and roll sherbet for the eyes, dazzling with bright colours and industrial graphics. Check out the pictures below, or Ray’s blog for stacks more examples. Of course it would be best to see these pieces in situ, jazzing up a wall with the high gloss appearance of 3D animation. My guess is they would light up a back alley, both gritty and slick all at once.
I was late to learning about Gangnam Style. One night I was at a café and was socially garish enough to ask my companions what it was. ‘You don’t know about Gangnam style?,’ they gasped, half impressed, half horrified. ‘She doesn’t know about Gangnam style. Everybody knows about Gangnam style …’ I went home with the sticky sounding words in my head, trying to figure out how to pronounce them.
Of course, from that point on I started to see it everywhere. It kept popping up online, it was playing in the background in taxis. Even my four year old knew about it from kindergarten, and gave her own rendition of the South Korean rap with her own wonky dancing. I soon realised that more than the song itself, the point of the craze was its use for parody – originally of Seoul’s wannabe fashionistas, and later of all kinds of people and social phenomena. At this point, there are literally hundreds of adaptations of the dance uploaded to Youtube, each one a spin off from the original with its nonsensical horse-riding dance moves.
I suppose it’s because of the jig’s horsey characteristics that Ai Weiwei has now picked it up and turned it to his own light-hearted music video critique. Ai’s clip is a clear reference to the Grass Mud Horse – China’s own popular and virally transmitted parody – and so is also an oblique reference to China’s Internet censorship. (Grass Mud Horse sounds like F*** Your Mother, but is written differently, and now references a whole lexicon of other such homonyms that allow people to skirt censorship online).
In the first half of the twentieth century, Shanghai was a city that attracted performers, writers, artists and designers from around the world. A breeding-ground for new art forms, such as oil painting, cinema and poster art, this ‘high time’ of Shanghai’s past has long been considered the city’s cultural and artistic zenith. Today, Shanghai’s cosmopolitan heritage is under restoration. Over the past five years in particular, a growing number of international artists have made Shanghai their base.
Since its establishment in 2006, the new media art collective, Liu Dao (aka island6), has become something of a stalwart of the Shanghai art scene and beyond. The collective’s creative and operational centre is its production studio and exhibition space in Shanghai’s m50, also known as Moganshan arts district, where individuals from different backgrounds come together to engage with and comment on contemporary life in Shanghai. The collective’s signature LED art, interactive art and sculptures makeup only a fraction of Liu Dao’s ever-expanding repertoire. Meanwhile the tone of the work is often humorous, delivering social commentary in unexpected ways — see the LED display, Puxi Fluffer (2012), pictured above, which references the city’s dependence on an army of ‘ayis’, or domestic cleaners, for a cheeky example.
With its international member-base and technically and conceptually experimental practice, Liu Dao embodies the vision of cosmopolitan Shanghai. Liu Dao’s collaborative structure, valuing communication over egocentrism (their approach has been likened to film production), provides a model for cross-cultural and collectivist approaches to art making, curation and arts management in China.
In the spirit of Liu Dao’s uncompromising collectivist ethos, the following interview responses were submitted anonymously by its members.
Chinese content for Paper Republic’s next edition of Pathlight: New Chinese Writing has been set in soap, and is set to include far more poetry than previous issues.
Faced with an abundance of work and a dearth of talented contacts, the editors are calling for motivated, experienced translators of Chinese poetry to establish a relationship with the magazine.
To be featured are Zhu Ling (朱零), Ou Ning (欧宁), Yao Feng (姚风), Wang Yin (王寅), Wang Xiaolong (王小龙), Yang Zi (杨子), Huang Jinming (黄金明), Liao Weitang (廖伟棠) and Yang Xiaobin (杨小滨).
The editors will do their best to assign poems based on their relationship with the translator, and first drafts will be due in mid-September. Compensation is – the editors say – exceptional for poetry.
Those interested should write to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.