Another two-parter in Justin O’Connor’s Shanghai Diary 2005 [context and introduction here] – this time exploring the new arts and cultural centres popping up in Shangha, Beijingi and Guangzhou, cities (re-)constructing so rapidly. Can Chinese cities reinvent themselves through contemporary art and cultural production as some post-industrial Western cities have tried to do? Words and images by Justin O’Connor. Part two of this entry is here.
7th July, 2005
I just got back from Beijing where I had been at a conference. I spent five nights there. On the first night I got that big city feel as I saw my first Chinese celebrity, James Chou from CCTV 9 (Check it out – you can get it on the internet.) This was in a reproduction Ming dynasty courtyard house restaurant, with trees and lights and crickets and Chinese music. The sort of place you should come if you’ve never been to China. You know it’s fake but somehow for a few moments you want to dream you are in one of those blue and white porcelain scenes; but meal over, back into the taxi to deal with Beijing’s appalling traffic. Beijing, through a mix of traditional Chinese city layout and communist hyper modernization, is built on a grid pattern. Huge wide ‘boulevards’ (no flaneurs of course) funnel rivers of metal and fumes at all hours of the day. Last time I liked Beijing; this time I hated it. One way of controlling the traffic in Chinese cities has been charging for registration plates. Shanghai’s are both very expensive and are also rationed. You need to go into a sort of auction. Beijing’s are easier to get. And the metro system is old. And the busses are a bit crappy. However, SUVs here are more in evidence – more than anywhere else they make you despise and loath the drivers. Not just ecology; not just the way they give more sense of superiority to drivers already used to being kings of the road; but the sheer display of wealth and power stinks.
But maybe it was the conference that was at the root of my bad temperedness. I won’t go into it here but it announced in an aggressive, swaggering way that the creative industries were the next wave of the new economy. China must move from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’ – from the factory of the world to its creative heart. Creative industries, creativity, innovation – these are to be China’s new targets. In ten years maybe China will be challenging Hollywood; maybe it will take its place as a cultural world power, a power based not on world domination like the US but on exchange and peaceful co-existence. I think this is naïve but it’s good for soft soaping the Chinese (whether they believe it or not) whilst offering technical support in ‘installing’ the new economy.
(This by the way, has been the theme of the current celebrations of Zhang He’s journey to the western Oceans. Setting out in 1405 he traveled as far as East Africa. Some claim his fleet continued around Africa to the new World. In any event this was a voyage of encounter – with a huge fleet, the most powerful in the world, he distributed gifts of great value to the leaders of the country he visited. The Ming dynasty however shut up shop in 1424 and forbade sea travel and burnt all the records. Anybody building a two masted ship would be beheaded. It worked. China became inward looking. 80 years later Vasco de Gama (maybe using Zhang He’s mapped picked up from a Venetian traveler in Calcutta) rounded the Cape and – after some nice touches like cutting the noses off a fleet of fishermen near Calcutta, to show his power – set about the ‘civilising mission’ of European colonialism in the East. A big ‘if only’ – and now the Chinese are saying “Will our century, the Chinese century, be one of peaceful encounter and co-existence?”).
So the usual array of creative entrepreneurs and proselytising academics lined up to introduce the creative economy to China. But of course, for a creative economy you need a creative class. And where is this creative class to come from?
In Europe cultural entrepreneurs grew out of the complex cultural and economic transformations of the sixties and seventies. On the one hand ‘high art’ faced up to enforced business exigencies and the dawning fact of its being unseated by popular culture; on the other, popular culture moved from bohemian margins to global domination. I exaggerate of course. In cities, a mix of large global concerns and small micro-businesses operate within ‘cultural clusters’, where cultural and economic impulses mingle in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The common culture, the shared understanding, the habitus of those negotiating these clusters is something formed over a longer period. How are we to see China? I’ve always talked about the rapid crowding of events and development here. Where in fifteen years a recognizably ‘modern’ cityscape has emerged from a city of poverty and decayed infrastructure. Now we are very rapidly to get a ‘creative class’ or at least creative industries. Where will these come from, what cultural knowledge, what cultural capacity will they mobilize?
There is a lot of talk about the new middle class in China. Some welcome it; some worry about it; some say the communist party are banking on it for its long term survival (no revolutionary bourgeoisie here); some that it does not exist. I don’t know the answer, I’ve not studied it. But I am sure that it is still at an emergent state and that culturally it is marked amongst its over thirties by the recent memory of poverty, and amongst its under thirties by the massive influx of western commercial brands and values and images. The intellectual elites – such as they existed – of the 1980s have almost no visibility. Popular culture is brands and harmless pop. So it seems to me as an outsider. But somewhere out there unpopular cultures are fermenting, in those spaces of the city which have just begun to exist, to grow out of the shadow of ex-pat bars and hangouts. In the meantime, where are the creative entrepreneurs? They are of course the kids of the rich and well connected; they have seen the new economy and want some of the action. The Chinese market for cultural goods is huge; the West wants in on it. It doesn’t care about censorship and the Chinese government knows it. Tell us what we can’t do, tell us clearly and you’re on. So the new TV clusters, the new media and advertising empires, the new pop music industry (which is about stars and live performance rather than (non-existent because pirated) record sales), the new fashion empires – all these are a fast forward beyond any bohemian radical phase, beyond the relaxed socially tolerant phase so vaunted by Richard Florida, straight into the ‘grab ’em by the balls’ phase. Much like early (early?) Hollywood or New York popular music. At the moment, however, they are not inventing as Hollywood and New York, they are replicating. “Where will the content come from?” was the big question of the conference; the answer, from creatives. Well that solves it then.
Defenders of the arts often use the idea that they are the R&D of the cultural or creative industries. This is where the ideas come from, where the innovation take place, where risks happen. I have a few issues with this, but to some extent it has been true in Europe. In China, Art is a problem. The cultural revolution set out to systematically destroy notions of ‘western art’ and, whilst they were about it, the artists themselves. Though rehabilitated in the later 1970s these things, let us say, take time to re-build. (Last year I attended a concert of Mahler’s first symphony and the conductor, who I think was French, began by saying how ten years ago he had played the same piece here in Shanghai but they could only play half the fourth movement because it was too difficult for the musicians). And of course the communist party still wanted to control content and agendas – witness the ‘spiritual pollution’ campaign of the early 80s. One of the key developments of the 90s was the acknowledgement by both intellectuals and the party that ‘high culture’ was no longer the ground on which the future of the country was to be played out. Which meant on the one hand a certain freedom of content, and on the other, the marginalisation of that art. Classical music was different – both traditional Chinese and western classical music have been promoted. New concert halls grace the major cities and form the centrepieces of their claims to be cultural cities and therefore cosmopolitan cities. (Last year I took a taxi out to a ‘cultural quarter’ where a concert hall, fancy French restaurant and sort of contemporary art gallery stood empty. The taxi driver had no idea where it was.). On the façade were pictures of Mozart and Beethoven, with Mahler making it (when they used to do this sort of this in the west Mahler was forgotten) and Shostakovitch and Prokoviev and some contemporary Chinese composers).
Museums and historical monuments have also rehabilitated Chinese cultural heritage, forming the central pillar of cultural tourism in cities – as of course they do in the west.
Contemporary art was ignored until quite recently. One of the things about cities using culture as part of their branding or renewal strategy is that they have to know something about it. Or find someone who does – but how do you identify this someone when you distrust the traditional cultural elite? Certainly museums and galleries and concert hall are sort of straight forward. But when cities began to think about contemporary culture, when they became aware that cities in the West do not sell themselves on popular culture that much, but on that strange thing ‘contemporary art’ – what to do? This is a problem which seems to me only recently – 2 years – to have come into view for Chinese cities.
For example, Beijing has a huge old factory complex which was taken over by artists. It’s got a sort of fancy arty restaurant, ‘interesting’ shops, bars and commercial galleries along side existing studios. This is where the discerning western cultural tourist would make for if they had done the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. The Beijing government is thinking about knocking it down. They might want Rem Koolhaas to build their huge TV complex, but why keep an old factory? Maybe Rem could have a word?
In Guangzhou a much smaller development exists in an old factory, very difficult to find and much less likely to gain the attention of the passing tourist in the city. Park 19, however, has been in the sights of various visiting arts people and organisations; the British Council let Anthony Gormley speak there last year. I too was roped in for a session. It had the feel of a space of excitement and innovation, existing on the margins of toleration. Since last year the city government became more interested in it. They began to think: ‘Why did the visiting German consulate delegation want to go and see it? What’s wrong with our concert hall and its fancy French restaurant?’
Last year I also visited a place on Suzhou Creek (watch the film, a glimpse into old – 1990s – Shanghai) called Moganshan Lu. It was an old textile factory with a long history going back to the Chinese business community of the 1920s and 30s. It’s now a place of studios and commercial galleries. The British Council use it as part of its visiting arts scheme; an Italian art entrepreneur has a studio there (Bizarts). It is surrounded by very poor housing and shabby streets. Last year it was under threat. This year I hear that the city now think it has some value; maybe this is what is meant by cultural cluster? Not only that, since the February there’s a new development, just along the river – The Creek Art Centre.
Part two of this entry is here. This impression of Shanghai is by Justin O’Connor. All Shanghai Diary entries.
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