Thursday 17 July 2008

Chinese normality

Reflections on China Design Now at the V&A, London

China Design Now at the V&A, reviewed on Culture Wars on 29 May, finished on 13 July. It was the third large Chinese exhibition in Britain in as many years, the other two being China: the Three Emperors at the Royal Academy and The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army at the British Museum. These two exhibitions, though, differed from China Design Now in an important respect: they showed us a China that was unquestionably great, but also unquestionably dead. The First Emperor was often compared to the British Museum’s 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition. China Design Now announced modern China as a global cultural presence, and offered its exhibits as a cultural parallel to its economic advancement since the 1980s.

The introduction to the exhibition tells us that ‘the Chinese have rediscovered their pre-socialist past and begun to combine their own traditions with global influences to produce a cultural rebirth’. If China is to be reborn, then it would follow that, during the Mao era, China died. In many ways, this is a fair evaluation. The economic policies of the Great Leap Forward and the policies of the Cultural Revolution killed tens of millions of Chinese. But in terms of design, these were not dead years. Mao-era design is among the most familiar to Western audiences in, for example, the ‘big-character’ posters still running down the side of many public buildings, and souvenir propaganda posters. The Mao era gave us one of China’s most imposing landmarks, Tiananmen Square, and, lying in the centre of the square, China’s most famous design icon, Mao himself. China Design Now presented China as a young, cultural debutante, with the explanatory notes surrounding the exhibits acting as her chaperon, determined to show her to her advantage.  But at their best and most interesting, the exhibits excluded nothing and offered us ways of seeing China through her tangled heritage.

The exhibition comprised three rooms each showcasing one city and one area of design: Shenzhen and graphic design, Shanghai and consumer art, Beijing and architecture. One of China’s earliest graphic designers, Chen Shaohua, tries in his work to deal with the various divisions of China’s twentieth century. In ‘Communication’, he integrates the traditional and simplified Chinese character ‘gou’, meaning channel or communication. In 1956 and 1964, the People’s Republic of China simplified Chinese characters, perceiving their complexity to be a barrier to China’s development. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, however, continued to write using the traditional form. Chinese calligraphy has played a big part in traditional and modern Chinese design, whether it is the illegible cursive script of high calligraphic art or the big-character posters of the Cultural Revolution. In integrating the traditional and simplified forms in ‘Communication’, Chen Shaohua attempts to fuse together a China fragmented both in its history and geography.

In the Shanghai room, there was a series of four photographs reminiscent of Cultural Revolution posters by Wang Peijun, ‘Great Family Aspirations’. A mother, father and daughter stare unsmilingly at the camera. In each photo they wear different costume: academic gowns, wedding dress, sports clothes, business suits. Opposite there are television screens playing adverts from the 1980s and 90s promoting the ‘Four Great Things’. In the 1960s and 70s, these were bicycles, sewing machines, watches and radios; in the 1980s and 90s, colour televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and radio-cassette recorders; and now, houses, cars, computers and mobile phones. The uniformity of aspiration and the numerical groupings evoke the old mass campaigns and state development drives of the Mao era (the Three Antis Campaign, the Five Antis Campaign, the Four Modernisations Drive). There is a suggestion that even in free-market China, prosperity proceeds along state lines, and does so with the state’s permission.

The Beijing room is dominated by the central display of new Olympic design, the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, the ‘Water Cube’ swimming pool and the ‘Cloud of Promises’ Olympic torch. The timeline of the China Design Now made this climax of Olympian architecture rather troubling:  on 10 March protests broke out in Tibet; on 15 March China Design Now opened; on 6 April protesters lined the streets of London to greet the Olympic torch; on 10 April Gordon Brown announced he would not attend the opening ceremony in Beijing; on 12 May Sichuan province was devastated by an earthquake killing almost 70000 people—many blame poor construction standards; on 12 July China and Russia controversially vetoed UN sanctions against Zimbabwe; on 13 July China Design Now closed. It would have been impossible for the exhibition to comment on these events, but their coincidence with it has made one thing abundantly clear: it is no longer possible to present a sanitised version of China. We cannot simply admire the comforting antiquity of China’s imperial greatness, or the familiar prosperity of her free-market reforms; we must confront that lasting influence which sees world powers divided once more along familiar lines: China and Russia on one side, and the countries which make up ‘us’ on the other. More than that, we need to understand how all these historical trends affect something that sounds much smaller: the way people live and think in China.

Outside in the V&A’s John Madejski Garden during the exhibition, there was a workshop where families can learn to count in Chinese, and another where they could have their faces painted and learn a few Peking opera moves. There was also a large photograph of Tiananmen Square, the idea being that you had your photo taken in front of it, giving the illusion that you were actually in Tiananmen Square. In the middle of the garden there is still a display by Chinese architect Yung Ho Chang as part of the V&A’s annual garden commission (it runs until 1 September). He has erected a series of interlocking screens, bringing to mind the traditional painted screens used as partitions in old Chinese homes, or the corridor and rocks that guide you through Chinese gardens. He has made these screens out of green, plastic paving blocks that are ubiquitous on Chinese building sites; and China since 1949 has resembled a building site as much as anything else. They are the kind used on sites constructing sub-standard Sichuan schools in the 1990s, and the kind they will be using again in Sichuan now.

There were a disproportionately high number of Chinese visiting China Design Now when I was there, and out in the garden there were two Chinese families playing among the screens, dodging in and out between them or else playing hide-and-seek. Another Chinese family was sitting near the pond in the centre of the garden having their lunch. Yung Ho Chang’s design was doing what design should do: it offered us a version of everyday Chinese life. Beyond the historic scale of China’s twentieth century, it offered us a version of Chinese normality.

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