Dance with Skyscrapers—-Skyscrapers in the Eyes of Shanghai Artists
Dr. GU Zheng
Under capitalism, stunning heights are always associated with commercial and political power, writes John Phiske in his Understanding Popular Culture. Skyscrapers, with their awesome heights, forge a visual reminder of such concrete association. Given the land cost, economic interest, the maneuvering of space-related power or the spiritual control, capital—as a symbol of power—and power, capitalizing on space, invariably join each other in an urban space, making skyscrapers a stellar fixture and endowing these modern myths a unique status and character.
Skyscrapers are considered a product of American capitalism. When they first appeared in the cities, it was hardly expected these products of modern civilization would turn out to be terrible thing unleashed from the Pandora’s Box, casting a spell of unchecked craving for new heights. Today humans have come to regard skyscrapers as a new totem of modern civilization, and their social activities have been dominated or even hijacked by these edifices. To satisfy this monster’s demand for increasing height and other conditions, humans keep pumping colossal amount of funds and technologies into it, matching it with political power, so as to gain satisfaction from poli-economic interests and insatiable vanity. Such glamour of modern civilization has both poli-economic dimensions as well as aesthetic and psychological ones.
Although the United States is known for its vast territory, its key commercial cities, Chicago, New York, among others, are space-starved, hence the need of economical use of land makes it possible to build skyscrapers. In the 1920s and 30s, skyscrapers became spectacular sights in the United States. A constant pursuit for new heights became a requirement of capitalism for both visual expression and space-politics, and also makes for a manifesto of future possibilities. As a utopian promise, skyscrapers proved to the people that the future meant constant progress, as evidenced in new heights. Meanwhile, the future, as represented by record-setting heights, is within the reach of imagination. Skyscrapers came to be the imagination itself. The optimistic commitment to height and the future-oriented outlook are visually embodied by skyscrapers. And still, as an expression of urban ideology, skyscrapers are simply all too persuasive.
In developed countries in Europe and the United States, fervent craving for skyscrapers has already waned due to the relative saturation of this type of building and a reflection on the mode of development. However, in the late 20th century, on the other side of the Pacific, it came roaring back in the Oriental country of China.
Today Shanghai may well be the world’s hottest place of skyscrapers, and it may also be their last promised land. Although Shanghai already boasted buildings of considerable heights by world standard in the 1930s, wars, revolutions and other irresistible factors depressed the city’s crave for soaring height, and no skyscraper cluster was formed eventually. After 1949, Shanghai stagnated in the transitional stage of modern and pre-modern eras. After almost half a century’s inaction, skyscrapers, as a totem of Western capitalism, became a favorite with the post-Mao era Shanghai.
In a development-craving China today, skyscrapers not only means economic success, but also emerge as a double totem of politics and economy. Their appearance in China suggests more than an influx and display of capital; it carries a political overtone. It is a visual reference to the struggle between a rising Oriental country with an old-line capitalist one for ideological dominance. In such a contest, the height of building has become a lodestar and skyscrapers morphed into a most direct and exaggerated prop of space politics, and also the most effective means of producing spectacular but empty promises. From Dubai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Moscow, to Tianjin and Shanghai, skyscrapers have shot up one after another, increasingly symbolizing an intimacy between power and capital. The libido for development, the desire for new heights and the will to surge high intertwine with one another, giving rise to a cityscape filled with unparalleled madness.
In the face of a skyscraper-thronging cityscape, how do visual artists respond and what topic could they have in such a hot pursuit of height? This article seeks to explore the relationship between their art works and the urban space, and reflect their effort to reshape the cityscape from three angles, i.e., at a distant range, upward and downward.
At a Distant Range: Skyscrapers on the Other Side
A hallmark to examine the change in a city is its skyline. Shen Fan’s installation work, Cityscape 1979-2009, traces the change of the skyline of Shanghai. The work is composed of three small-format oil paintings of landscape he produced in 1979. Not long after the end of the Mao era Shanghai kept its skyline virtually unchanged in the previous three decades. Standing on the ground, one can command an expansive vista with very few buildings blocking the view. From these paintings, we can tell that the skyline of Shanghai is undulating mildly, and in certain places there are hardly any buildings in sight. Thirty years later, however, when he took a second look at these paintings, he was shocked to find that the undulating skyline and the sights in his early year paintings had long gone; new buildings has risen high above the exuberant trees that have survived, and the cityscape has undergone tremendous changes. In 2009, thirty years after these three paintings were done, he placed neon lights, a token of metropolitan desire, in the shape of the contemporary skyline in front of these paintings. It may be seen as remembrance of a lost cityscape, yet the contrast between the two skylines highlights the profound changes the city has ever seen. From the grayish skyline to the brilliant neon-lit one, what does the artist suggest in addition to the changes to the outlook of this city?
Zhu Hao’s Will to Height affords a view of Puxi from a high-rise in Pudong. We can see in this photo that the back-lit Puxi on the west side of the Huangpu River is already studded with clusters of high-rises. The surface of the Huangpu River, otherwise flat as a mirror except the line carved by a ship steaming around, sports an unusual sight with myriads of skyscrapers enveloped in silence. Viewed at such a height, human gestures and activities are almost invisible, yet you can freely imagine what are happening in these buildings—they are products of human activities. All competitions, conspiracies, acts of violence, desires and manifestos are unfolded on this stage of the back-lit concrete jungle. Paradoxically, only at this height can we realize that everything is engulfed in this concrete jungle, so are humans themselves.
Consumerism is the dominant mode of existence and development in modern cities, but consumptions constantly produce rubbish of all kinds. In Zi Bo’s works, the water surface littered with beverage cans extend far into a throng of skyscrapers in Pudong. His images provide a montage of both the rubbish and spectacular sight we produce, and they are visually equalized in the same picture. Fictious as the images are, they pose such a serious question: if our cityscape is based on incessant consumption of materials and resources, does it really make any sense either today or in the future?
In today’s urban life, skyscrapers are considered an index on urban sophistication, while the ownership of an automobile an index on career success. In Zhou Hongxiang’s Third Interpretation on the Cityscape, skyscrapers in a city and cars on a parking ground are both de-functioned by certain means: skyscrapers are simplified into concrete blocks of different shapes, losing their individual characters and becoming inaccessible fortresses getting in the way. Cars of different models at the feet of the skyscrapers are coated by a layer of color. The cars and skyscrapers have their windows covered, deprived of their channels of communication. Processed in such a manner, these expressionless, faceless buildings and automobiles have no possibility to communicate with the rest of the world. A face without eyes is unimaginable. By “blindfolding” such metropolitan totems of skyscrapers and cars, he has visualized the indifference of modern cities.
In Liu Jianhua’s installation work, An Illusive Scene, chips stacked on a gambling table are laid out in the geographic shape of Shanghai. He also stacks chips into blocks on one side of the Huangpu River facing the skyscrapers of Pudong, and other blocks on other side of the river facing the colonial edifices of Puxi. After doing so, he took pictures of the tableau and incorporating them as part of the installation work. By making use of chips he seems to expose certain characteristic of a capitalist Shanghai. The mutual gaze of capitalist buildings past and present suggests that either bank of the river is no way different from one another; they are both governed by the capital and the same poli-economic logics. Just as it is suggested in the installation, everything here is dominated by the chips and the power behind them. The mutual gaze of the ubiquitous chips reminds us of the speculative mentality rampant in this city.
In his DV work, Three Days ago, Song Tao pieces myriads images of urban life in a progressive sequence. Under a road lamp, a boy is playing the “house-building” game: several rows of boxes are drawn by chalk on a solid ground, with the one in the forefront representing the “sky”. The sight is compounded by a locomotive charging aimlessly ahead, clusters of brightly-lit skyscrapers in Pudong in the evening, and the colonial-era Peace Hotel intermittently sucked by searchlight. All these sights pop up in a disorderly manner, lending an uncertainty to all these things. Even they disappear from his view, they cannot mask the anxiety of a nihilist and aficionado of a city. This love-hate psychology is poignantly rendered by the application of black versus white.
Skyscrapers, given their towering images, are aggressive sights in cities. Governed by the commitment to height, people will extol the view when apogees of skyscrapers loom in sight.
Maybe due to this reason, Zhu Feng’s “Second Hand Reality” series only showcase the very tops of skyscrapers. All these images are reproduced from photos featured in architecture books. They are called “second-hand” reality in the sense that they are not shot by himself. In his reproduction process, he only takes the apogees and assembles them in a well-crafted bunch of photos where the reiteration intensifies the ascending visual effect. The images, slightly bent in the reproduction process, gain an illusory touch and make the apogees look a bit unsteady. Will they disappear in the sky or will they pierce the sky? What is the better result of the human attempt to ascend, a futile effort or a thorough triumph? He does not give a clear-cut answer.
When we focus our attention on urban dwellers, Maleonn’s Book of Taboo breaks new grounds to our surprise: male and female super-humans with typical Oriental faces are well prepared to soar above from a terrace where they stand. Starting from the top of a lane house in Shanghai, they aim at new heights to flee the concrete jungle as depicted by Zhu Hao. The wire fence in the background only intensifies their rebellious hunger for flying high. What can prevent them from flying? The skyscrapers beyond the wire fences are beckoning them in earnest. Maybe the urban space filled with skyscrapers is where they can wield their talent.
A comprehensive lighting infrastructure is a critical benchmark of a modern city, and it is also a sign of modernization. When it becomes a basic requirement to deter crime and provide public convenience, and when business thrives well in the evening, lighting fixtures have become indispensable urban infrastructure. However, today the night views of cities have been spoiled by redundant light. Public buildings and infrastructure are flood-lit by neon lights in a vulgar manner; advertising light boxes riot together in the evening; shafts of light launched from skyscrapers virtually whitewash the evening sky. When urban space is lighted excessively as such, the evening sky has been deprived of its transparency but cast a fluffy fog of whiteness. The evening sky is whitewashed, the termination of evening, are closely associated with the economic consumption and dominating ideology that vulgarize the whole urban space. This is what Shi Yong tends to convey in his light box work, The Sky of Shanghai. Once again the evening sky of Shanghai has proved to be starless in such dreary, weary duskiness.
Luo Yongjin’s Golden Relationship, a part of his Auspicious Drawings series, seeks to implant into the images of skyscrapers auspicious signs of traditional Chinese culture, such as “Universal Peace and Prosperity”, “Golden Relationship”, “Be the Champion”, “Embrace the God-Sent Blessings”, “Fortune Descending from Heaven”. From these traditional signs and wordings of fortune, we can find that things with positive connotations are always associated with the factor of altitude. In these images he reflects the mutual quest and integration of traditional icons and skyscrapers as a modern totem pitted in an ambiguous, opaque backdrop. From these ambiguous images, we can find that skyscrapers, as an incarnation of the will to surge high, appear all too conspicuous and eye-catching, bringing to mind an increasing likelihood that skyscrapers may become an auspicious sign and emerge as a dominant one.
In his painting The Heaven-Reaching Tower, Yang Yongliang steers clear of his past approach to dialogue with classic Chinese paintings, but points directly to the incessant human will to fly high above the earth. Originating from skyscrapers in modern Chinese cities, all details in the painting crowd together to form an ascending airflow; the latter soars above, hits the heaven and then disperses. What the picture unveils means far more than mere ascending; rather, it suggests a transition from ascending to dispersing. A heaven-reaching tower built with modern materials does not provide a channel between the earth and the heaven, or lead one to the heaven; it is nothing but a sight of depletion or a metaphor for despair.
The higher one reaches, the more control he feels at his disposal. Skyscrapers afford one a fresh opportunity to refresh their visual experiences. Once someone rises to a lofty height and commands an aerial view over the things under him, the world appears in a new and exotic guise. However, when they reach such an altitude, artists do not seek to provide visual pleasure but to find a new approach to understand this world.
The painter Ji Wenyu often depicts some daily scenes with seemingly awkward and naïve touches. More often than not, he deftly creates a new painting by mixing symbols—including letters—with visual elements of all kinds. His painting, Constructors, commands a bird’s eye view high above his subjects, a worker, a farmer and an intellectual stand, or maybe sit, in the back seat of an open sun-roof car that speeds through a dense concrete jungle. The constructors are lost in the cityscape that they create themselves; they are buried in the cluster of high-rises they have built, and become their victims. Unaware of neither their position nor their way out, they have to tamely follow the will of the officer behind the wheel and his female secretary next to him. The structure of the identities of these people and their seating plan mirrors the reality of China: the construction of the society is dominated by officials, and the nominal “leading class” has been marginalized instead; its fate is beyond their control. The constructors, so far as this painting is concerned, are downgraded to be a decoration of the reality.
Jin Jiangbo’s Shanghai Engine Plan documents and reflects the thriving construction projects that Shanghai has witnessed during the pre-Expo period. The wholesale facelift for a mega-event as an incentive to give impetus to the economy; it also harbors the intention to restructure the urban space and reshape its cosmopolitan contour. He commands an expansive aerial view from a lofty place, historical buildings from the colonial era dominates the forefront while a good stretch of the other side of the Huangpu River—including all the skyscrapers— is also encompassed. By looking downwards he juxtaposes the past and present of a city in a single picture and provokes thoughts on the contemporary Shanghai.
The complexity of a metropolis requires unconventional approaches to unravel its mysteries. Looking downwards at a remarkable height can afford us a new and undisturbed view of a metropolis, making commonplace sights look magnificent. The pleasure of discovery stemming from the change of view of angle evokes a feel of control. The artist Zhang Enli, however, manages to share with us the pleasure of the discovery of everyday subjects rather than manifest a sense of domination. He uncovers the enduring charm of everyday subject, rescuing them from being submerged by overriding narratives. Although he takes the same angle as Jin Jiangbo, he does not command a panoramic view as the latter. He narrows his scope and looks closely at the very things beneath his feet. What he sees in such a narrow scope is just missed by those who bend their necks to look upward. Dominated by the will to fly above the earth, we have been turning a blind eye to everyday things and the land under our feet. Zhang wrestles a U-turn of our gaze and reveal to us how dependable everyday subjects can be.
Reflections on modern cities reach an ultimate height in Jiang Pengyi’s An Unregistered City. In a certain sense, the doom of metropolis is irreversible. Each glorious civilization in the world has given rise to great cities, but they are eventually crushed under the burden of their respective civilization. Jiang Yipeng’s pieces are photographs of an installation work. This downward gaze gears our attention to a cluster of debris-like high-rises, elevated roads and other constructions. Cast in a rubbish-laden, desolate environment, they are cornered into a state of devastation, with all its vitality and resources strained. Such a doom day sight suggests the exhaustion of energy and the demise of a city itself. His works herald the miserable end of skyscrapers, and a wholesale devastation that may occur to the metropolitan civilization in the future.
All said, these art works on the subjects of skyscrapers, though diversified in styles and approaches, are products of a sensitiveness to modern civilization and a premonition of the future, and they prove to be worthy reflections on metropolises and urban awareness. The artists do not tamely extol the novel shape or their formidable height, let alone bow to the power embodied in skyscrapers. They pose these constructions as their subjects of intellectual debate, and voice their concerns on the side effects of modern civilization. We have every reason to believe that their exploration will bring new incentive and inspiration, and provide spiritual resources when we tap into modern civilization.