顾铮:上海之上——艺术家眼中的摩天楼

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《上海之上——艺术家眼中的摩天楼》

顾铮/文

“在资本主义制度下,巨大的高度总是与商业权力、政治权力相联系。”(约翰·菲斯克,杨全强译,《解读大众文化》南京大学出版社,2001,P216)摩天楼,无疑以其节节上升的高度体现了这种高度与商业权力和政治权力之间的具体联系。无论是城市土地的成本计算与经济利益考虑,还是空间政治的权力运作与精神操控,作为权力的资本与以空间为资本之一的权力,最终往往会在城市空间联手合作,塑造摩天楼作为现代城市的必须配置、作为现代性神话所具有的独特地位与性格。

摩天楼被认为是美国资本主义文明的首创。当美国城市最初出现拔地而起的摩天高楼时,谁也不会想到这个现代文明的产物也会像一个被从潘多拉宝盒中放出的怪物,从人类尚可想象的高度出发,一发而不可收拾地发育出一种令人疯魔的高度意志,走火入魔,颠倒众生。今天的人类,已经视摩天楼为现代文明的新图腾,在人类的社会活动中被它所左右、所劫持。为了讨好这个不断提出新的高度要求以及其它相关要求的怪物,人类不断投入大量资本与最新技术,再配之以政治权力的保驾护航,不仅为的是获得政治经济利益的满足,也为的是某种虚荣心的满足。这种现代文明的虚荣,既是政治经济的,更是审美心理上的。

虽然美国土地广袤,但在一些中心商业城市,如芝加哥、纽约等城市,土地需求与经济效率的要求都使得摩天楼成为一种可能。20世纪的20年代与30年代,摩天楼在美国成为一大景观。不断向上,成为标志资本主义盛世与发展的一种视觉表述与空间政治的要求,也是一种未来可能性的宣言书。作为一种对于未来乌托邦的承诺,摩天楼只能以不断增长的高度向人们证明,未来就是不断进步,这个进步以高度、以上升为标志。同时,这也告诉人们,被以不断刷新的高度所代表了的未来,也是可以通过高度被想象的。摩天楼就是想象力本身。这种乐观向上的上升意志与未来志向,也往往就被不断向上的摩天楼所象征。而且,作为城市意识形态的表征,摩天楼可能是最具蛊惑力的象征。

在欧美发达国家,这种摩天楼热,由于发展的相对饱和与对于发展方式的反思,已经有所收敛。而到了20世纪后期,在世界东方、在大洋彼岸的中国,人们又一次见证了它的卷土重来。

今天的上海,可能是世界上最为青睐摩天楼的地方,而且也许是摩天楼的最后的福地。虽然在20世纪30年代,上海就已经拥有了在当时世界上也算不低的摩天楼,但由于战争、革命等等不可抗原因,上海的高度意志受到压抑,最终没有形成一个更具规模的摩天楼群。1949年年后,上海的城市形态基本处于现代与前现代相互胶着的过渡状态。经过近半个世纪的蛰伏,在后毛**时代,西方资本主义的图腾摩天楼,终于迎来在上海大展身手的转机。

在中国,在发展至上的今天,摩天楼不仅代表了经济的发展,更摇身一变为一种政治经济的双重图腾,它在中国的出现,当然令人联想到资本的的流入、投下与炫耀,但它更具有一种政治意义。它是后发国家特别是东方国家与老牌西方资本主义国家展开话语权竞争与制度比较的视觉参数。在这种比较与较量的心态的扭曲之下,摩天楼异化为一种比较即是比高度的最直观的、最夸张的空间政治道具,也演变为制造海市蜃楼、提供空洞承诺的奇观异景的最有效手段。从迪拜、香港、吉隆坡、台北、莫斯科、到天津、上海,摩天楼越来越多地出现在东方国家,也越来越成为炫耀权力与资本的亲密关系的象征。发展里比多、离地欲望与上升意志强烈地纠结于一起的城市风景,终于演化成为了不可多得的“疯”景。

面对这样的摩天楼景观,从事视觉艺术创造的人们作出了什么样的反应?他们如何在高度这个表象中找到可以发言的议题?本文将通过一些生活工作于上海的艺术家们的有关摩天楼的作品,从远眺、向上看、向下看这三个视角来探讨他们的艺术与城市空间的相互关系,以及他们重塑都市形象的努力。

远眺:作为彼岸的摩天楼

检验城市发生变化的标志之一是城市的天际线。申凡的装置作品《城市风景1979-2009》就是讨论了城市天际线的变化。作品由三件作于1979年的小幅风景油画构成,均为他当时的写生作品。当时的上海刚从毛**时代走出不久,城市天际线已有30多年不变。站在地面远望,视界相对开阔,遮蔽较少,因此申凡得以从平视角度来描绘城市的风景而视线不受阻挡。从这三件油画的画面看,当时上海的城市天际线比较平缓,起伏不大,有的地方甚至根本不见楼房踪影。而30年后,当他回头再看这三幅画时,他蓦然惊觉画中画中那本来起伏平缓的城市天际线与景物早已不再,葱郁的树木后面长出了高楼,城市风景发生了巨大变化。2009年,在画出这三幅作品30年后,他把象征城市欲望的霓虹灯管弯曲成城市天际线的形状,叠放在三件油画前面。这也许是一种对于消逝的风景的追怀,但通过出现于作品中的前后两条不同天际线的对照,确实令人感受到这个城市所发生的巨大变化。从灰濛濛的天际线到耀眼的霓虹天际线,这个变化,在展现了城市外表的变化之外,还提示了什么?

朱浩的《上海之上》,是从浦东的高楼放眼浦西。从照片中我们看到,逆光下的浦西,已经被黑压压的摩天楼所覆盖。而那波平如镜的江面,虽然被一艘行船所划破,但波澜不兴的水面,与其背后沉默无言的摩天楼群构成了一个独特异样的景象。从这样的高度放眼远眺,人的活动无从显现,但从这些作为人的活动的结果的楼群看,可以获得想象上海人以此为背景展开各种活动的开阔空间。是的,所有那些竞争、阴谋、暴力、欲望与宣言,都是在这个逆光下的水泥森林的舞台上展开与发布。但是,也只有从这样的高度才会发觉,所有这一切都已经被消解于这一片水泥丛林中。而人,也当然被一起消解。

现代城市以促进消费为生存发展的主导模式,但这种消费建基于不断地生产制造各种生活垃圾。在资佰的作品中,由饮料的废弃易拉罐铺展开来的水面,一路绵延的去处是耸立在浦东的摩天楼群。他的画面直接把我们制造的生活垃圾与我们制造的超级景观联系了起来,同时也给出一种视觉等同。这个画面虽然只是虚构,但已经提出了严峻的问题,那就是,如果我们的现实景观的基础是建基于这样的对于物质的大量浪费与无尽消耗之上,那么这些透支了未来的壮丽景观对于我们的现实、对于我们的未来具有什么意义?

今天的城市生活中,摩天楼成为了城市发达与否的指标,而汽车则成为了个人成功与否的标志。然而,在周弘湘的《对风景的第三种阐释》中,城市里的摩天楼与停车场里的汽车这两样东西同时被他以某种方式去功能化了。摩天楼被他简化成结合了各种几何体的水泥固体。它们在失去了个性的同时,更转化为一种不可接近的屏障式的堡垒。而摩天楼脚下的各式汽车,也被他用各种颜色覆盖起来。无论是摩天楼还是汽车,它们都被蒙上了窗户这个“眼睛”,失去了一种交流的通道。通过这样的去功能化的处理,这些无表情、无脸(faceless)的建筑与汽车失去了与外部世界沟通的可能。谁能够设想一张没有眼睛的面孔?周弘湘以给现代城市的图腾摩天楼与汽车蒙眼与封口的方式,将现代都市的无机性与沟通不可能性可视化。

刘建华的装置作品《虚幻的场景》,其装置部分由赌台上的筹码垒起一个具有上海城市地图形状的模型。同时,他还以赌台上的筹码,在外滩垒成一个与浦东的摩天楼群遥遥相对的此岸,在浦东垒成一个与对岸外滩的老租界高楼相望的彼岸,然后拍摄成照片,与模型组 合成一个作品整体。他以筹码为关键形象提示作为资本社会的上海的某种特性。通过将上海浦东、浦西两岸的新老资本主义建筑景观的彼此观望与相互映照,揭发无论是此岸还是彼岸,其实都受同样的资本与政经逻辑所左右的事实。这个城市最终就像刘建华的装置所呈现的,这里的一切都由筹码所左右,由筹码背后的权力所决定。通过无所不在的筹码的彼此打量,我们同时更清楚地感知到了这个城市的一种赌博性格与赌徒心态。

在宋涛的DV录相作品《三天前》中,他把各种城市生活的意象组织在一个时间过程中。路灯下男孩跳格子的“造房子”游戏,书写在坚硬水泥地上的“天空”两字,永远向前而不知目标所在的机车,夜空中发光的彼岸浦东的摩天楼群,被探照灯光一次又一次抚摸的租界建筑和平饭店。这些情景犹如白日梦一般无序出现,令一切变得更加恍惚、更加不确定。这是一个有关过去与失去的作品,也是一个有关现在与存在的作品。但即使是失去,仍然无法掩饰一个城市虚无主义者与热爱城市生活者对于他所生活其中的城市的矛盾心情,而且这种爱恨交加的心情被以对比强烈的黑白方式呈现了出来。

向上看

摩天楼,其直插云霄的形象,也城市里侵占视域,拉抬我们的视线向上。在高度法则的作用下,人们只以自己的视线是否最终与摩天楼塔尖相交为乐事。

也许就是这个原因,导致朱锋在《二手现实》这个系列作品里,只点到为止地给出插入云霄的摩天楼塔尖。这些图像是他翻拍自一些建筑画册中的摩天楼照片。他名之为“二手”的现实,意即不是来自摄影家的实地拍摄。而他在翻拍时只截取摩天楼的顶端,并将复数的摩天楼顶端组合于一个设计感强烈的照片群中,以叠加的画面强化了上升意志的视觉效果。这些摩天楼的顶端,因为他在翻拍时将图像稍加弯曲而呈虚化,由此得出的视觉效果却是它们的顶部具有了一种不确定性。它们将要消融于蓝天中,或者正在穿越蓝天?人类的上升意志,在这里究竟是看作某种挫折好还是视为“刺破青天”好,他并没有给出具体的答案。

而当我们有可能把视线聚焦于城市中的人的时候,终于在马良的《禁忌之书》中赫然发现,在上海弄堂的某个晒台上,长着东方人面孔的男女“超人”,已然作好飞升的准备,他们脚下的石库门楼房成为他们的起跳点。但他们将飞向更高的地方,摆脱出现在朱浩照片中的那片水泥丛林。而他们身后的铁丝网更暗示,他们有迫切的升腾愿望要脱离之。有什么可以阻止他们的上升意志?铁丝网外面的摩天楼已经在殷切召唤他们的起跳。也许,由摩天楼构成的城市空间才是他们展翅飞翔、施展身手的舞台。

拥有完整的照明体系,是现代城市的重要指标之一,也表明其与现代性的关系。当防止犯罪与公共便利成为基本要求,当经济活动向夜晚延伸时,照明系统成为了城市空间必不可少的配置。但是,今天的城市的夜晚,已经被过剩的照明所污染。大量公共建筑与设施,被滥用公帑施以艳俗无比的霓虹灯光所打扮,各路广告在夜空竞相招摇,而摩天楼所发射的灯光,作为冲天光柱也漂白夜空。城市空间在这种过度的灯光渲染下,夜空已经不再通透纯明,它已经蒙上一层白茫茫的雾霭。夜空白化,夜被终结而昼夜不分,与经济消费和政体面子相关的城市空间被夸张地夜总会化。施勇的《上海的天空》这个灯箱作品,展现的就是这么一个蒙尘灰白的夜空。它再次确认,上海的夜空,作为一个看不到星星的天空,已经名符其实。

罗永进的《金玉良缘》属于他的《吉祥图》系列。在这些作品中,他将中国传统民间文化中的喜庆吉祥图符与摩天楼形象糅合于同一个画面中。这些传统图符包括“四海升平”、“金玉良缘”、“独占鳌头”、“招福纳祥”、“福从天降”等。从这些传统吉祥图符与用语看,我们发现,“好”的事物也往往与向上、与高处相关联。画面中,他把传统图符与现代图腾摩天楼置于一种若隐若现的处于混沌之中的相互寻找与融合的关系中。从这个混沌的画面中,我们发现,作为一种上升意志象征的摩天楼,其地位突出、醒目,预示其越来越有可能进入民间吉祥图符的谱系之中并成为具有主宰性的新图符。

而杨泳梁的《通天塔》,不同于他以往的作品与中国美术史名作展开对话的形式,而是直接指向了人类永无休止的离地欲望与上升意志。画面中的所有细节以现代中国城市中的摩天楼为主要素材,集聚在一起形成一股上升的能量与气流,向上升腾、触碰天项然后向四周散开。这个景象所展示的其实已经不仅仅只是一个升腾的问题,同时也是一个从升腾向脱落与消散转换的过程。由现代物质文明所搭起的通天塔,并没有建立起与天对话的通道,也无法真正抵达天上,只是生成为一个消耗的景观,蜕变为一个绝望的隐喻。

向下看

人所处越高,就越有一切在手的感觉。摩天楼为人们更新自己的视觉经验提供了全新的机会。以垂直的方式向上出发,来到一个向四周放眼的高度,世界再次变得新奇多姿。不过,艺术家们来到高处的目的并不是为了提供一种视觉快乐,而是为了寻找了解世界的新途径。

画家计文宇的绘画经常是以看上去有点稚拙的笔触夸张地描绘当代生活中的一些情景。他擅于以符号拼贴的方式把一些符号(包括文字等)与各种视觉形象组织在一起,构成一个反讽调侃的画面。在他的《建设者》一画中,画家的视点高居于景观之上。画面中,工人、农民与知识分子三人一起站(坐?)在一辆敞篷汽车的后排,穿行于密密匝匝的摩天楼中。建设者们迷失于他们自己所建造的景观迷津中。他们被淹没于他们所建造的楼群,成为他们所造之物的受害者。他们在这里找不到他们的位置,也找不到出路,只得听从在他们前排座位上把控方向盘的官员与女秘书的带引。这辆汽车上的人员构成与位置安排,在一定程度上反映了今天中国的现实,那就是社会建设的走向由官员主导,而名义上的领导阶级则被架空,处于被挟持、无法掌握自己的命运的境地。而建设者一词,至少在这张画里,已经成为了一种现实的装饰。

金江波的《上海引擎计划》,记录、展示了上海在筹办2010年世博会期间的大兴土木。这种因为巨型事件(mega event)而给城市大肆化装、以期牵引、带动城市经济的做法,同时也隐藏借机改变城市空间结构、重塑城市形象的动机。他的照片从高处俯瞰,从开阔而居主导性的俯瞰视角,以租界时代的殖民地建筑为前景,把视线延伸到周围及对岸的包括摩天楼在内的各式建筑。他以从上朝下的俯瞰式观看,将上海这个城市的过去与今天的期待与向往集结于同一画面。金江波通过这张照片,揭发了上海的前世,但同时也引发对于上海的今生的思考。

都市的复杂性要求我们通过非同寻常的视点来对它解密。登高俯视不但使我们获得了一个全新的视点,让都市的外表一览无余地展现在我们面前,这也会使平庸的景观变得非凡起来。这种视角转换所带来的新发现的喜悦,是一种一切操之在我的感觉。然而,在张恩利,却似乎更愿意通过改变视点来与我们分享发现日常的喜悦,而不是以此宣示一种独占性的视角。张恩利的绘画志在发现被我们的宏大叙述所淹没甚至摧毁的日常的经久魅力。同样是俯视,不同于金江波的广角式的全景照应,张恩利的这幅作品视角相对收拢,只是细细观看脚下有限的局部。这个居高临下的狭窄视角,正好是那些被上升意志所劫持的人所缺失的。在离地欲望的支配之下,我们已经很久没有关注自己的日常生活与脚下的土地了。张恩利再次把我们向上的势利目光拉回我们的脚下,拉回到可以安心的日常。

而对于现代城市的种种反思,到了蒋鹏奕的《不被注册的城市》,可以说是达到了一个终极境界。从某种意义上说,城市的终结是不以人的意志为转移的。世界上各大文明都曾经生产出辉煌的城市文明,但最后往往被自己的文明所埋葬。蒋鹏奕的作品是一个经由装置作品拍摄而成的摄影作品。他以向下的视角引导我们的视线关注一堆形同废墟的高楼、高架路与其它建筑。它们与各种垃圾为伍,它们的周围一片荒芜,它们成为荒芜本身,它们蜕变城市的排泄物本身,它们被置于死角,所有这一切呈现的是活力消失、资源枯竭的末日景观,在在显示都市能量的耗散与城市本身的灭亡。他的作品既预示了摩天楼文明的结局,也以作为文明的终极意象的废墟形象来提示城市的未来。

总之,这是一些为对于现代文明的特有敏感与对于未来的某种预感所驱导,以摩天楼为素材,以文明反思为后盾的有关都市、有关都市无意识的风格多样、手法多变的艺术作品。他们没有满足于全盘接受来自现代性神话的摩天楼的无论是造型蛊惑还是高度压迫,更不要说屈服于其权力展示,而是以它们为对手,与它们展开一种智力意义上的对抗,进而发出有关现代文明批判之新声。相信他们的思考与探索会给我们思考都市文明带来有益的刺激与启发,也会成为我们思考现代文明的某种精神资源。

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.
Looking Upward
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.
Looking Downward
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.

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