Dear Shaded Viewers,
Two weeks ago I visited the Beijing Design Week exhibits, entitled “Design Powered,” at 751-D Park, the new design district on the outskirts of Beijing that’s adjacent to the 798 Art District. It’s the fad in Beijing now to transform the disused Mao-era factories into cavernous spaces showcasing art and design, not to mention souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants.
For Beijing Design Week, a proliferation of artists and furniture/product designers from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Austria, Australia, the U.S., and “Greater China”, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, were invited to showcase their various creations. The 751 exhibitions were quickly anointed with a dollop of controversy as the invited journalists from Eurupe and the U.S. had flown all the way to Beijing because their editors were expecting them to return with evidence of an indigenous Chinese design renaissance. Instead, there was much griping about the over-abundance of European design at BJDW, which said journalists could see anytime during their constant travels to international design fairs.
But the fact that Chinese design is in its nascent state should come as no surprise to China watchers. The recent examples of cutting-edge architecture in Beijing were either designed by Europeans (the CCTV Tower, “The Egg” opera house) or, in the case of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, Europeans collaborating with a Chinese architect. The National Aquatics Center (the “Water Cube”) was designed by a partnership between Australians and Chinese. Still, no prominent young Chinese architect has emerged on the world stage. (I.M. Pei, the Chinese master of modernism, is now 94.)
For my part, I merely took photos of things I found visually appealing before the group moved on to a lively lunch with three Chinese designers.
One of the greatest pleasures of 751-D Park is seeing these gorgeous old factories in all their decaying glory. Let’s hope they’re never gussied-up with a paint job.
The opening ceremony for BJDW in 751 was held in front of this old steam locomotive.
A terrific example of Chinese design: crumpled bone china pieces by Beijing-born Xie Dong. I first discovered her work last spring when I visited Wuhao Curated Shop in the Dongcheng hutong district of Beijing.
Of course an architect from Vienna would be inspired by that city’s legendary desserts. Dejana Kabiljo’s “Let Them Sit Cake!” are couches created from bags of wheat flour and some kind of polyeurathane “chocolate icing” to very comfortable effect. After the show is dismantled, the wheat flour will be reused for food. “In times of uncertainty and crisis, ‘Let Them Sit Cake!’ offers a moment of sweetness, indulgence and joy.”
“Let Them Sit Cake!” and the following pieces are all from the I Live Tomorrow gallery in Hong Kong:
Me reflected in a mirror-map of Beijing
Triple teapot from the Art Display & Decoration Committee of China space
A delicious lunch with the Chinese designers: Gao Yin, Jia Li and the formidable Harrison Liu (Chinese name, Liu Linian) who, among many things, is the Art Consultant for the Art Display & Decoration Committe of China whose space we visited before lunch. Mr. Liu showed us some of his low-budget modular furniture which he designs “only as a hobby” but his comments about it were rather illuminating. “I only produce things that retail at a low price because if you design something that’s expensive in China, everyone will copy you. No one wants to copy the cheap stuff so I just stick with that.”
This of course is a commentary on the almost complete absence of intellectual property rights in the People’s Republic of China. (Recent examples include the fake Apple stores that have cropped up, like illicit pop-up shops, in China. Another example that I discovered 8 years ago in a bookstore in Hong Kong was a bootleg copy printed in mainland China of my friend Camille Paglia’s bestseller “Sexual Personae” which was being sold with a vividly re-designed cover. The book’s publisher had no publishing deals for “Sexual Personae” whatsoever in China. The Chinese simply copy things as they see fit and no one seems to be able to stop them.)
Another example involves Stefano Giovannoni and his iconic champagne-glass-shaped bar stools. The stools have been cheaply and wildly copied all across China. So when Mr. Giovannoni was feted at the bizarre opening ceremony for BJDW at the kitschy China Millennium Monument, the irony was not lost on the foreign design press.
But getting back to Mr. Liu, whom I had the pleasure of chatting with during our delicious lunch. In addition to his art consultantant gig, Mr. Liu has a rather extensive career as an actor and director in the Chinese film industry, having starred in such films as “Black Robe” and “Foreign Moon” and also the TV series “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.” Mr. Liu hails from the city of Harbin in northern China and he launched into a comical monologue that theorized how the Chinese of Manchuria, who tend to be taller, talk in a deep voice while the shorter Chinese in the south have squeaky voices. He demonstrated this by pointing out the different parts of the throat that the northerns and southerners use while speaking–and then poked fun at the young man sitting next to him who is from the south. “You can tell he’s from the south because he’s cute.” I visited Harbin in 2003 to cover a Chinese rock festival for WestEast magazine, so it was fun to reminisce about my trip to that rather fascinating city.
Meanwhile, next door at 798 Art District, the usual wackiness prevailed….
The Chinese government loves work like this (and the Party most likely commissioned it): Socialist Realist factory workers from the Mao era holding aloft China’s powerful new economy. In fact, thick bundles of yuan bills are not an uncommon site among the country’s middle class: Because the highest denomination is only 100 RMB (worth a mere $15 USD) the PRC’s eager consumers have to walk around with huge wads of cash to buy luxury items, including houses. (Credit cards are not very popular – probably because ostentatious piles of cash make a more impressive statement. Get ready for the Chinese nouveau riche, kids. They make the American version look demure and tasteful.)
Thanks for reading.