Chinese avant-garde

China Contemporary | Rotterdam, 2006

From June 10 till September 3, 2006, the city of Rotterdam is opening the doors of its major exhibition spaces. The recent transformation of the modern Chinese urban landscape is being introduced to the Dutch and international public in “China Contemporary”. It is a story told in three chapters: architecture, art and visual culture. Three Rotterdam arts institutions have teamed up to show work emerging out of contemporary China, as “China Contemporary” is a joint initiative of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and the Nederlands Fotomuseum.

In relation to the Chinese experience under Soviet influence during the late 1950s, Mao Zedong stated the following: “We should use our own minds when we copy foreign experience. We must not copy mechanically, which means giving up our judgment and forgetting the lesson of dogmatism in the past. The lesson is that theory must be combined with practice. Theory comes from practice and returns to practice.” Relations with the West have been a focus of Chinese discourse during the last century. In a series of revolutions, closures, openings, reforms and absorptions China has constantly redefined its relation with the Western experience. This has posed a series of dilemmas within the country, and the final concept underlying this, and its contemporary outcome, should be explained against the background of the famous slogan of Chang Chih-Tung (1837–1909), who defined the following relation at the end of the 19th century: “Chinese learning for the base and Western learning for application.”

China Contemporary |  Rotterdam, 2006

The exhibition at the Netherlands Architecture Institute doesn’t touch on theory, but shows the practice of a group of young Chinese architects. Most of these architects were educated and trained in the West (in the architectural sweatshops in The Netherlands, France, Germany, Canada and the United States) and since 1998 have been operating in the midst of the turbulent changes. It seems that in the West, every attempt to theorise the current Chinese architectural and urban situation has fallen back on repeating a series of aphorisms like: to get rich is glorious; last year China consumed half the world’s cement production; last year the total construction volume in Beijing alone equalled that of the whole of Europe; or in Shenzhen the population has increased about a 100-fold over 20 years. The understanding of China creates a difficult relation between cause and effect. Linda Vlassenrood, curator of the NAi exhibition, formulated this during the opening symposium as: “In China architects are confused about their role within the field of architecture.” She identified current Chinese identity as the result of an interplay between mass, speed and scale. On the other hand one could also state that Confucianism has turned into Confusionism.

The NAi exhibition is structured according to five themes which discuss the conflicts in current architectural and urban development: Informal China, Chineseness, Urbanscape, Public Domain and Critical Urban Renewal. Based on a deliberately congested and cheap-looking 3-D matrix, the design has been done by Johan de Wachter Architecten with Michael Smith and Shohei Shigematsu. The open character of the NAi exhibition space is transformed by the compactness of a generic display in which the 50 projects contribute to the “collective image” without losing the identity of the individual designers. By altering the height of the pixels placed in a rigid grid, spaces with different characters are created.

China Contemporary | Rotterdam, 2006

The exhibition shows a double vision of contemporary China. The idealised version of China’s future is represented by a number of polished renderings, slogans and animations; this is confronted in a single space by an alternative outlook on the future, conveyed in the work of the selected designers who react to this context with their installations, models, documentaries, photography and films. The architecture produced by the Chinese architects is devoid of any iconic statements, reflecting instead upon a reinterpretation of the concept of critical regionalism, which in today’s China is a mix of modernism, budget, local materials and building skills, extremely short periods between design and construction, and flexible relocations of concepts and architectures.

The exhibition “China Contemporary”, at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, NAi and the Nederlands Fotomuseum until September, gives a timely overview of what is being produced by the so-called Chinese avant-garde. The effects of transformation and urbanisation seem to be the glue that is keeping everything together. If one can’t make it to Rotterdam this summer, the catalogue (published by NAi Publishers) provides the best alternative as all the works presented in the exhibition have been brought together in one volume, and as such have the potential to create new understanding, relations and insights. The relation between time and place finds a perfect framework, and the theory is slowly emerging out of this overview of the practice – hopefully subsequently to influence the practice.

It would be very tempting to examine the effects of these architects on construction in China as a whole, or even to define an “–ism” to describe the blurring borders between a new generation of artists, curators and architects. But today we should still keep in mind the words of Hu Shih who wrote the following in 1919: “The great danger of “–isms” is that they render men satisfied and complacent, believing that they are seeking the panacea of a “fundamental solution”, and that it is, therefore, unnecessary for them to waste their energies by studying the way to solve this or that concrete problem.”

“China Contemporary” exhibits the works of architects, artists and curators who in the last decade have spent all their time and energy using their own minds and in doing so have been studying and exploring ways to solve the problem of a Chinese (architectural and artistic) identity.

“Chinese avant-garde” by Bert de Muynck
Published in DOMUS #894 July/August, 2006