Arts of Re-Animation

There’s always something huge happening in Shanghai — and usually several things. Out at the leading edge over the last two years has been the tsunami of urban development along the Huangpu waterfront to the south of the Puxi metropolitan core, in an area that has been named ‘Xuhui Riverside’ or ‘West Bund’. The scale of what is underway there is (of course) utterly stunning.

A mixture of new residential complexes and prestige towers is under construction, and the immediate waterfront has already been redeveloped into a strip of interconnected parks and boardwalks (constituting the 8.4km ‘Shanghai Corniche‘). Along the river, a neo-modern aesthetic prevails, characterized by elegantly re-purposed heavy industrial structures: slabs of concrete, disused rail tracks, and massive cargo cranes. As elsewhere in the city, the heavy-duty Shanghai 1.0 has been playfully folded over itself, in a stylish celebration of modernist heritage. The future is presented as a re-launch of the past. For anybody mesmerized by time-spirals, it’s irresistible.

The role allotted to the arts in this process of urban re-animation is especially notable. Even in a city blitzed into delirium by an explosive growth of arts space, the proliferation of galleries, theaters, museums, and other cultural centers in the West Bund comes as a scarcely-comprehensible shock. The subsonic sucking roar of this new cultural capacity, emitted in overlapping ripples as it extends its devouring appetite throughout the city and far beyond, reaches a magnitude that seems to bend space and time. There are entire national cultures in the world that would be hard-pressed to fill it.

The coming out party for this arts infrastructure was held on a suitably stupendous scale. Westbund 2013: A Biennial of Architecture and Contemporary Art included an interlocking set of exhibitions, each of which would have been dazzlingly impressive on its own. Sound Art China introduced the country’s sonic bleeding edge in its Revolutions Per Minute event, set up within four renovated oil storage tanks. The adjacent West Bund Exhibition Center — a redeveloped industrial structure of truly cyclopean proportions — hosted a multi-threaded sound / video / architecture / cinematic history show in and around a central ‘Inter-Media Megastructure’ that fully lived up to its grandiose name. A more modest urban development exhibition in a nearby warehouse space did its best to explain the epic convulsions that the area was undergoing. (I think the appropriate word is ‘awesome’, cubed.)

There’s only one reasonable conclusion: Shanghai is sheer cosmic splendor compacted for terrestrial application, and expressed through aesthetic overload. Cynicism can wait for another occasion.

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