Shenzhen’s Future: Special Political Zone?

The police have taken over the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. They are rehearsing for an official event to happen later in the day and many of the biennale’s outdoor installations at Shenzhen’s massive Civic Square have been temporarily closed off to the public for the occasion.

Ou Ning, the biennale’s curator, is standing in the square watching thousands of police officers and soldiers march in.

“I’ve been taking photos of the police standing in front of the exhibits,” says Ou, dressed in black, standing unassumingly on the side of the square. “It’s quite funny to see.”

Ou lived in Shenzhen for a decade before moving to Guangzhou and eventually Beijing. More than any other Chinese city, he says, people in Shenzhen are eager for political reform. He sees the next step in Shenzhen’s evolution as becoming a political testing ground for the rest of China and he wants this year’s biennale to heighten awareness of Shenzhen’s political role through the use of public space.

This is the first time a public arts event, let alone one that is so populist in its inclinations, has taken place in Shenzhen’s Civic Square. Elsewhere in Shenzhen, Ou has put installations in the middle of shopping malls, creating two biennale sub-sites on Shenzhenwan Avenue and the Yitian Holiday Plaza.

“I don’t like museums or galleries,” says Ou. “I decided to bring the exhibitions to public spaces like shopping malls, that way the exhibitions can go beyond the art community and contact ordinary people.”

It’s the Civic Centre venue that has the most significance to Ou as he aims to co-opt official space for public use. He deliberately spread the installations out so that people would be forced to walk around the entire centre, occupying the whole space, from the enormous square at its south side to the construction site for Shenzhen’s new contemporary art museum on its north end.

Everything is new: the Civic Centre was built just a few years ago, and most of Shenzhen dates back only to the 1980s, after it was declared an experimental free-market zone by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Now, nearly three decades after Deng’s era, Ou knows that Shenzhen is ready to move on.

“After people get rich, or become middle-class, they become conscious of some political issues,” Ou says. “The Shenzhen Special Economic Zone is already finished; is it possible for Shenzhen to become a ‘special political zone’? I chose the Civic Square for the biennale, to start the conversation about this.

“Now in China there’s a new political model. People participate in politics not just for the state but for themselves as well. I would like to use the biennale to mobilize the people to use their public space and to engage them and to get them to think more about the city, politics and their rights as citizens.”

Shenzhen biennale highlights

Demolition Relocation: Using rough cut steel sheets, the sculptor Liu Xiaoliang has created meticulously detailed models of Chinese cities in transformation. The chaos of the modern Chinese city is perfectly rendered with hanging electrical wires, gridlocked traffic and an orgy of signage. So is the destruction taking place in the name of economic progress: one model depicts a “nail house” left standing in the midst of a massive construction site while another represents one of Shenzhen’s urban villages, which are slowly being replaced by upmarket new developments.

Double Happiness: It’s a child’s deconstruction of the city’s commercial face: a billboard turned into a swing set. Created by the French architecture studio Bureau des Mésarchitectures (which translates as “Office of Misarchitecture”), the swing questions our materialistic urban culture in a way that’s both accessible and fun. Perched on the Civic Centre’s podium, with a full view of the square and Shenzhen’s burgeoning skyline, it’s the most memorable swing ride you’ll ever have.

Snow Bull Station: There’s a giant water buffalo sitting in the middle of Shenzhen’s seat of government and we have Rigo 23 to thank for it. The Portuguese-American artist spent a month in Shenzhen crafting the bull out of mud and bamboo. Inside, a flat-screen TV plays video interviews with Shenzhen residents about their experience of the city. The interviews are shown in Cantonese and Mandarin without subtitles, but even if you don’t understand, the buffalo is still worth a visit for the simple fact that it’s so fun. There’s even a bamboo ladder that lets you poke your head out of the top of its bum.

The Bug Dome: Taiwan-based architects Hsieh Ying-chun, Roan Ching-yue and Marco Casagrande used materials scavenged from the construction site of Shenzhen’s future contemporary arts museum to make this insect-inspired cocoon. It’s a surreal, soothing structure filled with bamboo chairs and a small stage that is used for poetry readings and performances. It’s especially memorable on a clear day, when rays of sun shine through the cracks in the dome’s bamboo shell.

Another version of this post was originally published on CNNGo.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday January 06 2010at 10:01 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “Shenzhen’s Future: Special Political Zone?”

  • Alex Hofford says:

    Hi Chris,

    In somewhat less in depth than your post, here’s my take on the biennale:-

    I was only there for 45 minutes, a fact which may explain the superficiality of my post!


  • Hi Alex! I got a similar impression when I first visited the site to interview Ou Ning. It was cold, gloomy weekday, most of the outdoor installations were closed for the police demonstration and most of the people looking at the indoor exhibits were architecture students from Hong Kong.

    But I went back to Shenzhen yesterday and stopped by Civic Square. It was a warm, sunny day and it was filled with people who really seemed to be enjoying the exhibits. Kids were lining up for the billboard swing, people really get a kick out of the Snow Bull Station and there were at least a dozen people wandering through the Urban Oasis.

    Beyond the biennale itself, I was impressed to see how, on a nice weekend day, the Civic Square lives up to its name. On my first visit, with all of the police and military, I assumed it was normally quite inhospitable, but yesterday there were a lot of people doing all sorts of random things. There were teenage skateboarders, middle-aged men racing toy cars and three or four different buskers playing music.

    It was great until I wandered a block away from the square. Walking behind the youth centre, I saw a gang of young thugs dressed in military fatigues jump out of a truck. They swarmed a sweet potato vendor and looted the entire contents of his stall, dumping all of the potatoes into a plastic garbage bag. They were accompanied by a few public security officers; one of them filmed the scene on a camcorder and chuckled.

    The whole episode lasted less than 30 seconds. Not a word was exchanged.

  • Alex Hofford says:

    China. Full of surprises! Don’t you just love her?