Value Creation

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If UABB Hong Kong was greeted by a storm of controversy, its counterpart in Shenzhen went off without a hitch. “Cocktails and happiness! No protest at all!” wrote one participating artist on Facebook.

This year, UABB Shenzhen — which bills itself as the “world’s only biennale dedicated exclusively to the themes of urbanism and urbanization” — is being held in the Shekou Industrial Zone, which was the first free-trade zone in China when it opened in 1979. Much of the action is concentrated in the Value Factory, a former glassworks that now houses installations, workshops, two cafés, a restaurant and a farm that will be harvested when the biennale closes at the end of February. Participants were told to “do almost nothing” to their spaces inside the factory, giving it a raw presence that pervades every aspect of the exhibition.

Like all of the land in the Shekou Industrial Zone, the Value Factory is owned by state-owned China Merchants Holdings, which is now transforming Shekou into a high-end office, entertainment and residential district. The company is also the primary sponsor of UABB Shenzhen. Curator Ole Bouman says he wanted to make the venue more than just the backdrop to a show. “The building becomes not just a protagonist of the biennale but of Shekou itself,” says curator Ole Bouman. He hopes to use the Value Factory as a wedge to insert art and culture into Shekou’s development. “The next chapter of Shekou can’t just be about revenue,” he says.

Just as in Hong Kong, though, critics see the Shenzhen biennale as a way to give a kind of cultural legitimacy to the property development machine. “There’s something about putting cultural events in factories and warehouses that are almost immediately appropriated,” says Shenzhen-based critic and curator Mary Ann O’Donnell. “There’s no room for critical engagement because it commodifies everything. This is clearly part of a massive upgrading and restructuring of Shekou that has as its goal a massive increase in property values.”

But unlike Hong Kong, that doesn’t seem to be much of a concern in Shenzhen. “Community sensitivities in Shenzhen are not as explosive as what’s happening in East Kowloon,” says UABB Hong Kong curator Colin Fournier. “The situations are very different – the threat of gentrification in Shenzhen is not as acute.”

If anything, that’s an understatement; it’s hard to find anyone in Shenzhen who isn’t a cheerleader for the city’s rampant development. Entire neighbourhoods known as urban villages, which provide affordable housing for migrant workers, have been razed and replaced by expensive new office towers, shopping malls and gated apartment complexes.

“The only people who make a fuss are architects and urban planners,” says O’Donnell. The bias towards homeownership is so strong in China that even people displaced by redevelopment are concerned only by compensation, not the loss of community, affordable rental housing or small-scale urban fabric. “My husband and I are renters, and our friends always criticize us for doing things like installing window screens, because what’s the point of improving our apartment if we don’t own it?

O’Donnell runs a community art space in Baishizhou, one of Shenzhen’s largest urban villages, which she managed to have designated as a satellite venue of UABB. “But most people there don’t even know the biennale is going on,” she says. “In order to start engaging most of Shenzhen’s population, you have to bring events like this into the villages — or at least you have to mobilize those village residents.”

But most of UABB Shenzhen’s money comes from property developers and Shenzhen’s developer-friendly municipal government — there’s even a section of the exhibition dedicated to promoting new apartment projects — which undermines its ability to intervene in sensitive urban issues. “This is about real estate development,” says O’Donnell. “Some people coming here may be doing critical work, but the biennale itself is not about that.”

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday January 15 2014at 11:01 pm , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Interior Space, Public Space and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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