Not the same / Not different
The path through the bamboos leads into the unknown
Ji Cheng 1635
Well, anything could happen and it
could be right now
And the choice is yours to make it worthwhile
The Clean 1981
Thinking about these two cities as I begin writing this in a third (Melbourne), picking up the threads I began in Dunedin over Summer, about to return to Shanghai where I’ll (hopefully) finish, puts me in a strange place. Or maybe it's the only place. You can judge. When it comes to Chinese gardens conventional wisdom says it is the viewer who in the act of participating in the garden completes it. It’s a democratic kind of contract and I expect one the artists and designers in this show, held in Shanghai’s most celebrated ancient garden, take with them into their studios every day.
Lately I have found it a constant to be asked about differences between East and West, or more specifically the Chinese contemporary art world and artists in comparison to those of an ‘other’ West. Undeniably there are differences. Historical timelines, traditions, the centrality of a calligraphic language, something too about the relationship to materiality and that old organic versus geometric,spirit versus concrete divide. Even more recently I’ve also been thinking about the dangerous territory of essences (the root of that word shared with ‘essentialising’) and the idea that to the Western embrace of the ‘fold’, the Chinese way might better read as ‘flow’.
But it is both easy and sometimes damaging to overplay these differences. More importantly it’s what’s shared that really excites me about living and working in Shanghai. Personally I speak neither Mandarin or Shanghainese, nor any of the myriad languages more native to this city than my southern English. Yet sometimes this impediment also proves a source of wonder; the kind that leaves you reeling at how art’s languages will always find a way through. It’s probably about the stuff in between anyway. In the distance travelled, the dust and detritus in the cracks and crevices of solid masonry, the story gets found. For sure the act of translation and mistranslation throws up problems and opportunities both. As inclusive cities these are things Dunedin and Shanghai are well versed in. And then there’s the beer and wine that transcends boundaries; riding its way into just about any exhibition opening, anywhere. An artist or designer in Dunedin or an artist in Shanghai is usually going to be a social being, active, aware.
What I can say is that Shanghai as a being is eclectic, electric, immersive and, despite or possibly even because of its underlying ancient culture, in a state of constant change. Sometimes you sense it’s as if the city and its inhabitants are trying to keep up with the ten thousand things of the Tao - that endless dynamic energy that runs through all things. At its very best you become immersed in this flow. Take a late-night taxi ride at speed under the lidded eyes of the city towers or fight your way onto a peak-hour metro train and tell me you don't feel something.
All is nature, human nature…
Dunedin is immersive in another way. The hills thatsurround the city are in turn cloaked in layers of weather fashionably dark and changeable. But if those hills form a barrier they also provide insulation for a city of possibilities. The trick with insulation is avoiding the insular, keeping things permeable, and Dunedin seems to achieve this feat regularly. Artists whether dealing in the visual, fashion or music have famously had a way of reaching further and faster than those of New Zealand’s other cities. Maybe it's the distance that at once incubates also forces a push to engage. Anything Could Happen isn’t the first time Dunedin artists and fashion have featured on a stage in Shanghai but I’m pretty certain it marks a new angle of approach in its collective breadth.
Like Shanghai (yes, really) Dunedin possesses much of its old architecture. But it's a truism to say in Dunedin the rents largely remain within reach, and artist and maker studios more readily found in the centre. Naturally the galleries are fewer, but critically engaged, experimental and embraced in ways surprising for a city of its size - with a longstanding network of funded and independent artist spaces. Along with the Dunedin City Council, the Schools of Art, Fashion and Design at Otago Polytechnic and the University of Otago all play essential roles in fostering a creative culture. And the Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG) offers an international contemporary programme that can put larger Australasian cities to shame.
Shanghai is another kind of creature. Apart from the longstanding M50 art zone on Moganshan Road, affordable studios are usually going to be further afield. Sometimes they remain in organized creative zones or occur in more organically found clusterings wherever, as in Dunedin, the rents are cheapest. But whether it’s central Puxi, Songjiang or a water town like Zhujiajiao artists and designers have a way of, well, finding their way. And if the contemporary art scene in Shanghai is comparatively new, the museums, international art fairs and biennials expand exponentially year by year so that the depth of shows and events in any one week can be astonishing. The recently developed Government-supported West Bund precinct isn’t so much a work in progress as some kind of meteor of art that’s crash-landed, with private collector funded museums like Long and Yuz leading the way.
Context is everywhere….
It’s significant that this show is being held within the Yu Yuan as traditionally the arts merge in a Chinese garden. The designers were often painter poets themselves, and the Chinese gardens have long served as both repositories and active generators of culture and places of welcome for visiting artists, and the ensuing exchange of ideas. In the gardens too, formal order such as that offered up by the Emperor’s world was thrown into clever disarray. Outwardly places of repose and elegance classical gardens might offer a world of ragged glory, of strange grottoes and twisted taihu stones that each suggest one thing while also managing to present its other. There is the idea that these places are a kind of microcosm not necessarily of the world as it is but of how it might be, with gardens sometimes described as paintings to walk through or three-dimensional poems.
This confluence of the arts is common amongst Shanghai artists today with notable practitioners moving seamlessly between painting, sculpture, design, photography, film, sound, fashion and architecture. It’s fitting then that this show from Dunedin presents visual artists and fashion together. Artists of Dunedin, typically by inclination and often of necessity, are willing multi-taskers, experimenting across disciplines and, as in Shanghai, hybrid and collaborative practice is frequently the result.
Music forms a kind of hub for Dunedin’s art scene. The title for this show comes from a song by legendary Dunedin band The Clean. Leading the way in Dunedin’s postpunk music scene since the late 1970s, here is a recognition of the craft of the song, a sometimes experimental approach with a ready roughness yet knowingly informed. The Chinese term would be zhou and it was a quality also looked for by the literati in pursuit of an art beyond the official. Think of it as art without artifice and a kind of search for authenticity via material, clarity of form and intention. I like to think it can be seen in much of Dunedin’s art and in the success of independent fashion labels.
Traditionally Dunedin fashion appears painted black, wearing the weather and its changes. But if there is a gothic darkness called upon when trying to summon our city, equally there are the psychedelic notes of high key unexpected colour swirling, and any attempt to limit the imagination inevitably suffers. Shanghai has long been the Chinese city most comfortable with things Western, and fashion is no exception. Shanghai Fashion Week works on a scale that reaches right across this city and thanks to the Dunedin Shanghai Sister City Project and the Otago Polytechnic’s School of Fashion, Dunedin has begun featuring as part of this iconic event. But spend some time here and you see along with the high status shows, the major labels and the global chains, an ongoing mixtape of traditional, street and the experimental that would just as easily wear its lines in downtown Dunedin.
In the end we are all just trying to find our way...
I’d like to think there is no one Shanghai any more than there is one Dunedin, one way of making art, or one way of remaking the world we all live in. That Dunedin and Shanghai are having these conversations, visiting each other’s studios - that’s what counts.
If Dunedin is one of the great small cities Shanghai is obviously one of the great large cities. Between these extremes anything could happen…
Dunedin, Melbourne, Shanghai 2017
Ji Cheng, The Craft of Gardens . trans. Alison Hardie (New York: Better Link Press 2012, orig. 1635), 48.
The Clean (Kilgour, Kilgour, Scott). “Anything Could Happen” (lyrics), Boodle, Boodle, Boodle, 45rpm. (Flying Nun Records 1981).