A Tale of Three Cities – China Design Now at the V&A

To understand the design revolution that this exhibition portrays, it helps to picture a popular cartoon that appeared soon after the Cultural Revolution in China. (1965-1976) When, after the death of Mao, it was possible to poke fun at the past a cartoonist drew six members of a family from the baby to the grandfather. Each of them whatever their age or sex was dressed identically. During that period all Chinese wore the same proletarian uniform: choice was limited to a few colours. In the eighties, Deng Xiao Ping began the economic revolution that created the manufacturing miracle. There is a joke current in China. Deng stands at a fork in the road. There are two arrows one to the left saying Socialism and one to the right saying Capitalism. He simply moves the socialist sign and points it up the capitalist road. Production boomed but design lagged behind.

The first modern design show happened in 1992. The iconic poster at the start of this exhibition has two legs inter-twining, one leg wears western trousers and the other colourful pre-revolutionary Chinese trousers. Until then consumer choice was regarded as non-socialist. The opening gallery illustrates how modern graphic design spread from magazine covers to cooperatives, websites and rave concerts. That story begins in the Frontier City of Shenzhen. It is the largest manufacturing city in the world and the average age is twenty seven. In the cities of the two Asian giants of India and China the indelible impression is one of youth and energy. If you can’t visit China then this show at the V&A will give a sense of its global creative force.

China Design Now is a tale of three cities. The middle gallery is Shanghai. The story there starts with the nineteen thirties ‘Paris of the Orient’. This is the arena for life style and fashion exhibits. I loved the ceramics of Lin Jing which have a deco feel to them. In fact nostalgia is the atmosphere of this gallery. On the outskirts of Shanghai there is a model town. It is called Thames Town. It is like a Disneyfied version of the Thames Valley. It is easy to understand in the high rise futurist landscapes of Chinese cities that this development appeals to families.

The third and ‘Future City’ is Beijing. We shall see a great deal of the iconic buildings, filmed and modelled for this gallery, when the Olympics begin in August. The mega structures are mostly designed by international firms including Foster and Partners mind-blowing new airport, Herzog and de Meuron ‘Birds Nest’, (PIC) the National Stadium. Private architects firms only began in the nineties in China. The exhibition design by Tonkin Liu is superb. They have used mirror to create the effect of water around the large model of the China Central Television headquarters. China is a huge country and the entrance gives the impression of size and space. Their design is vertical as is modern China.
There are two elements that pleased me but they are inspired by the past. One is the calligraphy. Calligraphy is an art form as well as a script. Han Jianing was an avant- guard poster artist. His designs for the fiftieth anniversary exhibition of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are on display. He faxed thirty sheets of A4 for each poster. The Japanese gallery pasted them together to make big calligraphic symbols of each city’s name except they were fractured. Brilliant!

In the architecture section among the huge projects were two little houses. One called Father’s House and the other the Split House. These two gave me hope that a little of ancient China may survive the bulldozers and begin a renaissance. Father’s House is inspired by traditional courtyard dwellings but is in a contemporary style while using inexpensive materials. One could imagine it revitalising the countryside. Split House, I assume, was for a wealthier family. Its location is next to the Great Wall backing on to wooded hills. It has Daoist elements. Daoism believes man should live in harmony with nature. Yung Ho Chang designed it like a pair of open scissors. The traditional courtyard becomes triangular in this house. The architect developed the site without destroying woodland and so trees grow in that space

In ‘Shenzhen’ there is a sad little video of a fleamarket that grew up around an outdoor pop–concert, MIDI 2006. The vendors were not selling second-hand things but their own designs. They are being ousted by promoters of large companies. In contrast there is sweet website called Tudou or ‘potato’ that you can click onto which gives individuals a chance. Between 1965-1976, culture in China was politically driven. Free thought and design ruthlessly crushed. The young were encouraged to smash the old and they did, destroying so much of beauty from the past. I hope that the originality and human spirit evident in this show is not crushed by the commercial juggernaut.

China Design Now is on until July13th

www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1636_chinadesignnow

By |May 2nd, 2010|Categories: China, Art & History|Tags: , , |0 Comments