Postcard from Shenzhen

Shenzhen: so close to Hong Kong by any means you choose – bus, train or ferry – and yet so far

BY Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva in Critic's Guides | 19 OCT 16

Many Hongkongers look uneasily towards their border with China, while the art crowds don’t generally venture far north than Victoria Harbour. As though attempting a rapprochement, however, the exhibition ‘Summer Triangle’ (which runs until 23 October) curated by Venus Lau in Exhibition Hall A of Shenzhen OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT), takes Hong Kong as a case study for mass media depictions of cities. The result – which brings together works by Jon Rafman, Adrian Wong and Lantian Xie – is something of an urban reverie through sculpture, video, print and loose reference. 

In C2 Space, a few blocks away in OCT Loft – a leisure district comprising tens of thousands of square metres of renovated factory buildings with cafes, cultural spaces, restaurants and shops – OCAT is showing ‘Denominating: Power & Game – Fresh Vision 2016’. Curated by Fan Lin, this exhibition samples works by dozens of young art graduates. Nearby, on the seventh floor of a building overlooking a low-rise district, I take a respite from the tropical heat in the studio of artist Zhou Li. Zhou, whose work was recently on show at White Cube in London as part of ‘The world is yours, as well as ours’, a group show of abstract painting, is an advocate for young talent. A guest professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in the nearby city of Guangzhou (there is no art academy in Shenzhen), she has initiated a programme, ‘The Choice of the Graduate Star’, with Boxes Art Space to showcase upcoming artists’ work in vitrines inside O’Plaza Mall.

Gu Wenda, 'A Story of Qinglu Shanshui', performance with more than 1000 school children at Shenzhen Convention & Exhibition Centre

Shenzhen, Deng Xiaoping’s first special economic zone, is often exaggeratedly described as a small fishing village that grew into a mega-city overnight. The truth is still impressive: from a population (that also farmed) of 30,000 in 1980 it reached 12 million in 2010, in one of the most rapid urban expansions in human history. As is true across the Pearl River Delta, rice-fields have given way to roads and skyscrapers and, as a consequence of its rapid urbanization, Shenzhen epitomizes China’s migrant model of development, with one of the youngest populations in the country.

According to Gu Wenda, in town to organize a large scale performance, ‘A Story of Qinglu Shanshui’, at the Convention & Exhibition Centre, here opportunities abound, as the place has always been forward and open-minded. He describes Beijing and Shanghai as, respectively, the political and financial centres of China while Shenzhen is its rapidly rising IP and digital capital. Between 1,000 and 1,500 school children came to participate in Gu’s performance, which was supported by the Ping An Insurance Group. The commission was the first in a series of collaborations aimed at creating an artwork to adorn the 600m-high Ping An International Finance Centre (IFC) tower, the tallest building in the city and the fourth tallest in the world, designed by the American architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and set to open this year. Gu’s brief for the children was simple: paint your heart’s desire on long scrolls of white paper (1500 m2 in total), which had been arranged in rows on the floor for the occasion. But it was the paint that was unusual: food-grade blue-green algae – a nod to environmental concerns over the proliferation of these toxic plants in North-American, European and Chinese coastal regions due to rising water temperatures. The stench soon entirely engulfed Hall 3, making the already impressive performance more memorable and avoiding what could have been an overly corporate event or a cliché of traditional Chinese painting.

A week prior to Gu’s performance, in mid-September, Hall 6 of the Convention & Exhibition Centre hosted the new-ish fair Art Shenzhen. Technically in its fourth edition, executive director Jane Lee insisted that this was the second, probably due to some restructuring. Lee explained to me that, during the last decade or so, Shenzhen’s population has been focused on the city’s economic development. Now that it has arrived, however (Shenzhen is the fourth largest Chinese city by GDP), the middle class has time and money to direct somewhere fun. Disregarding Hong Kong’s disregard, local interest in art has increased since the inception of Art Basel in the city in 2011 – Hong Kong is often visited by Shenzhen’s middle class for business and leisure.

Digital rendering of the Ping An Tower, Shenzhen. Courtesy: Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates 

In Shekou, a region at the southern tip of Nanshan, facing Hong Kong across the Shenzhen Bay, is Nanhai E-cool. In the mid-1980s, during Deng’s economic reforms, the area welcomed the thriving Japanese business Sanyo Electric Co. Today it has been repurposed into a design industry-friendly district by its owner, China Merchants Shekou Holdings (CMSK). The only nonprofit space so far to settle in the former manufacturing buildings is the Frank F. Yang Art and Education Foundation, in You Space. The same week as the fair, collector and patron Yang launched ‘Reality Bytes’, an exhibition resulting from an international open call for young curators. Assessed by a jury comprising Bao Dong, Duan Jianyu and Lau alongside Yang, and chaired by Karen Smith, this first edition invited Belgian curator Goedele Bartholomeeusen to the brand new foundation. 

Elsewhere in Shekou, CMSK have joined forces with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to create the nonprofit Design Society, which will open in 2017 in a building designed by the Japanese architectural studio Maki and Associates (the Pritzker Prize-winning Fumihiko Maki’s first design in the country). The museum will be headed by Dutch curator Ole Bouman, the former director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute and editor-in-chief of Archis/Volum, who was the creative director of the 2014 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture in Shenzhen. If, in London, some might question the project’s intentions, in Shenzhen, anything contributing to the young city’s cultural fabric is welcomed: action prevails!

'Reality Bytes', 2016, exhibition view, Frank F. Yang Art and Education Foundation, Shenzhen. Courtesy Frank F. Yang Art and Education Foundation

I didn’t have to wait for the Design Society, however, to experience architecture-as-spectacle. During my visit I joined a group following architect Wolf D. Prix and Xu Chongguang, head of the city’s Urban Planning Institute, to the opening of the just-completed Museum of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition (MOCAPE) designed by COOP HIMMELB(L)AU Wolf D. Prix & Partner. Inside the structure, a small crowd followed officials over bridges between internal terraces, stopping to admire the particularly impressive atrium with an oversized, reflective, bubble-shaped vessel at its centre.

If Shenzhen is said to lack cultural foundations relative to its Pearl River Delta cousins Guangzhou, historically the centre of southern culture, and the more cosmopolitan Hong Kong, its energy and impetus may be its greatest assets. In 2017, the Bi-City Biennale will be headed by curator Hou Hanru and local architects Liu Xiaodu and Meng Yan, co-founders of Urbanus Architecture & Design Inc., a nationally renowned firm with offices in both Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Meeting Liu during the MOCAPE walk-through, I asked him to comment on how he saw Shenzhen’s nascent cultural projects. ‘There is a Chinese saying that goes: “build the nest to attract the phoenix,”’ he answered, sagaciously.

Lead image: Museum of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition (MOCAPE), Shenzhen, China (2007-2016) © COOP HIMMELB(L)AU

Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art writer based in Hong Kong. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Pipeline magazine.