BY Tan Lin in Profiles | 25 SEP 23
Featured in
Issue 237

Shanzhai Lyric’s Poetry of the Streets

How the artist duo challenge the gentrification of New York’s Chinatown

BY Tan Lin in Profiles | 25 SEP 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 237, Threads

What does poetry reference today? Shanzhai Lyric – a collective launched in 2015 that self-defines as a ‘poetic research and archive’ unit – has been listening in on the free-floating, globalized poetic language of a specific geographical locale: Canal Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, along an axis that runs from West Street to Essex Street. In so doing, Shanzhai Lyric has opened up the sometimes-elided geo-economic history of lower Manhattan and brought to light a range of issues: commercial development; the ethnic history of Chinatown; semi-legitimate and legitimate labour/manufacturing practices; the policing of counterfeit goods; Byung-Chul Han’s philosophy of shanzhai, the imitative variation intrinsic to Chinese culture; emigration patterns post 1980; the transition from light manufacturing and garment production; and attempts by various mayoral offices to prettify and re-brand the area.

Shanzhai Lyric, 'TO HOW DO YOU GO TO SLEEP IN A SHALLOW WORLD', 2023, installation view,  MIT School of Architecture and Planning, Cambridge, USA. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Chenyue Dai

In its attention to language – be that zoning regulations, street signage laws or misspelled logos on T-shirts – the project resonates with fluxus newsprint publications, contemporary poetry sites like Gauss PDF and Troll Thread, and earlier text-based and found-poetry movements that examined the relations between commercial printed matter, grey literature and everyday instances of urban poetry. Here, Bern Porter’s surrealist research, archiving projects and interest in concrete poetry proves prescient. In Aphasia (1961) and The WasteMaker: 1926–1961 (1972), Porter transformed what he called ‘founds’ – newspaper ads, promotional materials, questionnaires and playbills – into a delirious amalgam of highly expressive, barely legible visual rebus or cut-ups of commercial print media. These call to mind the ‘shanzhai lyrics’ – such as ‘DREPM THE WOELD’, ‘NOT A FOHOWER’ and ‘MICKY MOUTH’ – found on T-shirts acquired by the collective and incorporated into their ongoing poem, ‘Endless Garment’ (2015–present), an Instagram-archived and printed tapestry of Chinglish, broken English and corporate Newspeak.

Shanzhai Lyric, Endless Garment, 2015–ongoing, from 'DREPM THE WORLD'. Courtesy: the artist

Shanzhai Lyric’s polyvocal, crowd-sourced textual history is cued to eavesdropping, hybridity and mistranslation. The sourcing was enabled by a lyrical mode of attunement to post-COVID-19 environs, and the disruption of the normal flow of capital in and around Canal Street. The group’s ephemeral offices have occupied various locations on the street, which has itself been subject to transformation and continual remaking throughout the 200 years of its existence. Before being paved over into its present-day state, it was a waterway engineered to drain foul tannery and brewing chemicals previously poured into Collect Pond, one of Manhattan’s few sources of fresh water.

Shanzhai Lyric, 'TO HOW DO YOU GO TO SLEEP IN A SHALLOW WORLD', 2023, installation view, MIT School of Architecture and Planning, Cambridge, USA. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Chenyue Dai

The research wing of Shanzhai Lyric has highlighted and redistributed work by contemporary artists, dancers and street performers as well as by a number of mid-century artists and poets who took advantage of the area’s cheap rents and frequented stores like Canal Plastics Center and Canal Rubber Supply Co. – two of the few remaining industrial stores that provided raw materials to artists like David Hammons. In October 2020, Shanzhai Lyric launched Canal Street Research Association – a ghost corporate entity/store without the retail – in a COVID-era, reduced-rent storefront. There, they mounted a photographic timeline that documented every building on Canal Street. Bystanders trickled in and were invited to pen notes or inscriptions, in the manner of a traditional expanding Chinese scroll work, whereby each new owner adds inscriptions and stanzas to the blank areas, creating a poem that never truly ends.

Shanzhai Lyric, ALL PALACES ARETEMPORARY HALACES, 2019, installation view, Abron Arts Center, New York, USA. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Daniel Terna 

Uniting all these projects is the refusal of traditional western notions of authorship and property ownership. Shanzhai Lyric’s work is most effective when it evades customary genre categories and spills into something less tenable, more impermanent: an ongoing research undertaking, a performance venue, a free-floating cultural space, an un-institutional archive that exists in the mind as much as in a physical location. Fittingly, their current project Advertisement (THIS IS NOT EMPTY SPACE) (2023) – which aims to sell billboard space on the façade of Storefront for Art and Architecture to a luxury conglomerate, with fees generated by the sale returned to the local economy of street performers and vendors – finds a certain poetic utility in its unlikely realization. I asked the founders of Shanzhai Lyric, Ming Lin and Alex Tatarsky, when the timeline for their project might come to an end, if at all, and they replied: ‘When we get to Essex Street.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 237 with the headline ‘The New Found Poets’

Main image: Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem, 2015–ongoing, installation view, MoMa, New York. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Noel Woodford

Tan Lin is the author of 12 books. He is based in New York, USA.