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Images of the global city from China   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

Images of the global city from China
art, cinema, cities, Li Wei Jia Zhangke
Saturday, September 30, 2006 03:16 GMT

The images that capture most interestingly the uncanny, amnesiac intensity of the contemporary global city come usually, for me, from China. Here I'll just mention two artists in this regard, but there are many others who spring to mind. One place to check out more such people is an interesting recent book, Out of the Red.


The image above is taken from Jia Zhangke's Shijie ("The World", 2004). The film depicts the lives of workers in a theme park outside Beijing where the world's great monuments are spectacularly recreated and where, as the park's slogan goes, you can therefore "See the world without leaving Beijing".

The long commentary on the film on IMDB is titled, "A Sad Picture of How Modernization is The Same the Whole World Over". But this is to reduce the complexity of this film. The park may contain replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Tower Bridge; it may recreate the old urban order in this city of galloping newness. But it is always apparent that this park is a thoroughly Chinese creation - it would never have existed in Paris or London.

The film is not about homogenization. It is about a particular, wry, relationship to the fading urban grandeur of Europe. It stages, simultaneously, a Chinese awe for the iconic power of the urban past - from the pyramids to the Twin Towers - and the power of new Chinese productivity to easily replicate all those triumphs and thereby evacuate them of their aura.


In the soundtrack, Beethoven becomes muzak, a mere soundtrack to the theme park, which is a musical metaphor for what has happened visually through these buildings. The buildings - St Peter's in Rome, Pisa's leaning tower - are also recreated much smaller than original size, as if there is a literal belittling of the grandeur of the past. But the park's performers - from all over China and also Russia - are still struggling to hold their heads up to the world, for the cool spectacle conceals a human reality of great turbulence.


Li Wei, whose photograph is shown above, is a young photographer whose interest is precisely this latter point. What kind of relationship can a human being have with this monstrous reality all around? How do the tender assurances of intimate life connect to the raging unpredictability of what lies beyond the window pane? His photographs stage the playful desires of our relationships to enormous cities, and the almost suicidal danger that accompanies them.


He has a beautiful way of understanding the ambiguity of the human being in this new urban environment. The human is poised between steel and flesh, always trying to keep up with the merciless ballistics of contemporary life, and yet so obviously, fundamentally, flesh.


The passion and intensity of this imagery is, I find, spellbinding. It raises the possibility for me that, much as China produces all the goods we consume, it might also begin to produce the ideas and images through which we can understand the world we have entered into. These ideas and images will be uncomfortable in many parts of the world, however. There is something in them that flattens out European history completely, for instance, and reduces Europe, humiliatingly, to empty cypher.