SHENZHEN, China—Exactly 30 years ago, the city of Shenzhen in southern China was designated as a Special Economic Zone and began its journey from a fishing hamlet to a modern commercial powerhouse. Official celebrations of this anniversary last week focused on the role of Deng Xiaoping, China’s former leader and the architect of the economic reforms that marked the end of the Mao era. A special art prize aimed at finding the best depiction of Shenzhen’s development story was one “highlight” of the week, and it was no surprise to find portraits of Deng featured heavily among the finalists.
But while the art of propaganda was very much on display, there were also art events that reflected a quieter revolution that has taken place in Shenzhen over recent years. The city authorities have worked hard to place Shenzhen on China’s art map, and their efforts are paying off in the form of regular high-profile exhibitions and a booming local art scene that feeds off — and plays up to — Shenzhen’s unabashed commercial spirit. ARTINFO China’s Sylvia Bai calls Shenzhen home and sent us the following report:
I grew up in Shenzhen, but I am always still astonished by this city’s innovative spirit. Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was a sleepy fishing village, but because it was designated as one of the first experimental Special Economic Zones, people from all over the country came and turned it into a place where dreams are made. While economic development imbued the city with a special local spirit, it’s only recently that I’ve been able to associate the place with “culture.” In fact, I used to think of it more as a “cultural desert.”
It was in 2003 that the art scene began to grow. One of the strange origins of this was an urban village called Dafencun, which had first grown up as a product of rapid migration into the city. Dafencun began to specialize in producing paintings to order, mostly reproductions of Old Masters and modern works. Though unabashedly commercial and much sneered at by some people, the village became the nearest thing Shenzhen had to an artists’ haven, and was soon a major gathering point for painters. Then the government got involved and offered support via the construction of a Dafencun Museum.
When I heard about a “Dafencun International Invitational Mural Exhibition” being organized as a satellite event to the Shanghai World Expo, I just had to go and see for myself what it was all about.
The show was grandly badged “Shenzhen’s Dafencun: The Story of the Rebirth of a Village in the City.” Under the theme of “Reading the Village – Painting the City,” 25 outside artists (and teams) were invited to participate in the exhibition, along with local artists from Dafencun itself. For three weeks artists painted the exterior walls of the Dafencun Museum, creating their own interpretations of the Dafencun phenomenon and of the larger city of Shenzhen. These will become the first collection of works acquired by the museum, and will be open to the public year round. The mural painting process was filmed as a documentary and will be displayed at the Shanghai Expo on an enormous LCD screen.
When I arrived, the final touches to the show were being made to the improbable accompaniment of African drums. The villagers paced to and fro, appearing un-fussed by the attention. I was immediately struck by a mural by the Greek artist Alexandros that was entitled “Two-Faced.” The work, covering an entire wall, shows two magnificent grinning faces brimming with veiled sarcasm. Another participant, London-based SHOK, a pioneer of impromptu mural art, used a minimalist composition involving a dragonfly to hint at the transformation of Shenzhen village into a skyscraper-filled metropolis. Germany’s ECB drew on French poet Rimbaud’s phrase “Je est un autre” (“I am someone else”) to create a painting of several heads that are seemingly united but actually alienated from one another. Israeli master Rami deftly used the concave and convex elements of the museum’s external walls to make a 3-D work that plays tricks on the viewer’s eyes. Mr. Paper, from Guangzhou, created a hollow-eyed frogman whose gaze pursues something that viewers cannot see. Beijing animation designer Lei Lei took us on a mental journey into the universe he creates with his trademark red and blue crayons.
“Shenzhen is great!” Lei Lei told me. “It offers a really broad environment for young people, and gives me some faith that I can do independent creative work.”
It’s certainly true that mural artists don’t get much practice in Beijing. The Dafencun Museum is the kind of institution you would never see in the capital: both a repository for painting and a painting itself.