Saturday, June 28, 2008

China Design Now

Last night, I went to China. To be specific, I went to the V&A for their French Connection sponsored Last Friday party - this time spotlighting the China Design Now exhibit. Every last Friday of the month, the V&A stays open late (with an cash bar and DJs) for themed parties in conjunction with their major exhibits. Last night's theme was Beijing, so my friend and I went to see, be seen, see the exhibit, and have a tasty sausage roll and overpriced glass of white wine.

The party was a bit meh - somehow we missed the Chinese punk band playing their first show outside of China - but the exhibit was worth the £8 entry. Visitors travel through the exhibit starting in Shenzhen, a newly formed city producing cutting edge graphic design, to Shanghai, arbiter of fashion and Chinese cultural heritage, and end up in Beijing, capital of architecture and progress. The exhibit is interesting for the sole fact that the forms of design chosen to represent each city reinforce the cities' role in China's current cultural zeitgeist. Shenzhen didn't exist as an urban center until relatively recently, and that graphic design, a mutable, disposable, and extremely current form of graphic representation, was chosen as its "product" is notable; Shenzhen hasn't been around long enough to produce something substantial. Shanghai, on the other hand, is touted as China's oldest city and is represented by fashion, which consistently references traditional Chinese culture and influences. Shanghai kind of gets the raw end of the deal in the exhibit, with not a lot of substantive pieces holding up the narrative, but I suspect that Shanghai itself is a much more complex urban center and perhaps produces more notable design than either Shenzhen or Beijing. Beijing, host of the summer Olympics this year, is represented solely by provocative and important architectural commissions. I found the Beijing section particularly relevant, because architectural progress is a statement of both financial and political power; just as dictators and generals had statues commissioned to celebrate their victories, today's regimes build important new buildings to show the world that they are indeed in control and here to stay.

One thing I would have liked to see, or read, more of is the influence, or impact, of the Marxist regime on the production of design. There were a few instances were censorship was noted, or dissent, but there was no discussion of how design was developed, or produced, or how the government's reacted to design that challenged the status quo. Design is not inherently political, nor is it incendiary, but it is a vehicle of communication, and underneath the clever visual puns and rendering is very often a strong opinion. In a closed society such as China, where individualism has only recently been allowed to flourish, there must be a rich legacy of designers using their medium for their messages - and accompanying legacy of how those messages were disseminated and received.

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