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陆新建的《城市DNA: 北京CBD》与普适的大都市 ( Lu Xinjian's City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis )  

2013-09-11 23:29:14|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Small notes on Chinese Art(9)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之九》 September 11, 2013

陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
陆新建《城市DNA: 北京CBD》 (2011) 丙烯帆布 200 x 400 cm
Lu Xinjian , City DNA: Beijing CBD , acrylic on canvas, 200cm x 400cm, 2011.



Lu Xinjian’s City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis
陆新建的《城市DNA: 北京CBD》与普适的大都市
Small notes on Chinese Art(9)  Suman Gupta 《看画随笔之九》   September 11, 2013


The metropolis comprises [the] simultaneous death of city and countryside, at the intersection where all the middle classes converge, in the middle of this middle class crowd, which extends indefinitely, from rural exodus to ‘peri-urbanization.’ The glassing-in of the global territory suits the cynicism of contemporary architecture. A school, a hospital, a multimedia library; just so many variations on the same theme: transparency, neutrality, uniformity. Massive, fluid buildings, designed without any need to know what will go on in them, and that could be here just as much as they could be anywhere.

The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (2007)

Lu Xinjian's series of City DNA paintings from 2009 onwards are based, as the artist has explained, on the satellite's eye view of various cities that Google Earth provides.  However, these abstract renderings of aerial cityscapes have a tenuous link to their Google Earth counterparts (an essay by Danielle Shang offers a visual comparison for the San Diego painting).  The viewer has to work quite hard to see the comparable features, have some foreknowledge of the coordinates and altitudes the artist used and be familiar with the cityscape in question.  The paintings actually resist such cartographical comparison.  Markers in satellite/map images which aid comparison are carefully removed: there are obviously no labels or framing information; the background appears as a continuous monochrome; natural and built features are described in the same way; all the lines are equally discontinuous, and are often monochrome too (where colour variations appear they are arbitrary); the only discernible boundaries are those of the painting (the cityscapes aren't contained in the painting).  Each painting evidently starts from something like a Google Earth image and works towards an image which has its own aesthetic integrity, defined by its frame, its juxtaposition of colours, its scheme of broken lines, and so on.  The aesthetic integrity of the paintings tests their connection to empirically imaged cityscapes: there is a visual connection, but this connection is subdued by the internal dynamics and balance of the paintings.  The paintings are not simply based on aerial images of cities; the paintings are more a transformation of those images into artefacts.

The question that arises is: do these paintings then have any bearing on how we – the viewers – think about cities?  Or are these paintings enclosed by their discrete aesthetic rationale, permanently detached from the cityscapes that inspired them?

As Lu developed the City DNA series from 2009 onwards (most paintings feature on his website ) certain patterns were introduced in phases.  Initially these were simply paintings representing a single city in a generic way (see Beijing 2, 2010, below); from 2010-11 some of the paintings focused on particular districts of specific cities – such as the one above on the Central Business District on the east side of Beijing; by 2012 Lu was painting smaller areas with abstractions from different altitudes juxtaposed against each other, effectively making for a diptych.  From the visual impression, however, there is little to distinguish the paintings apart from their aesthetic choices: choice of colours, choice of frames.  The Beijing CBD painting is substantially similar to the earlier Beijing 2 (2010); and in relation to other cities (Amsterdam, New York, Kyoto etc.) all the paintings appear as variations of aesthetic choices.  There are no distinctive city-characteristics to be discerned, only distinctive background and broken-line colours and their placements.  And even in the magnified side of the diptych-like paintings, there's little to visually distinguish, say, Chiasso (Switzerland) from Pudong (Shanghai, China) apart from those aesthetic choices.  In fact, the visual domination of the aesthetic ordering blurs the specificity of particular cities as those cities: what comes across is an artistic view wherein all cities merge into uniform visual neuterness, with only artificial and arbitrary differentiations which ultimately serve to emphasise that uniformity.  Each painting might be labelled such-and-such city, but essentially they all apprehend one kind of space.  In these paintings it is the series label – City DNA – which sticks, not the specificity of Beijing 2 or of Beijing CBD as separate paintings.  The dominance of aesthetic form fixes the "DNA" metaphor for cities-in-general ("the city" as uniform space) for the series, rather than articulating the distinctiveness of specific cities in specific paintings.  We could think of the series then as aesthetically foregrounding the connectedness and homogenization of particular city spaces into one kind of mega-spatialization: characterising the contemporary metropolis.  The City DNA series gestures towards the ubiquity of the metropolis that extends across all the cities depicted.

Cities seem to attract life-metaphors, and are often described as "organisms" with "nervous systems", "hearts" and "souls", "throbbing" or "decaying", etc.  In relation to cities, "DNA" is used as a metaphor in several different and incommensurable ways:

  • For some, the "DNA" of a city signifies that which makes a city distinctive and unique.  When novelist Peter Carey, in Thirty Days in Sydney (2001), says: "These bright yellow cliffs show the city's DNA – that is, it is a sandstone city…" – the metaphor is picked up in that sense.  So does, to take a different kind of example, the Amsterdam Museum's Amsterdam DNA department featuring films on the history of the city.  In business circles preoccupied with city branding (Keith Dinney's City Branding 2011 gives a useful sense of this area), this kind of metaphorical nuance of DNA is commonplace.
  • The "DNA" of the city (cities-in-general) could signify that which describes all cities, the total parameters of the species "city" – a kind of hidden code which contains all variations of cities.  This sort of metaphoric usage was encouraged by much feted announcements of different stages of the completion of the Human Genome Project.
  • In academic circles, "city DNA" generally refers to the essential strands of organization and functioning (economic, administrative, technological etc.) of cities in terms of which their development could be understood and planned.  Naturally, in urban planning circles the phrase is widely prevalent.  Sometimes scholars contemplating particularly large and cosmopolitan cities as hubs of globalization/glocalization processes – theorists of Global/World Cities – also seem to have the metaphor in mind thus.

Given the diminishment of the cartographical by the domination of aesthetic principles in Lu's City DNA paintings, his vision appears more attuned with the latter two nuances than the first.  However, the visual effect of the series also suggests a slippage from all those nuances.  All the above shades of "DNA" as metaphor are used on the understanding that it is the city — out there – which is akin to a living being; in Lu's City DNA there is nothing to suggest that.  The abstracted forms of cities in these paintings are static and fixed; the only life is that of the artist's (or viewer's) abstracting aesthetic gaze – perhaps the "DNA" here is a metaphor for the gaze that transforms cities into such artefacts.

The static effect of Lu's abstract aerial city painting is perhaps best grasped when compared with other artists who have done something similar.  Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43 – see below) has naturally been a frequent reference point for reviewers of the City DNA series; more recently paintings by Jorge Rivas and James Fowler also come to mind (see below for an example of each).  With obviously painterly effect Mondrian, and with a photographic glint (achieved in paint) Fowler, extrapolate a grid for the cityscape in question – a grid which, so to speak, seems embedded within the city.  The fundamental structures of these cities appear to be delved and regularised into formal patterns.  Rivas's is a simpler approach, giving a technical realist impression – unabashedly photographic and also achieved in paint — of the alienated and yet expectant sensation of viewing a city from an aeroplane before descending into it. These draw the viewer's attention towards the cities depicted, and draw the viewer into the cityscape.  In Lu's City DNA paintings, as in the above Beijing CBD painting, there are no regularities and patterns and grids and lights and flows – the defining features of the cities are dispersed into a density of broken lines which disorientate the viewer.  The only choice the viewer has is to hold on to the stabilising effect of aesthetic choices that are not of the cities depicted, but that are offered in the design of the artwork: the arbitrarily chosen colours, the aesthetic integrity of the surface of the painting as painted surface.  In these, the artist/viewer draws away from the city.

If a vision of cities – the contemporary metropolis — is to be inferred from the City DNA paintings, it should not be conflated with that found in, for instance, Mondrian's abstract cityscapes.  Lu's vision is of cityscapes in his time – our time – and of a context where urbanization has been intense.  Urbanization has been a constantly escalating global process through the twentieth century; especially noteworthy has been the intensity and scale of urbanization in China after 1990.  In 1990 a bit over a quarter of the country's population lived in cities; by 2012 somewhat over half the population was urban – a proportional doubling.  But demographic shift doesn't really capture the connotations of urbanization.  In China this has been a matter not merely of cities growing, but of cities being rebuilt, and of towns turning into cities and villages into towns and then cities.  More importantly, it has been a matter of the visual transformation of cityscapes and city environments within a couple of decades.  The planned transformation of the built environment has been obviously gigantic, and has followed a recognizable template of what a modern city's environment, skyline, and built structures should look like – the kind of visual impact these should have.  This visual impact strikes one as analogous to that made by, for instance, downtown New York or Chicago.  When encountered by unfamiliar eyes this is apt to be a powerful impact; as, for instance, for visitors from Europe to Manhattan in the 1920s.  The result of that impact on film director Fritz Lang when he first visited New York in 1924 was the setting of his futuristic film Metropolis (1927); in his reminiscing words later (in an interview with Gretchen Berg in 1966):

Metropolis, you know, was born from my first sight of New York in October 1924 … while visiting New York, I thought that it was the crossroads of multiple and confused human forces, blinded and knocking into one another, in an irresistible desire for exploitation, and living in perpetual anxiety.  I spent an entire day walking the streets.  The buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize.

That's the view of a first encounter with such a modern metropolis.  The speed of reconstruction of cities in China has had something of that effect — of the shock of the new — even on the people who live in those cities, that is, when they have the time to pause and consider their surroundings.  Unlike Lang, it is not that they have travelled to such an environment and experienced that visual effect suddenly; it is as if that environment has speedily travelled to them and subsumed the surroundings – as if they have somehow leapt in slow motion into the setting of Metropolis without quite moving.  The citizens have seen it all happen around them, have seen every brick laid and mortar poured, and yet this changing vision has a concentration and speed which must strike many of them, when there's time for reflection, with something akin to Lang's amazement in 1924.  It's as if the backdrop of the city changed while they were performing its life in one way, and they had to and are still having to hurriedly adjust their performance of city life as they go along.

It would be a mistake, however, to simply focus on planned large-scale city rebuilding to understand the effect of urbanization on citizens.  Population shift from country to city means that shanty towns and semi-regulated localities have grown speedily at the margins and interstices of rebuilt Chinese cities, becoming more densely populated and absorbing the pressures of urbanization at, so to speak, the bursting seams.  And yet, these are relatively muted seams, inevitably seen and yet not quite seen – easily overlooked in envisioning the contemporary metropolis.

Anyway: under these circumstances, it is unsurprising that artists who live and work in China register a particular interest in urbanization and its concrete realizations of the paradoxically fluid metropolis.  Speedy change in cityscapes around citizens naturally disturbs any prevailing sense of the solidity and stability of city structures, which depend generally on slow and gradual accrual of layers of history in cities.  These rebuilt cities seem, despite their impressively solid edifices, collapsible and fragile as cities.  At the same time, the distinctiveness of these cities as specifically Chinese cities with particular built histories and traditional visual features is disturbed.  Since the programme of rebuilding is based on that template of a modern metropolis and has a corresponding visual effect, what appears in the surroundings seem to be not specifically here but could be somewhere else; the signs and registers of this city appear to cohere with the signs and registers of all such cities and substantiate a universal modern metropolis.  Passing through downtown Beijing seems not much different from traipsing through downtown Shanghai or Hong Kong or New York or Chicago or Frankfurt or Dubai or …. These all seem caught in an urban dynamic which is not specifically Chinese or British or American or any other, but to do with networks of economic production and consumption, and the concordant production of lifestyles and environments, and the concordant manoeuvres of government and politics.  And there's always, of course, that attendant dizziness of being caught up in a sweep which has precipitately changed conventions of daily performances and everyday selves; all are propelled along by forces larger than can be grasped.  All these elements of urban developments in China – which are no more than an intensive enactment of developments everywhere – have been captured by artists in China.  Perhaps most effectively, these elements are found combined in installation artworks.  The multidimensional features of these developments translate well into three-dimensional artefacts.  Installations which envision the modern metropolis by, for instance, Liu Jianhua (刘建华), Zhan Wang (展望), Qin Chong (秦衝), Liu Wei (刘炜) (b.1972), Han Feng (韩锋), Wang Du (王度) (see below for one image of an installation by each) effectively convey the visual effect, fragility and collapsibility, the "non-place" character (to pick a term from anthropologist Marc Auge), the dynamics of global production and consumption.  These artworks may sometimes have some defining features of particular cities – of Beijing or Shanghai – but they can just as easily be constituted into other cities in other countries (and these artists have made similar installations of other cities).  But really these are all depictions of the universal metropolis of our times.  This universal metropolis also appears prolifically in artworks which are paintings, photographs, multimedia, and so on.

In this context, the City DNA series makes perfect sense as a distinctive contribution to a larger artistic sensibility.  That all the cities it depicts in individual paintings seem indistinguishable within the series makes sense.  The dizzying effect of the dense and discontinuous and anti-symmetrical lines makes sense.  The DNA metaphor makes sense with the latter two of the three bullet-pointed shades described above.  The retreat into the artistic integrity of abstract principles of colouration and framing and design, which liberate city paintings from the cartography and brands of specific cities – that makes sense too.



陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Lu Xinjian (陆新建), City DNA: Beijing 2 , 2010, acrylic on canvas

陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-3)
陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Piet Mondrian, New York City, 1 (1942)

陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
James Fowler, Philadelphia (2010) acrylic on canvas 36 x 48 cm

陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Jorge Rivas, Madrid Aerial View (2010) acrylic and enamel on canvas 60 x 52 cm.

陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Liu Jianhua (刘建华), Unreal Scene (2008), Shanghai made from poker chips

陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Zhan Wang (展望), Urban Landscape (2007), Beijing made from cooking utensils.

陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Qin Chong (秦衝), Past Future (2012), white paper cylinders.

陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Liu Wei (刘炜), Foreign (2012), books, wood, steel, hardware.

陆建新的《城市DNA:北京CBD》与普适性大都市 (Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Han Feng (韩锋), Floating City (2008), tracing paper (laser print) and fish tackle thread.

陆新建的《城市DNA: 北京CBD》与普适的大都市 ( Lu Xinjians City DNA: Beijing CBD and the Universal Metropolis ) - 甦曼 - Suman Gupta 看画随笔
Wang Du (王度) “2008/8002” Realisme noctambule (2008) marble.
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