FULL THROTTLE URBANIZATION - YOUNG CHINESE ARTISTS - THE NEXT GENERATION
Essay by Naudia Lou and Christian Taeubert
Book by "the Ministry of Art" Cordelia Steiner and Christoph Noe - Prestel
 
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A little more than half a century ago China was an agrarian society. Now in the 21st century, millions of rural dwellers are moving to cities at an unprecedented pace - forming a new empire of urbanites. Urbanization, however, does not only constitute creation on a massive scale, but also destruction on an equally massive scale. When Chairman Mao said in 1940, "There is no construction without destruction" (Bu po bu li), he could not have imagined that his words would as suitably describe the ideological overhaul in China as would the physical.
 
Indeed China's Open Door policy, introduced in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping, brought about a cult of consumerism and a common thirst to modernize in the ideology of both the Party and the average citizens. The introduction of joint ventures, FDI and privatization has impacted speed of urbanization and development on a massive scale. After the Mao era, capitalism was deemed good and entrepreneurial spirit was equated with patriotism. All of a sudden Communists and capitalists joined hands and together, worked towards the betterment of China.
 
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We should recall that China is one of the foremost societies in how meticulously the government controls the population, resource allocation and the direction of economic development. This control extends to what is materially and spatially available to citizens, ranging from restrictions on construction to setting of precise parameters for the living conditions of individuals. In 1980 for instance, most China's urbanites lived in low-rise building, no more than 8-stories high. In older districts, people shared common cooking space, shower and bathroom. In older cities such as Guangzhou, which modernized earlier, average living space was just less than 4 square meters per person (Guangzhou Shi Tongji Ju, 2002). The exterior of the buildings was usually not maintained after it was built, looking dilapidated soon after it was finished. Green space and landscaping for residential compounds was all - but - nonexistent.
 
Individual units inside of buildings started out as bare concrete boxes to be decorated by the furnishings necessary for daily life perhaps a few family portraits. Since most housing was provided to the individual by his or her danwei or work unit, housing was considered a social welfare benefit complied with minimum housing standards. Residents were limited to their concrete unit which would become the universe in which they would live, raise a family and grow old. danwei-provided housing was heavily subsidized and therefore very basic. What this also meant was that rent for most people was much lower than their utilities bill. However, over the last three decades, urban landscape that the mid-70's generation grew up in would undergo a reformation unimaginable by anyone at the time.
 
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n the 21st century, after so much commercial and residential development has been completed under the auspices of ambitious urban planning agendas, many Chinese cities are unrecognizable from how they looked just a decade before. According to Chinese law, urban land in China is owned by the State. However, an amendment in 1988 allowed individuals to acquire a lease to use the land, allowing them to build and own commercial buildings, apartments, and other structures on the land. The privatization of land use, along with the average citizens desire to live more comfortably, has opened the floodgates for the private residential housing market. Nowadays average living space per person has grown to almost 14 square meters - more than triple from what it was 20 years ago in Guangzhou (Guangzhou Shi Tongji Ju, 1994 & 2002). On the national level, per capita living space has quadrupled since the 1980s; apartments are four times the size they were 20-some years ago. The upward, outward and formation of new cities are mostly responsible for the creation of new living space. The rise of incomes and the availability of mortgages allow citizens to move out of their danwei-provided cubature's.
 
Not only has average living space significantly increased, so has the range of residential and commercial buildings. Even the most basic apartment units available today are better equipped than the ones built during the Maoist era. White-collar workers and migrant workers alike are bombarded with advertisements of luxury residential developments or gated-communities consisting of stand-alone houses. Double income households have the option of taking out big mortgages for their dream house. Major Chinese cities, and even many second and third tier cities are teeming with housing options which even include Victorian-esque villas and white picket fences of quiet American suburbia. However, the flipside of creation is destruction. In every Chinese city, historical structures make way for 8-lane highways and huge residential compounds; far-from-old commercial buildings are torn down so new ones can erected in their place. The urge to preserve has not come about nearly as quickly as the urge to build. Already one can hear older Chinese generations bemoaning the loss of cultural identity in the destruction of traditional architecture and structures with historical significance. Where is the line between urban growth and destructive urban growth?
 
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A larger proportion of Beijing's old city has been torn down in the last 30 years for the sake of development than in any other historical period. Shanghai on the other hand, even given its high level of exposure to the West and history of western colonialism, had virtually no high-rise office buildings in 1980. Now it has more than double that of New York City. The race to be bigger and faster is evident in China: one only has to look to the city skyline. China is home to world's largest shopping mall, automobile showroom, gated community bowling alley, skate park, and now airport. Chinese cities are growing at an astronomical rate: half the people living in Chinese cities live in buildings built after 1980 (Daniela Fabricius, 2005). Currently more than 40 percent of Chinese people live in cities. Over the next 12 years, proportion will grow to 60 percent or 800 million. Given that China is home to the world's largest population, the move from rural to urban areas will constitute the largest migration in the history of mankind. Never before have such high numbers of Chinese citizens had so much mobility. That said, many social and familial connects formed by rural villages, smaller local towns and even danweis have disintegrated along with this newfound mobility and urbanization. Many rural villages have only home to those who are too old and those who are too young to move to larger cities.
 
Conventional city planning is inadequate when faced with the pace of development in most Chinese cities. Despite the City Planning Act of 1989, master plans formulated by city governments are too broad and their zoning not realized. The amount of discretionary power left to private developers and local governments results in commercially driven developments and more focus given to revenue generating projects. This may result in commercial enterprises taking over what is meant to be a public facility or the marginalization of none or lesser revenue generation developments. On the other hand, a city built solely on a master plan, which doesn’t take into account local commercial interests, would also be unrealistic. Thus it is these two powers, the vision of regional government and locally driven commercial interests which serve as the driving force for the urbanization of China. However visionary the State, urban planners and architects may be, in practice Chinese urbanites always find ad hoc ways to reclaim personal space such as adding attachments for storage or building makeshift living quarters out of whatever is available.
 
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It is precisely these new Chinese cities and the new ideology which accompany them which are of interest to Chinese artist and writers alike. Materialistic desires and consumption - possible only in modern-day Chinese cities - spawn an assortment of topics that artists can dissect, interpret and critique. For the cohort of Chinese born in the mid-1970s, everyday life happens amidst a seemingly never-ending cycle of destruction and reconstruction. Scattered along the skyline of many of China's cities, one can see everything ranging from the new and shiny to the ill-conceived or borrowed. This along with the constant changing of shifting of the material, spatial and ideological, has lead many of those in the post-'75 generation to question what is Chinese. Some see the changes happening in China as a sign of the deterioration of ideals and the thoughtless adopting of Western consumerism. Some long for the past, nostalgic for images painted by the stories of their parents and grandparents and of the memories of their own childhoods.
 
The creation and destruction of personal space - both in reality and virtually - are visible in the output of mid-70s generation artist. Topics ranging from modern-day isolation and materialism to hope, creation and new possibilities are also ideas inspired by the urbanization of China. Others may investigate the chaos, disorientation and lack of humanism or paint a picture of the irony of modern-day haves and have-nots. The end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century is perhaps one of the most ideologically confusing times in China’s history. Having witnessed massive societal change, Chinese artist who belong to the post-'75 generation focus on the implications of a society based on mass consumerism and the loss of traditionalism and identity. Others focus on the sense of lost innocence and identity and still others express their critique of capitalism - characterizing modern-day values such as materialism and vanity. However, there is an undeniable optimism in the vision of Chinese artist born after '75. Their vision reflects the level of education that China's youth enjoy today, increased standard of living for millions and the budding of a new and modern Chinese identity. Their art is expressed in uninhibited ways (relative to their predecessors) using new mediums and exploring the social possibility brought about by urbanization. Indeed the riches and possibilities of today unimaginable for the post-'75 generation in their youth is reflected in their art. Through the positivism of their art, one also senses the personal and social liberation of a generation who lived through stories of the Cultural Revolution told by their parents, food stamps, the Tiananmen incident and the holding of the Olympics in Beijing.
 
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