Video with National Characteristics 2007

A video installation of multiple simultaneous and continuous video streams, creating an “aggregate documentary” on the simulation and replication of Western forms and culture in the city of Shenzhen, People’s Republic of China.

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”

Aldous Huxley, ‘Brave New World’.

Shenzhen is the closest mainland city to the semi-autonomous Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, and was the first attempt by Deng Xiaoping and the Communist government at repeating Hong Kong’s growth and prosperity by dabbling in a market driven economy. “Communism with national (or Chinese) characteristics” is Party jargon for China’s current political and social system, which in practice usually combines the worst characteristics of conformist, Communist police state and unfettered Thatcherite capitalism.

The video was mastered through domestically sold Chinese televisions, video equipment and displays, which tend to be of very poor quality and are sometimes malfunctioning from the moment they leave the factory. Shenzhen and Hong Kong are also saturated with illegal and shoddy Chinese duplicates of global brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Rolex and Sony. This is in distinct contrast to the goods made in Shenzhen for export to the outside world, which include many expensive and high prestige items rarely seen in mainland China itself except in the hands of the new ultra-rich. iPods, Apple Macs, Intel processors, Playstation and Wii consoles, phones and advanced video graphics cards for gaming are all manufactured in Shenzhen’s vast industrial hinterlands, at immense factories such as the (in)famous Taiwanese-owned Foxconn. The workers usually live in the factories as well, having left China’s poor rural interior and their families behind. It’s been reported that there are 270,000 such workers at Foxconn. It’s also highly ironic that one of China’s largest companies “with national characteristics” is under the control of Taiwanese interests, given that many people in China are still obsessed with the “Taiwan problem” created when Kuomintang Nationalists fled Communist victory in the civil war on the mainland and established the Republic of China. The “problem”, in case you’re wondering, is the fact that the PRC claims the Republic of China (AKA Taiwan) but has no reasonable, peaceful and diplomatically acceptable way of getting it. The Taiwanese government is possibly even more quixotic and irrational because it in turn claims the whole of mainland China as its rightful territory.

VidNatFStr02

Much of the footage in this work was taken at ‘Window of the World’, a Shenzhen theme park that was the brainchild and pet project of Deng’s wife. It contains replicas (or, more accurately in context, bootlegs) of many internationally known landmarks and architectural achievements. These range from a 1/4 size Eiffel Tower to a radically miniaturised New York City (The Tour Eiffel is in the centre of this Google map). There’s something desperately insane about it, or perhaps insanely desperate. WotW has a Chinese twin, ‘Splendid China’, also founded by the Dengs and containing miniatures of Chinese landmarks including a 30cm tall Great Wall. WotW is usually packed and the locals seem to enjoy it immensely, but the few Chinese tourists who visit ’Splendid China’ don’t seem to enjoy it at all; it’s more of a duty than a pleasure. Western entertainments and recreations in China also have a distinct tendency to emphasise or acquire a militaristic aspect, reflecting the prevalence and the power of uniforms, parades and empty spectacle in hawkish societies like the PRC and their doppelgänger, the USA.

Video With National Characteristics was made at the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal of the He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen, during a residency in the autumn and winter of 2007. That this work turned into a critique of China’s current cultural crisis— or rather, the latest in a long line of Chinese cultural crises— is particularly ironic given that He Xiangning is the first state-funded art gallery outside Beijing, intended as an outlet for politically safe and profitably commercial Chinese art of the kind also currently fashionable in the West.