Mersey or Huangpu? Liverpool or Shanghai? Chapter Two of China Dream

Words, Ian Fallace

Shanghai has been twinned with Liverpool since 1999 and in the interim there has been a building of cultural links between the two cities. Apart from the huge disparity in population, Liverpool hovering around half a million and Shanghai’s whopping 24 million people, they both share magificent waterfronts.

Liverpool’s stunning World Heritage buildings and The Bund, in Shanghai, front the rivers Mersey and Huangpu respectively, with Liverpool also having the oldest Chinatown in Europe. Both cities have undergone change in recent years with development around Liverpool One and the rapid and ruthless development of Shanghai. The curator of this exhibition Jiang Jiehong, a native of Shanghai, said that the area where he spent his childhood has changed beyond all recognition. Malls and office buildings, skyscrapers and eight-lane highways have replaced older residential areas.

Descending the steps into the basement of the magnificent Cunard Building the visitor is met by floor to ceiling iron fences to the left and the right built by artist Zhang Peili. There are three iron gates in each, creaking open and closing mechanically. As the visitor approaches their desire is ignored as the expected door opening sensors don’t exist. I watched to see people as affronted and disarmed as I was by freewill being taken from them by a machine (and by extension an individual or individuals controlling the machine to perform a not so random act). I metaphorically bowed to the will of the machine and entered.

Nine life-sized individuals are projected on to the wall standing facing the viewer and railing at the world silently. This fury is shared by male and female, young and old, as nine more individuals take their place, similarly unheard. Ultra-urban dissatisfaction.

Yang Fudong’s work had me returning three times to watch it again. An actor is dressed as a 1930s film star. In this silent, black and white video, heavily lit from her left, she is asked to pose as if she’s in a still photograph. Her shoulder, neck and most of her head are in shot, and for 3 minutes and 30 seconds she has to try to hold this position; which is no easy task. I found it mesmerising. Inadvertently, there was an odd soundtrack to this silent movie. A Lynchian, Eraserheadesque industrial soundscape of randomly creaking iron gates and the repetition of a bicycle wheel crashing rhythmically on metal. Both from other installations. Sometimes chance adds a level of meaning to a piece with the mechanical sounds contrasting the human beauty.

Amongst other work was one piece that sums up the whole thrust of this exhibition for me. A single screen video of river water rippling and glistening in the sunshine. Mersey or Huangpu? Liverpool or Shanghai? Or none of the above. It matters not. We are all in this life together and an exhibition like this helps to realise that art can break through the barriers of language and distance and give us a better understanding of each other.

Ultimately this exhibition is no tourist guide persuading one to visit Shanghai, but a glimpse into the mind of ten artists who are concerned with exploring the intricacies of the human condition and, mostly without the need for verbal language, the visitor can relate with empathy and understanding.

Hurry down to the Cunard Building, Water St side basement as it finishes on 7th September.
Words, Ian Fallace