“Shanghai 格是阿拉格!” (“This is our Shanghai!”)
Author: GU Zheng 2008
It’s true, Shanghai has never been like today, cast in countless layers of bright colors. Whether it is the city’s past or its present, Shanghai always seems to be luxurious and extravagant. However, there is always some fascinated modern Shanghai figure dressed up and presented by someone who even doesn’t know itself well with some suspicious things that even the people who created it are too embarrassed to show, what’s more, they prevent the others from revealing certain inconsistent aspects of this “modern” image of the city. Then, what is the true face of this carefully and deliberately concealed city?
Besides its coquettish, scenic, elegant, popular and stylish, there are still other less picturesque sides, neither glamorous nor bright, which are by no means related to the trumpeted discourse of today’s Shanghai with its semi-colonial "concession past”, neither its present-day “reform life”. Before being advocated, this hidden part of Shanghai has already started fading in people’s mind, and become the dark part that would totally disappear in the future (maybe the term dark is not appropriate here). Perhaps, they won’t attract any snobbish media’s attention, but it isn’t impossible to cause certain people to miss it. Shanghai’s past is intentionally deleted from the records of history and sent to exile from the reality. Let’s take these two youngsters SONG Tao and JI Weiyu for example, who are still in their twenties, working as the artist collective BIRDHEAD. Their “Xin Cun” could be one of the past. Xin Cun, can be translated as New Settlements, was earlier called the Worker’s New Settlements in a more complete way. The two artists were not only wandering in those areas for a long time, but also presented all their findings in a persistent way: “Shanghai 格是阿拉格!” (“This is our Shanghai!”).
But let us think think it over, to whom does Shanghai belong? It is true that no one can monopolize all the memories, features and explanations of Shanghai.
The typical Shanghai images, which have nothing to do with those two young men, are often represented as the coquettish look of the “Haipai” style Shanghai woman, sedulously dressed like a well-bred girl, the people live in the nostalgic western-style houses who are shown in the name of reminiscence, and, as well as the rough-and-ready Shanghai Families which are claimed to establish the visual specimens of all the local social groups. Among these art works, the status of the countless city’s urban workers as well as their history and living spaces are rarely be touched. Even their occasional appearance is still representing a contrast or a foil to the western-dominated Shanghai, not the theme of their inner longing. In the definition and imagination of the Shanghai people, the social class of urban workers was absence over time, neither their visual representations nor the other aspects. But in former time, this social class was nevertheless the vigorously promoted main body of the socialist city of Shanghai. But now who still remembers their former glory? After three decades of reforms, did this social class along with its living space disappear? No, it hasn’t. In fact, we see their existence from the series of “Xin Cun” by SONG Tao and JI Weiyue. Shanghai, under the lens of BIRDHEAD, starts from a place in Pudong called “Xue Ye New Settlements”, inappropriately, though.
The series “Xin Cun” makes us see one of Shanghai’s dimensions that people are no longer willing to face to. The crestfallen Shanghai is deliberately ignored and neglected, and its history is being erased consciously. When reading, for example, one of the recent nostalgic publications about Pudong such as “Old Buildings in Pudong Shanghai”, etc (even Pudong can be squeezed into a nostalgic memory), the main architectural forms of the industrial areas of Pudong as well as the living spaces of the worker’s new settlements are remaining ousiders. The worker’s new settlements become a kind of practice of urban renewal, whereas nowadays they are not eligible to be nostalgia and, actually, have been completely forgotten and abandoned.
The main photographs in “Xin Cun” were taken in the “Xue Ye New Settlements” and some other worker’s new settlements around. Looking at the map, the “Xue Ye New Settlements”, located in Pudong and belonging to Shanghai’s periphery, unexpectedly appear close to the planning area of the 2010 World Expo site. Today’s Pudong has an endless list of residential real estate such as “XX Garden”, “XX Heights” and a variety of European-style residential buildings. The worker’s new settlements finally lost their last charm and brilliance. If the former new settlements were still involved in the conception of industrial workers, the first class that lead everything, and the social heroes, then the new settlements may be interpreted as pensioners, people receiving substance allowances, young white collar workers coming from outside the city as well as workers from other provinces. Perhaps it only includes the simple, cheap, distant and the marginal people, to the point that it is related to concepts of poor housing. In short, the new settlements are not glorious anymore and its dreams are failed.
The Huangpu river divides Shanghai into two parts, Pudong and Puxi. After 1949, the socialist urban policy concentrated heavily on production and restrained consumption, transforming Shanghai into a productive city with a large requirements. The consumption-oriented Puxi likewise needed to become a production-oriented place, and having production as a policy priority not only means destroying previous consumption spaces, but at the same time, facing the dilemma of the restricted space of developing into a production-oriented city. Therefore, Pudong, who possessed already a certain industrial base (mostly in the cotton spinning industry) before 1949, became the new place of industrial development. As a lieu with focus on regional production and development, Pudong has a number of workers’s settlements built after 1949. Those settlements were mainly used to solve the problems of accommodation for the workers engaged in Pudong and at the same time to evacuate people from the densely populated Puxi in order to reduce its population pressure. Those buildings were mostly multi-storey ones, six floors at most, with a simple shape, and each building was placed next to the other like orderly boxes, standing in a gloomy area. A large number of urban workers was arranged to relocate to those places, where nowadays has never been able to enter the nostalgic vision of Shanghai. Some the worker’s settlements were only a step away from the agricultural land, and that is why the workers were closely connected to the countryside and nature around. Names such as “Xu Ye” coincide well with the city’s indifference for them.
In 1952, the city’s new government planned to build Shanghai’s first worker’s residence, the Caoyang New Settlements. Hereafter, the worker’s new settlements became a place of dreams for the urban workers during a long period. Nevertheless, this dream of the new settlements couldn't go on forever. The “socialist city”, focusing on encouraging production and restraining consumption, was not able to provide comprehensive and fair guarantees and agreements. The new settlements became a device to solve the population pressure of urban centers and a container of urban evacuation. The requirements for the people’s living standards weren’t tanken into the considerations. When observing the living facilities inside and outside the settlements as well as the equipment for residential living facilities, the worker’s new settlements were only a residency machine just reaching the demands of a simple life, monotonous yet tedious. And even in the place where the ideological products apreads, such as cinema and cultural centers, didn’t get enough investment, no matter to the extent of public space.
Compared with Puxi, the prices of the land in Pudong were not reflected yet during the period of the planned economy, but has already started foreshadowing its potention of being the capital and power of the vigorous development in the up coming time of commodity economy.. In today’s restructuring of urban social spaces, the status and fate of the worker’s new settlements is facing a new challenge. Even in the remote places such as the Xue Ye New Settlements started to build low-cost appartment nowadays, yet another expedition has started for the urban lower class. SONG Tao and JI Weiyu were both born and raised in a worker’s new settlement, representing a new generation of artists coming from those settlements.
“Xin Cun” can be regarded as a visual poetry connected to the everyday life of the new settlements. An English man named Ben Highmore said: “Poetry must be understood as both exploration of various forms of everyday life as well as a certain creative activity lying between words and life.” (Source: Ben Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. Commercial Press 2008, P. 255). BIRDHEAD looks at those buildings, which have already been or soon to be crushed by a bulldozer and rapidly buried and at the small and trivial things in their surroundings. Inconspicuous things like fitness equipment, some branches of a tree stubbornly stretching on the edges of a ruin, a convenience store in the settlements making use of every inch of space, a fan exposing its body through the window, the grey sky, the garbage polished by the flash time after time, and the young boys and girls, full of energy, who are seen as incarnation of themselves. BIRDHEAD notices that the new settlement’s daily breath is similar and attached to the people and objects living there. The objects provide a specific shape of memories, and the human reveals the continuation and expansion of life itself, as well as the traces of history and the concreteness of the settlement. They use everyday trivialities to offset the false luxury of Shanghai’s discourse and reveal its hypocritical emptiness through dull details. Therefore, each of their films is carved by their own observations, feeling and memories.
The photograph collection with 464 pages, “Xin Cun”, shows the unrestrained freedom, but it is admittedly to be well-edited. That is why it seems to show unrestrained freedom, not unlike the practice and discipline of traditional photojournalism or documentary photography. One can say that a series of photographs is basically reflecting a narrative style and its pursuit by editing. BIRDHEAD isn’t working in accordance with the practice of sociological investigation, creating a map and marking the places where the “Xue Ye New Settlements” are located, then attaching another survey or something similar and even adding a historical review. But this kind of practice is atracting more and more attention nowadays, people are considering that documentary photography becomes complete in that way. Besides, this kind of approach can nearly be seen as fashionable now. Of course, it is not necessarily to be bad, at least it shows that the photographer is aware of the limits of photography. Being able to feel the limits of oneself and of the media in one’s hand is certainly not a bad thing. But what exactly is been hurt after regarding a mix of art and social sciences? Fortunately, the two artists of BIRDHEAD don’t pay attention to that, they are only acting according to their own will and preferences, following their own call of memories. In the urge of recalling, the space of the new settlements is opening up for walks and observations, for shootings and for photographs shaped by memories.
This is a piece of documentary photography which can’t be hold by traditional tricks. Actually, it also can’t be classified as simple as “documentary”, to define it as documentary photography is only a stopgap. Maybe I have to drop another cliche here in order to give this kind of photography a name: Subjective documentary photography or lyrical documentary photography. This might seem to be a paradox, because whether you call it subjective or lyrical, it is always conflicting with the concept of documentary. The word documentary is normally associated with being neutral and objective, with concepts of that kind. But BIRDHEAD is so naturally combining the narrative and the lyrical, adding on the same time a subjective and a documentary side, which seems far from being artificial or forced. Therefore, the topic should be those very intimate feelings and personalized images of disappeared dilution. Understandably, certain sociologist might think that those artworks don't have the problem of awareness after having seen this book, because it is not straitforward what the photographer wants to express. In that context, I would like to ask back: Why does documentary photography necessarily need a narrative and the “problem awareness” in its foreground? Isn’t documentary photography about emphasizing social responsibility? Pretending to forget the politics of their generation, BIRDHEAD doesn't behave in the same way as the former generation used to in terms of social awareness and the understanding and expression of social responsibility. They must rely on the facts or a plot in order to express the truth or tell lies, but they can't be bound to them. They are honest to their own feelings and paying attention to their own expressions. Therefore, their truth is naturally isolated from their lies. Or one can say that their uniqueness lies in the fact that they could never imagine just listing the facts, as if you could make people believe that your findings are reliable. On the opposite, they fundamentally don't want to follow the theoretical and tutorial awareness of the requirements or rules. Those two artists just enter a place step by step, using their eyes to measure it once again and their intuition guide their own pace, then pressing the shutter of the camera. They make themselves recall those two girls and boys through the past, the present and the future and let them become the tow of a time shuttle, weaving back their memories of the Xue Ye New Settlements. That is all.
SONG Tao and JI Weiyu are both born in a period of rapid changes, one in 1979 and the other one in 1980. That is why they were starting in such young age but look for a way to record, convey their emotions, write down their memories and share their feelings. This seems to be a little “unfortunate”, because when they raised the camera in their hands, they were entering the age of memories too early. Is it because history is advancing too fast, only leaving one night’s time for them to grow old? Not necessarily. But nevertheless, they are also recording while recalling the past, their memories and recordings expand hand in hand, unexpectedly combining into one.
The photographs by BIRDHEAD possess a kind of light which is hard to describe and nevertheless full of bitterness. Their photographs show a mourning sadness, which often disappear with the flash and is replaced quickly by an inexplicable masculine and vitality. This light is the vicissitude of sunshine, and the vicissitude is the sunlight’s vicissitude. They are still children, but with a slightly old heart already. The rapid urban changes has made them prematurely understand what has been lost (their childhood is disappearing) and what destruction is(their dreams are destroyed) . It made them realize what death means (their memories are dying) and what ruins are (where their youth is buried). All this is summarized and intertwined with the wonderful excuse of “development”, as if destruction in the name of “construction” could be possible. Their pain is ringing out loudly and carelessly like fanfares, like a requiem for the new settlements. They make use of the rough, roaring boy, as well as of the gorgeous girl, tempting and gentle. But even those two young people together still don't bring any relief to BIRDHEAD, it can't make them forgive what this city has imposed on them, brutal, ruthless and neglected. The young girl and the young boy only represent the extremes of BIRDHEAD’s own feelings about the place they grew up, it shows the balance of many emotions and of ambiguous parts. But all this can only be understood when looking at their photographs.
That young girl and that young boy are walking in the new settlements, with their eyes, but also with the photographer’s, measuring everything in their surroundings. Being shot by BIRDHEAD means a little publicity. In “Xin Cun”, there is one photograph which made me deeply impressed. The two artists are wearing camouflage clothes, the camera in their hands or on the ground looks like a weapon, scattered around them. While having one foot in the darkness of the new settlements, it seems like they will storm the settlement any minute, launching an assault, a raid and an attack. But actually they are rather timid, scared to step upon their own dreams. Despite the fact that they are wearing camouflage uniforms and the camera in their hands looks like a weapon, they are only quietly diving in the new settlements as the garden of their dreams. A lot of photographs are shot during the night. What they are shooting, or rather recapturing, is basically everything in front of their lenses. Even though the fate of the new settlements is not their own fate, the desolation is already an objective fact. Moreover, certain skyscrapers have already started to head out in their surroundings, compassing quietly. The two artists are lucky, because they know what they are shooting, they have the awareness that what they are shooting is a reflection of themselves. They don't want to be a witness of what and why, and for the reasons of the endorsement of the mission. They do what they do as their work, for themselves, for their existence. They are looking aloof at the detachments in the place where they lived when they were young while forming various images. That is all.
The camera in their hands becomes a weapon of memories, with which they are resisting against forgetting the past or a one-sided memory, the weapon also can restore the deleted parts of history and recover the exiled reality. Their memories are confronted memories, that are fighting against being forgotten and pseudo-memories. They use their camera to record, but without nostalgia, because, towards the present-day situation, nostalgia is harmless, like seeing a gorgeous inside the ugly reality. In the context of present-day, the nostalgia doesn't have lethality. Especially today, nostalgia is part of a commercial trick. But the memories of the two artists form a resistance, a kind of resolutely visual uprising. Nostalgia is often empty, but their memories, on the other hand, are exactly made for filling those empty memories of the city and give them a new context. Their narrative forms an anti-narrative, their departure from the daily life makes everyday memories weapons, refusing to occupy the mainstream discourse of the Shanghai narrative and its foreign accent. This grand Shanghai narrative is made of the mentality of bones from Western commercials, with capital and power as its double pursuit.
The two of them are visual terrorists grown up in the new settlements. They are obliged to use this way to expose their childhood there and their own memories, it is a protest against repression and brutality. They intentionally act with the attemption and resistance of patriarchal attitude, covering their despair and passion for reality. They are not afraid to announce their own and subjective presence. What they want to say is that there are still some places where one can act wildly and tenderly, soaked in their childhood memories of the new settlements, as well as in their presumptuous photographs. True, they also want to tell us that documentary is subjective and can be lyrical at the same time. It wasn't said for a long time, but lyric can be so masculine and joyful, but can also be painful. It seems like nobody had previously found out, but documentary can be a subject and can be subjective. In “Xin Cun”, the subjective (in the true sense of subjective), has become a synonym of the real. Of course, the reporter Lin Yu of “City Illustration” says: “You two chuff people are actually the most lyrical of all.” I would like to add here something more: “You two chuff people” are actually the most truthful of all. But at the same time, you are also the most suffering people.”
I will never forget what SONG Tao and JI Weiyu, those two artists in the artist collective of BIRDHEAD, said when they gave me this book entitled “Xin Cun”: “Shanghai 格是阿拉格!” (“This is our Shanghai!”). This is a good question, to whom does Shanghai belong? This Shanghai surely belongs to these two speaking Shanghai dialect and pondering young artists. They use photography, their dialect, a private language of a rejected Shanghai discourse in order to monopolize the city. The series “Xin Cun” by BIRDHEAD is a visual representation of Shanghai as a lost city, contributed as an unique gift and sacrifice.