The inside story of an art-fashion biennial inspired by China's bootlegging capital Shanzhai
Shanzhai is not an actual city. It’s an easy mistake to make for anyone unfamiliar with Chinese geography, in the same way that it would be impossible for a monolingual English speaker to realise that “conceptual artist” Wu Ting Ting is being mistranslated in the subtitles for the Shanzhai Biennial video for MoMA PS1’s ProBio exhibition. Wearing sunglasses that look like a Google search engine, Item Idem's Cyril Duval talks about how “massive” the Shanzhai scene is, stylist Avena Gallagher reserves her praise for the real city of Shanghai and Babak Radboy declares “everything that’s happening ends up getting distilled into a pair of sneakers”.
The slick campaign trailer for ‘Shanzhai Biennial No. 2’ (the second “biennial” since September last year) features Wu Ting Ting barely lip syncing to Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ sung in Mandarin, while wearing a misspelled rendering of a Head and Shoulders shampoo bottle in the form of a sequined dress. It’s all wrong, yet strangely right, as the Shanzhai Biennial trio dismiss any patronising reservations one might have over the cultural appropriation of a working class movement, begun in Chinese factories. Conscious of being exploited by big business, taking their skills and making their own equally as functional, darkly funny, versions of the luxury items workers make for next to nothing, these intriguing contortions of familiar imagery will eventually wind up in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where Radboy first encountered them.
As Creative Director of Middle Eastern art and culture magazine, Bidoun, he’s late for our interview because he’s been filming for an African surf line, Bantu. An Iranian-born American whose interests lie squarely with China and Africa, Radboy is the embodiment of a globalism that implicates every one of us in the “Shanzhai” phenomenon: “When you ask, ‘how did this pair of Obama shoes get made?’ The answer includes every piece of cargo that flows between oceans. It’s made by the entire system.”
Dazed Digital: Shanzhai Biennial is a campaign in support of something that’s coming but that something never comes. Is that playing on that idea of marketing as creating desire?
Babak Radboy: Definitely. We’re based on this Chinese cultural phenomenon, which is both specific to a massively developing country and also at a moment of late-capitalism. It’s this conversation between this massive production facility and late capitalism’s brand aura and intellectual property, so the two kind of create this unique event of Shanzhai, which ends up being pretty squarely a cultural phenomenon. It’s a kind of punk in China.
It all started just living in Chinatown and encountering these products. I make a lot of things and there’s no way I could reverse engineer how these objects are made, so I went online, researched and found out that that Chanel purse that says “Camel” on it is actually supposed to be funny in China. It actually represents this mix of irony, frustration and pride; it’s like a working class pride.
DD: So you’re talking about Shanzhai being a kind of punk, is that separate from the counterfeit industry?
BR: It’s related to counterfeit but it can be considered quite separate because, when you make Shanzhai, you’re not trying to pass it off as the original. You’re referencing it and sometimes you’re referencing it in a way that’s self-consciously absurd.
DD: But it’s not a subculture that’s divorced from the economy, it’s still small business.
BR: It’s highly identified with people who have just moved from the countryside, so Shanzhai factories are really small and made of family units. It’s technology, it’s clothing, it’s entertainment; there’s Shanzhai architecture, there are Shanzhai singers…They do this big spring gala programme, the big TV event in China, and a couple of years ago they started doing a fake one. They have CCTV [China Central Television] and some people started CCSTV, which is China Countryside Television [laughs]. They did a thing where their mike stands were made out of an umbrella and a toilet plunger, so there’s this totally grass roots, self-conscious irony, that has to do with mimesis.
DD: Where does it come from? Is there a long history of this sort of humour?
BR: I wouldn’t say that it’s that long. If you imagine the usual story arc of how one of these factories starts, which is, you move to a city from the countryside and you’re working in this really shitty factory, crazy hours. You’re making Prada bags, you’re making iPhones, you know how much they’re selling for and you know that no matter how long you work at that factory, you will never ever have this product, right? But you also learn how to use a serger, you learn how to use a welder, you learn how to basically make this shit.
So then you go out with your family and with your friends and you start making the ‘HiPhone’ and the ‘Dada bag’, that humour is going to be there because, first of all, your product is as good, in any functional sense, as any other one. It’s keying into the desire that years of investment have produced for those brands but, at the same time, it’s actually affordable for all the people in the factories, so there’s going to be this dark humour and that’s why you see it.
DD: It seems to me that the way that Shanzhai Biennial works is that, without offering a particular standpoint, it’s as insidious in its processes as the system that it both emulates and critiques.
BR: It’s true that this kind of work represents a point of view. It represents a certain fluency and a certain unspoken politics but I think it’s important that the effect of the work is really, truly not political. It’s really important to understand this type of work that way, which I do think is new.
The Shanzhai thing is seen as a critique of the art industry but, almost more interestingly, it’s also a critique of the fashion industry and people don’t quite pick up on that as much. I’ve been working in New York for a long time. My fiancée’s a stylist and I’ve seen labels come up, I’ve seen talent rise and fall. We’re in a situation where, if you’re a pretty successful line, you’re barely breaking even. That’s a symptom of late-Capitalism. Making things is not going to make you any money. The whole way that fashion makes sense of itself is disintegrating and Shanzhai is a part of that.
DD: So, if there were to be a point, it would be that there is no point?
BR: Yeah but, also, it’s a great one liner that we’re a brand without products but we have products, we’re coming out with two lines this summer and, in designing them true to Shanzhai, we’re trying to make them as absurd as possible. If you find this crazy Nike jumper that has Harry Potter and Obama on it, it’s kind of couture. It’s incredibly rare, in a way, and it’s incredibly contemporary. It has this charge to it and it feels really new and it’s expensive and it costs nothing. It’s the cheapest clothing in the world, made out of the shittiest material. If you could make a luxury line of this total plastic shit, your profit margins are going to be out of control because people want to make sure it’s genuinely cheap [laughs].
We are actually making products but the structure of the business and the relationship between the brand and the product is functionally pointless. None of the clothes in our first campaign, except for ‘The South Place’, which we made one copy of, actually exist. It’s all done in PhotoShop. We have a campaign that doesn’t have a direct relation to the objects.
DD: So, basically, it’s all about mediation and nothing to do with a message.
BR: [laughs] That sounds like something I agree with.