The founders want to create an archive of experimental poetry with their obscure findings
The slogan t-shirt’s origins lie in the 1960s, when Mr. Freedom – the iconic pop art-inspired fashion boutique on the King’s Road – started printing and selling Disney slogan-inspired t-shirts. Next came Westwood, who added her radical political slant, and last but by no means least, arrived the genius of Katharine Hamnett, the woman who asked us to ‘CHOOSE LIFE’, and shook Thatcher’s hand in a top that read ‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING’.
It’s what happens when those statements are translated for a Chinese audience that the founders of IG account @shanzhai_lyric are obsessed with – when the meaning or sentiment is lost or confused somewhere along the way, and the resulting slogans become obscure, nonsensical, or completely bizarre.
First and foremost, the account is humorous: scroll through their grid and you’ll find pictures of printed t-shirts which almost make sense, bar a minor spelling error – ‘Please always know that I love you more than anything else in the world’– as well as the truly baffling – ‘this image is a vector design can let you from in or out get.’
“Founders Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky want to build an archive of “experimental poetry” – what they call “the Shanzhai Lyric”
From their findings, Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky, who run the account out of Kowloon, Hong Kong, want to build an archive of “experimental poetry” – what they call “the Shanzhai Lyric.”
“The word shanzhai is most frequently translated as counterfeit, but literally means mountain hamlet, home to bandits, outlaws, the poor – all those who live their lives on the outskirts of society,” the pair explain. “Often there is delightful humour in the unexpected collisions of meaning, but what really resonates with us about these t-shirts is how deeply we can be moved by apparent nonsense, how it actually seems to describe with poetic precision the experience of living in an utterly nonsensical world. The linguistic mash-ups of different realms and registers capture what it's like to live in a time of information overload, constantly inundated by so many empty signifiers where shininess takes precedence over substance.”
Well, quite. The archive they are building is all about rejoicing in the utter absurdity of, essentially, the human condition – not poking fun at the wearers of these shanzhai pieces or those that create them, but showcasing that these garments point to just how baffling the world actually is, seeing through the endless crap of the now meaningless slogan t-shirt, and explaining that, in true meaninglessness, there is a reflection of us as consumers, as people. What’s the difference between one of those Gio-Goi tees from the naughties which read ‘Ketamine: Just Say Neigh’ and a sparkly shanzhai top which reads ‘sunkist GoodVibration!’? Very little. They both mean nothing.
“Our images are mostly sourced from streetscapes and clothing markets in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Dongguan and Beijing,” Ming and Alexandra add. “Further afield are entries from New York, Moscow, Ho Chi Minh City, and beyond. In fact, one can find shanzhai lyrics almost anywhere! One distinction we find important to make is that we are not interested in t-shirt texts that incite pleasure by poking fun at the wearer. Rather, our fascination lies in reading these t-shirts as a unique body of experimental poetry.”
“What’s the difference between one of those Gio-Goi tees from the 00s which read ‘Ketamine: Just Say Neigh’ and a sparkly shanzhai top which reads ‘sunkist GoodVibration!’? Very little. They both mean nothing”
Their growing archive has culminated in a gallery residency at Clearview over the month of August. “Our residency coincides with a new cycle of work seeking to place the phenomenon of the shanzhai lyric within a lineage of textual experimentation and word play in artistic practice. We are looking at works that employ mimicry, hybridity, and irreverence as tactics to undermine or question notions of authorship, authenticity, and originality.”
It’s taking fail culture and flipping it on its head: finding joy and meaning in the truly nonsensical. After all, is that not what all this is about?