Ever since 1842, when the Treaty of Nanjing opened Shanghai to the world, the former fishing village has been modernizing in a hurry. The French, British, and Americans who lived there in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries hired Western architects to build neighborhoods vaguely reminiscent of Paris, London, and New York. Contemporary Shanghai, host of the 2010 World Expo, has aesthetically edgy skyscrapers, a cosmopolitan vibe, and a newly minted middle class whose members enjoy higher standards of living than their parents did.
One’s attitude toward this constant tide of modernization depends on perspective – or one’s position in Shanghai’s social hierarchy. One hundred years ago, Shanghainese workers staged some of China’s first strikes. Today, some residents protest the mass evictions that often precede construction of glittering high-rises. Across town from a ritzy waterfront, more than three million migrant workers labor in factories and struggle to access basic social services.
Enter Sun Ji, a Shanghai-born artist whose photo collages suggest a nuanced view of the city’s past and present. A curator says the 29-year-old artist’s two-part “Memory City” series is “part cubist collage and part hyperreal landscape.” In one work from his “Memory City I” series, Sun juxtaposes black-and-white photographs of factories, smokestacks, and industrial errata. Glimpsed from across an art gallery, the kitchen-window-sized collage resembles a real photograph. But move closer, and the skewed lines of perspective and improbably dense arrangement of buildings reveal a whimsical critique of China’s late-twentieth-century economic “miracle.”
In a work from his “Memory City II” series, Sun piles tired concrete apartment blocks atop the kinds of buildings you see in Shanghai’s shrinking Old Town. It may be an ambiguous ode to his childhood, when Shanghai and other Chinese cities were recovering from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Like the factoryscapes in “Memory City I,” this pseudo-residential scene bends perspective in a way that obliquely recalls painter Georges Braque’s pre-World War II cubist landscapes. Unlike the fantastical factory collage, it includes signs of life: A child squats in the foreground as motorbikes traverse deserted alleys and birds soar overhead. Where are they heading?
Since 1843 Shanghai has been “dropping pieces of memories all the way, forgetting about yesterday, forgetting about profound people and things,” the artist writes in a statement. “But this perhaps explains why this city is full of charms.” Sun’s art is charming, too, even if it is grim and elegiac. Perhaps that is because he sees beauty in urban environments where others – housing developers, say – wouldn’t bother looking for it.
Sun Ji’s work appeared in 2009 and 2010 at the m97 Gallery in Shanghai. For more information on the artist and the shows, see: www.m97gallery.com.
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