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Art and the city

Ai Weiwei’s work has been deeply influenced by China’s economic prosperity and urbanisation. This is also the case of other Chinese contemporary artists. Many photographers have captured the transformation of Chinese cities and the turmoil of a society that has lost its traditional lifestyle. In a paper published in Yishu1 Alice Schmatzberger highlights the intimate relation between Chinese cities and photography. She first looks at the symbols that structure Chinese cities, which have been challenged by the recent modernisation of Chinese society.

Cities are in motion, as illustrated by their expansion, both vertically in the city centre and horizontally at the outskirts, and their inhabitants have been transformed. The changes experienced in cities have modified their habits, their leisure and even their way of moving.

City dwellers have lost their bearings; they are discovering the city in progress. Facing this intense urbanisation, they and many artists feel “anxiety and hope”, which is, for example, illustrated in Weng Fen’s pictures. A new society is emerging and old cities fall apart and become ruins (see Jiang Zhi’s pictures). Values are also changing and for some artists, relationships among city dwellers are more conflicted, they appear under the form of a corpse, of blood in Xing Danwei’s pictures. It seems that cities are moving faster than their inhabitants, who have no time to adapt to these changes. In this short study, Schamtzberger insists on the frenzy depicted in China’s contemporary photography. She also notes that Chinese photographers do not all have the same feelings regarding urbanisation, but their pictures do all reflect the turmoil of Chinese cities. It is not a coincidence that it is in China that urban photographers seem to be the most active right now. Most of their artwork tries to tell us a story; they share with the audience a feeling of “inadequacy” between the city and its inhabitants, but, through these pictures, artists also want to question current urban policies in China and look to the future of Chinese cities.

  1. Schmatzberger A. (2012) Pictorial  city: Chinese urbanism and contemporary photography. Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art volume 10, no.6, http://www.science-art.at/fileadmin/media_data/pdfs/Pictorial_City.pdf, accessed November 10, 2013  []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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