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2013.04.13 Sat - 2013.05.18 Sat
Opening Exhibition
04/13/2013 16:00
Building 2, No.50, Moganshan Road,Shanghai 200060
+86 (0)21 62996610
Opening Hours
10:30 - 18:30 Tuesday - Saturday

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Who Can See Cities
[Press Release]

Press Release

by Wu Liang

Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever,and their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names. Old Testament, Psalms, 49:11 What is the city over the mountains Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air The Waste Land T.S.Eliot The scene is compact, however a void rules its background. Just what is it? A hanging garden? A city within a city? The tower of Babel? A metropolitan generating its own explosion? A future invention for vertical living? Who can see these cities? Who can see the people on the stage? Depth separates a city from a stage. The surfaces of both being lifted and installed in a four-sided frame has now become a painting. In a godless nation where spiritual experience is a rare phenomenon, can we still demand ideals and beliefs? For artists, especially for painters, we should not ask them what they want to express in their paintings, but what we can see in them. The fundamental task of an artist is not to deal with social critique or self-irony, rather it is to deal with those existential dilemma that we all encounter. No one ever asked us if we wanted to be born, but nevertheless we are all cast into this world, gathered in one sphere which we call “the city” .

I ran into Du Haijun quite by accident. Using a quote by John Berger, “we met here”. In 1985, I completed a book called “Notes of Cities”, one of the first book published in China on the theme of urbanization after the country started to open up to the world. 28 years later Haijun is presenting his first solo show entitled “Who Can See Cities?” Despite our accidental encounter and our age difference I still want to believe that our encounter is by all means doomed. The very fact that Haijun’s title for the show takes inspiration from Italo Calvino and Saul Bellow makes me believe that on the boundless territory of art and literature everything is connected.

Urbanization has only recently started in this country; yet, its impact and scale have already shocked the world. Looking around us, those pioneers of urbanization have already slowed down their pace. The nineteenth century British politician Benjamin Disraeli famously said, “ urban people don’t know their neighbours“. What he meant by “neighbour” is not just the physical person living next door to you: the neighbour becomes a symbol. German sociologist Georg Simmel coined the word “atom man” to describe the alienated relationships between people living in the modern city: living close to each other but like strangers. As in Kafka and Camus, city folk have been turned into cave men and outsiders in a philosophical sense. Sorry, you must be annoyed by me by now. What do all these concepts about modern city have to do with westerners? Let’s go back to Du Haijun and his paintings. Let’s try to answer his question: who can see cities?

Haijun has been working on his “vertical city” series for seven years. What triggered his ambition to paint these motifs in the first place? There is no one clear answer: could it be his shocking experience as a witness? Or a secret discovery as a voyeur? Or the compulsive obsession as a recorder? Everything is possible. Haijun doesn’t hold the secret of cities. In his works, cities are naked, under surveillance. He did mention the naked city in Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Hitchcock’s Rear Window when we talked. He paints a lot and it feels as if he paints fast as well. The 19 works presented here are only one part of his creation and they give us an impression of a collection of many snapshots. We think of Alain Robbe-Grillet and those cinematographic images that convey “zero degree emotion” in a materialized industrial society. We think of Francois Rabelais’ kind of humour and carnivalesque uproar. We also think of the strange combination of post-development aesthetics in our contemporary society. Haijun may have touched these references without consciously choosing them.

Cities are moving constantly. Every minute and every second, the blueprints of cities turn into vertical models. From the windows in our high-rise residences we can peep into our neighbours’ bedrooms. Depth and space have been compressed into a solid wall. In Haijun’s vertical city we don’t feel the solitude and loneliness that usually would be visible in a western cityscape, on the contrary, these paintings express the vibration and life of our city, a hasty, bustling, expanding Chinese city that make us feel nervous and restless. Many things are happening behind the fluttering curtains and inside the opened windows. We are looking at the days of our life.

It is highly paradoxical to think that the most private space in these high-rise residence buildings is simultaneously the most dramatic and chaotic public stage. Their characterless generic looks contain no personal touch. Just like the drawer in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction book about future homes, they are homes for the city dwellers. The only comfort is that our drawer at least still lies on the ground, Asimov had placed his drawer down on the bottom of the ocean.

The main task of a painter is to present the world. Although he may only grasp the surface of this world, for him it may also mean the destined seduction of the universal secret. He keeps on reproducing it in his painting until eventually the world inside his painting becomes parallel with the world he lives in. Haijun’s reflection on the city hasn’t touched the metaphysical layer yet. He is more like a young man from the countryside just arrived in the city. The city for him has the same kind of seduction as Paris had to those provincial artists in the late nineteenth century. To start with, he is knocked out by the expanding mega-size of the city. Gradually he starts to look at the details that embody the everyday life around him. He has learnt to create his own games and found much pleasure in them. All that happens around him: the comic, tragic, boring, exciting, emotional, sad … are after all not that crazy. His works characteristically carry his own storyline. They are like miniatures of life presented through these windows. Each window radiates the seductive imaginary glory that makes us believe life goes on – with or without meaning.

William Faulkner once revealed the secret of being a novelist: you need observation, experience and imagination. How about the secret of being a painter? Does Haijun possessed these three merits? Who knows? Here I want to give Haijun a suggestion: I have seen them, observation, experience and imagination in your paintings. But I have new expectations. I hope you will extend the insight in your art works in the future in a way that is uniquely yours and that only you can do.