Urban Flux magazine: Context & Content – A transposition of boundary

Fan Ling: Fat, Flat, Float

CU Space, 706 Beisanjie, 798 Art Zone, Beijing

11 – 24 June, 2011

Urban Flux magazine cover

Rather than at its appearance as part of this show at CU Space, the first encounter I had with Fan Ling’s work was as part of the Focus on Talents Finalists Exhibition at the Today Art Museum in Beijing, where the works FAT and FLAT were transposed to the new venue. Thus the art museum provided the original context for my understanding of his work and that provides a launching off point for my appreciation of it.

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China’s urban surface

Looking out of the window of my bus into central Beijing, I can see a lot of rebuilding going on. This is of course nothing new – I’ve never really seen a lull since I came to China two years ago. But there seems an added urgency now, perhaps driven by the 1 October National Day celebrations just around the corner.

Last year there was a major effort to clean up Beijing’s image in time for the Olympics. This was very much for the benefit of the visitors coming to experience China and Beijing as host for the Games. But this time, we have what an internal affair, the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the Republic, and the collective effort has in many ways been refined and expanded from last year’s dry run.

Maybe because time is running out to complete building projects, at this point there is a noticeable concentration of effort going into the borders of the building sites, the edges between the sites and the public areas, in an effort to polish the surfaces of China’s ubiquitous piles of rubble. This concentration is at its height at building sites along the main roads and gets progressively diluted according to the hierarchy of streets, becoming less intense as you move from dajie, to xiaojie, to the alleys and hutongs.

The criteria for effort seems to be dependent on what is public and private space, and is consequently redefining what is public and private. “Public” and “private” seems to be defined by visibility – if you can see it from the road, it’s public, and these “public” areas are seen as part of the State’s responsibility for its image, and are taken under the State’s wing as places which are vulnerable to tidying up.

So new walls and surfaces are being built to hide the messy bits, which through the act of redefining of public and private, become private, invisible places, inside the public, visible boundaries.

Churches from above

I posted recently about the discovery of a triangular church, which seems to me to be a fairly rare phenomena, and one which had a particular, if restricted, heyday in the 1960s. The form interests me not so much in itself, than in its relation to the suburban areas in which they appeared. Looking at the area around the Ham church, this area was developed pretty much at the same time as the churches were built, so I expect the church was designed into the masterplan for the area, as a focal point both spiritually and physically (the particular road arrangement around the Ham church which led me to notice it in the first place places it at the end of one of the main road entrances to the estate).

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In suburbia

St Richards Church of England Ham

St Richards Church of England Ham

Suburbia, for me a quasi-magical set of places. There are obviously many suburbias, I grew up in one of them, and I’ve lived in a few others, and I know there are many more out there somewhere. But I would never want to visit them on purpose. They are places you have to be, only if you have to be there – you would never just visit them on their own account, perhaps? Very often they are not even places you pass through, they’re spurs off the main roads, usually not shortcuts to anywhere else, they occupy tracts of land between the major areas, the areas with a meaning, filling in gaps. They are ringed by mini-roundabouts, protected by sleeping policemen, cul-de-sacs.

The cul-de-sac! Unless you lived in one they were off-limits. You wouldn’t enter a cul-de-sac without a definite intent, and destination (or were lost?). There was one just around the corner from the house where I grew up, I walked past it every day I went to primary and then junior school, but I have never been into it. I didn’t fantasize about it, but it remains to this day a blank place.

And what of wanderings about suburbia, the endless roads, the sameness punctuated by sudden change, the places where I was lost for a while, but then unexpectedly—and with so much relief—found the connecting path through to a known area. How terribly nostalgic it all is. It feels so dangerous, this reverie, so thoughtless. What does it mean to dwell on and in these places?