Shanghai’s current metabolism manufactures a city of uneven pockets, in which glass skyscrapers overlook rooftop shanties and dusty building plots overturn low-rise back streets. The area around the recently opened Rockbund Art Museum, near the north strip of the Huangpu River, witnesses this patchwork urbanism.
Leading up to the museum’s entrance, a 165m-long scroll hangs, tracing a half-real, half-imagined panorama. Traditional in form, the scroll, Analogical City Made in Shanghai, announces the exhibition and visualises the prevalent paradigm of old as a backdrop to new.
Model Home is a display of a work – and a city – in progress. The project was initiated by Taiwanese artist Michael Lin along with Japanese architecture studio Atelier Bow-Wow, which sought to create a collective conversation with Shanghai artists, artisans and residents on the changing contexts of the city.
The team reached out to local builders, furniture makers, and sound and video artists, to carry out the installation’s composite parts. Model Home thus tries to align itself, in an era of Chinese industrialisation, with ideas of the Bauhaus group: to react to social and socialist change, and create a multi-disciplinary, collaborative art practice.
Though it’s the work of individuals from several walks of life, the show rests firmly under Lin’s direction. Collaboration here proves to be a case of a respected artist and his chosen workshop of makers, rather than a truly democratic experiment. Lin is known for transferring textile patterns into large-scale wall paintings, and as such conceives the show’s initial gesture: a geometric mural that covers the museum’s six floors.
A pattern taken from a worker’s quilt is formed gradually in layers, so that a cross-section of the building would show a bedspread-like whole. While the design may evoke the bold slants of constructivist painting, its visual effect on each floor is basic. But the conceit of the exhibition hinges on this painting’s undertaking.
The ‘Model Home’ of the exhibition’s title refers to the gallery’s centrally placed prefabricated house, which was built to accommodate the contractors – recruited aptly from a local property-development firm – which painted the pattern. Once their work was done, the units were left as an installation, containing compact bunk beds and side tables on which their cigarette stubs, biscuit packets and newspapers can still be found.
Designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, the prefab acts as a prototype for future housing, which, unlike the fixity of Shanghai’s folk Shikumen, may be copied and reassembled beyond the gallery’s walls.
Atelier Bow-Wow’s Made in Shanghai research studies are displayed elsewhere on plinths, representing sites from icons to ruins, to show the incongruous evolution of the city. But the exhibition’s parts trace changes in cultural practice, as well as metropolitan living.
A 10-channel video installation, Dark Red, by Hangzhou-based artist Cheng Ran documents the process of actual show installation, as well as its Bund-area setting. A sound piece by Lou Nanli provides an ambient, again spatially inspired, background.
There’s a reinterpretation of constructivist Alexander Rodchenko’s, Workers’ Club from 1925, complete with replica furniture sourced from a factory nearby. Workers’ Club provides the functional space for events and debates – the extension of Lin’s will to create ‘a discursive work of art’.
Indeed, the impact of Model Home comes as much from the physical presence of the central structure, as from the surrounding dialogues this builds. Taken alone, the aesthetic effect of the exhibition may underwhelm. It is the chaos of the city outside, more than the museum’s clean-lined interior, which is of lasting interest – and Lin and his team of architects realise this.
From a viewing platform on the sixth for, the visitor can both look down on the house and out over the river area, taking in building carcasses, cranes and roof-garden coffee tables.
Model Home wishes to engage city and culture in mutual discussion, to prompt communication around construction. These ideas, it is hoped, will continue to reside beyond Model Home’s dismantling.