Photographs by Chen Jiagang.
Editions Bessard, 2013. 150 pp., 49 color illustrations, 7½x9".
Signed copies available!
Games of Survival in Chinese Model Homes
Looking across history, changing societies pass through three phases. The first phase is an accumulative phase, where society plants a gourd and gets a gourd, plants a bean and gets a bean. The second phase is a transfer-of-wealth period where gourds and beans are planted but plundered by others. The third phase is a mature wealth phase where gourds and beans are planted and reaped in bounty. Chinese real estate is currently in the second phase mentioned above, which is the most problematic phase. In this period, survival and safety are the paramount concerns.
A lot of the commodity properties in China reek of corruption. That is to say, there is no other industry in China so closely connected to politics, economics, social welfare and the media. All of the problems throughout its process, from the demolition of homes to urban planning, to development and construction and on to the sale of buildings and property management, are all massive problems. It could be said that real estate makes for the biggest politics in China. In seeking out the order behind the real estate development industry, we have found that it is very difficult to describe the real game of real estate development according to any kind of economic, legal or social order. But upon researching the order of pyramid and ponzi schemes, we finally found something that can describe the order of the real estate development industry: pyramid and ponzi schemes. There are several traits of the pyramid scheme: the deification of wealth; the emphasis on insecurity about the future; and thirdly, disregard for any repercussions of actions taken to accumulate wealth - those repercussions are handed down to the next level in the pyramid. Now let us make a comparison with the real estate industry. We will consider land first. The method of one-time compensation for demolishing a home amounts to plundering that resident's conditions for existence. Though the developer has given him money, he has not provided a new means of subsistence. Once that compensation money has been spent, how will he survive? Meanwhile, the practice of land auctions is the main source of income for local governments and is also the main driver of rising home prices. The money is in hand, so who cares if the housing prices are skyrocketing? Does that not sound like a pyramid scheme? Now let's look at the approvals process for development plans. The government calls meetings all the time calling for stricter management of the real estate industry, adding a few more seals of approval required for each development plan. Those new seals of approval amount to nothing more than new rent-seeking opportunities. Money is collected, plans are stamped and signed. Who cares if the plan will harm the environment? Lastly, let's look at home sales. No matter what, every real estate development project has a spectacular model home to show off. The model home is always quite alluring, but behind that allure is the violence of the evictions and demolitions, and the money collected from the sale of the land. The people being tempted are those who have no homes and no security. It brings skyrocketing prices and the growing bubble: whitewashing, derivation, desire, rent-seeking, all of these conspiracies and love affairs. This is the game of life for the real estate developers' model homes.
After the 1980s, Chinese artists shifted their sites from the sociopolitical to the individual, marked by hopelessness in the face of society and politics, and a spirit of cynicism towards mainstream values. It has been twenty years now, and today's art should move from the individual to society, with the home as the fulcrum of the shift. The model home is a visual illusion, one which distills the entire process behind this uniquely Chinese commodity scene. That is, the typical scene. We all know that each individual has his (or her) own world, one that is only forgotten when interacting with the real world. As soon as he or she leaves reality, he returns right back to his own world. Reality is horizontal, while the individual world is vertical, so how to express the conflict between society and the individual, and the way that the individual world follows the real world? We have found a schema for this in traditional art: the double screen. Simply put, the double screen is an image within an image. Zhou Wenju of the Southern Tang dynasty became famous for making the first double screens. This is one of the most alluring composition methods in Chinese painting. The first screen is a painting in itself, one that looks like the real world, while the second screen is a painting within the painting, one that also looks like the real world, but is actually a subjective world. When the two screens are combined, they form a 'false vision' of reality and the interiority, one that alludes to the relationship between reality and illusion. This could be called a perfect form of visual trickery. In my photos of model homes, I have chosen this traditional schema to present the contemporary predicament of real estate. So, now that the schema has been chosen, behind the concept behind the concept, there is still the question of character and taste. What about the thread?
A: Specimens: select representative specimens from real estate projects around the country.
B: Avant-garde theater: act out different dramas in similar spaces, juxtaposing various details for absurdity.
C: Couplets: couplet poems can mark the spaces. They have a double meaning: one is to express the 'cultivation' of the Chinese developers or elites, expressing their ambition through poetry; the second is to demonstrate that they are 'living' backwards in a space marked out by couplets.
D: Cultural Revolution ceramics: ceramics from the Cultural Revolution will be used to make a connection between 'model operas' and 'model homes', and reflect on the tastes of the developers, which, on a deeper level allude to Chinese collective memory and the vertical existence of individual worlds.
E: Shoe covers: dramas will be played out in these seemingly ordinary spaces, but the players will be wearing shoe covers. From experience, we know that no one wears shoe covers in their homes, only in model homes made for display purposes. This alludes to the 'fakeness' of the life being acted out.
F: Portraits: in western art, mirrors are often hung, forming a physical, symmetrical relationship between the figure in the painting and the mirror. In Chinese art, a portrait is hung, something asymmetrical. On the one side is the person in reality and in the portrait hangs a person in the ideal physical or mental state. Meanwhile, the hanging of portraits in these rooms alludes to the shift among Chinese from the worship of leaders to the worship of themselves.
Okay, so now we have the thread. Through the details, I will tell stories of conflict between the individual and society. These stories look pretty, but they are full of problems. We have just chosen the brightest spot of the real estate industry chain as a warning. The model home is a public space, and I want to capture public space and private life to express my perceptions about the connections between society and the individual in this era. The point of entry I'm seeking is the empty, alienated and absurd psychological state, including the 'fake life' that developers, home buyers and even common families lead in these model homes. A Zen monk once said that there are three phases on the path to enlightenment. In the first phase, you look at mountains and see mountains, and you look at water and see water. In the second phase, you look at mountains and don't see mountains, and you look at water and don't see water. In the third phase, you look at mountains, and you again see mountains, and you look at water and again see water. To reach that third phase, you need to engage in vertical thinking rather than horizontal comparisons; you must engage in cultural rethinking and spiritual restructuring. But this is an era that lacks the ability of introspection, an era that lacks a sense of security. For this reason, the model home has become like a currency, stockpiling the futures of Chinese people. But we don't know who is in the room.