Many Westerners received their introduction to modern China during the 2008 Olympic games. Television viewers witnessed the results of an architectural explosion in Beijing, and innovative structures like the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube became instant cultural icons. China Design Now, on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) through Jan. 11, does explore these wellknown buildings, but the exhibition’s best lies in fresh, urban Chinese design that most of us have never seen before.
Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which holds one of the world’s most extensive design collections, the show reveals the vibrant design scene that has emerged over the last 20 years in China through three of the country’s coastal cities — Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. Internationally renowned architect Yung Ho Chang, head of MIT’s architecture department, created the dynamic, multimedia installation specifically for the CAM. Visitors follow arrows on the floor through the dense, maze-like show and are introduced to different fields of design via each city. Through Shenzhen we are treated to a history of Chinese graphic design. Shanghai highlights fashion and lifestyle product design. And in Beijing architecture and urban planning take center stage.
During the Mao era, only a few meigong (artist-workers) were sanctioned by the state to produce visual imagery. As recently as 20 years ago, there were no designers in China. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, young pioneers in the field moved to Shenzhen to become professional designers. Shenzhen’s population, with an average age of 27, is the youngest in China, and the city remains China’s graphic design center.
Posters and books from the early period in the Shenzhen segment of the show are characterized by their elegant simplicity. Often, single forms spring from solid, flat backgrounds. This effect is in part due to typographical differences between the Western alphabet and the Chinese writing system.
English-language graphic design relies on a 26-letter alphabet, which is then combined with visual imagery to communicate an idea. However, Chinese characters themselves are ideas and serve as both words and pictures. A single Chinese ideogram can, all by itself, evoke many thoughts and concepts.
Wang Xu’s poster “Ya and Zhua (Tree Fork and Bird’s Claw),” from 1995, employs dark forms against white backgrounds. On first glance they resemble Chinese characters, but closer inspection reveals actual tree branches and a bird’s foot. The label tells us that the characters themselves look like the objects they signify, demonstrating that images do not always require words and vice versa.
Such early posters were the forerunners of the more recent designs on T-shirts, skateboards, CD covers and a whole host of other products featured in the show. Four computer kiosks feature visually stunning Web ’zines, but it’s difficult to spend a lot of time looking at them because they are positioned at waist height with nowhere to sit, one minor flaw in an otherwise stimulating installation.
Shanghai, known as the “Paris of the Orient,” offers a journey through fashion, furniture and product design, and here a picture of the growing Chinese consumer class emerges. Models of “dream homes” show the middle-class taste for a combination of East and West, with styles that include California mission, Tudor and a contemporary version of a traditional Chinese courtyard house. Cell phone designs cater to the fascination with Western culture — one model looks like a pack of Marlboros and contains a small compartment in which to keep cigarettes.
But other works scrutinize this commercialism. “Homescape,” a 2002 installation by Chen Shaoxiong, evokes the repetition of modern Chinese living spaces with a grid of diorama boxes filled with magazine cutouts of people, furniture and products. Fashion designer Wu Ying’s “Ma Ke (Useless)” questions the social responsibility of designers with a heavy, brown, shapeless cloak of old, worn fabric displayed on a dirt-covered platform.
The final section of the show focuses on Beijing, home to the imperial palace and court since 1420 and site of China’s most ubiquitous urban transformation. While media coverage of the Olympics cited air quality problems due to overdevelopment, the exhibition features many architects who are taking environmental and social responsibility seriously.
The firm Turenscape has designed a recreation path called “The Red Ribbon.” Built along the Tanghe River, it winds around natural obstacles, providing access to natural terrain while preserving the existing habitat. The planned agricultural community “Guangming Smart City” looks like something out of The Jetsons, with circular towers that house hydroponic organic farms and vast, outdoor public gathering spaces. For the National Granary development, three firms are converting the abandoned 1950s complex into multi-use spaces, balancing the former industrial structures with the surrounding historic traditional architecture.
The show ends with photographs and video of what has become the universal symbol of modern China — the Bird’s Nest. But after experiencing the entire exhibition, it becomes clear that this stadium’s radical architecture is really just the tip of the iceberg.
CHINA DESIGN NOW is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Jan. 11, 2009. Get ticket information and gallery details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.