As a pedestrian winding through the narrow alleyways of Beijing's Hutongs or Shanghai's Longtangs, one's senses are often assaulted: the pounding of jackhammers and the fierce bite of bulldozers have become a kind of local choir, continuously rehearsing for that big performance on the global stage. The unending construction and demolition of China's cityscapes represents perhaps the most radical restructuring of urban space on earth. As more traditional courtyard housing communities are leveled to make room for shopping centers and business plazas, large-scale apartment complexes are erupting to house those dislocated by the demolition. Critic and curator Wu Hung notes: "Old houses are coming down everyday to make room for new commercial buildings, often glittering high-rises in the so-called 'Chinese post-modern' style. Thousands of people have been relocated from the inner city to the outskirts by official decree. " The arrival of these high-rise apartment buildings signals the disciplining compression of more horizontal communities into vertical hives of order and control. Or does it?
Xiang Liqing's large-scale photoworks find signs of life within the standardized fa?ades of China's new housing projects. In his series News from Hangzhou, Xiang uses computer software to manipulate photos of architectural development in his hometown, two hours southwest of Shanghai. Even Hangzhou, a major tourist destination renown by the Chinese for its natural beauty and historical monuments, is not exempt from this radical transformation of the landscape. By multiplying the repetitive, gridded architecture of Hangzhou's newly erected buildings, Xiang amplifies their grim uniformity. Yet looking carefully, a viewer realizes that each segment of Xiang's structure has an individual identity. His careful application of color to the monolithic architectural surface in Get Together (2000) invites the viewer inspect the image carefully, checking each window for signs of vitality. Similarly, the nightmare skyscraper of Rock Never (2000) is initially overwhelming, a cautionary tale about a science fiction of the present-one that seems only moments away from the already jarring reality of Chinese urbanism. Yet the strength of this work rests on its ambivalence: as one examines each tiny balcony, the image of dystopian public housing transforms with the understanding that each person inside has altered the space she or he inhabits. With his intense attention to detail-the various window shapes, the clothes hanging out to dry, a plant enjoying the sunlight-Xiang creates a sense of personal space that contrasts sharply with his skyscrapers. Rather than canceling out the possibility of individual expression, the architecture of Xiang's urban existence is transformed by those who use it. In this way, Xiang's buildings evoke a kind of cabinet of curiosities: the hold vast collections of individuals, whose unifying principle is the strength of their differences.
At age 27, Xiang Liqing is considered by many to be one of China's most promising young artists. His first solo show opened on March 1, 2001 at ART50, an expensive, rotating restaurant on the fiftieth floor of the towering Novotel Atlantis Building in Shanghai's New Pudong Area. Circular in shape, the restaurant is a vista point, its exterior walls made entirely of glass. From here one may watch comfortably as the mushrooming skyline of Pudong ticks by like so many seconds on a clock. The restaurant derives much of its cultural cache from its art shows, and has a reputation for featuring important regional artists. What better place for Xiang Liqing's solo premier, where his photoworks seem to establish a direct, critical dialogue with both the newly wealthy Chinese patrons and the view outside the restaurant's windows? If the breakneck development of Pudong is thought to represent the future of China, Xiang Liqing looks to the moment just beyond this future, showing us not only what is at stake, but also what is possible.
Wu Hung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) p. 81. Exhibition Catalogue.