Design hot pot – Part I

Shanghai Tang
Jannis Kounellis, 2011. Today Art Museum, Beijing. Photo: Manolis Baboussis.

Jannis Kounellis, 2011. Today Art Museum, Beijing. Photo: Manolis Baboussis.

I’m not sure if in the postmodern society we live in talking about national or local identities and cultures can still mean something. Anyway, since I happen to live between Italy and China in a time when the made-in-Italy is losing its grip on global customers, while the made-in-China is quickly shifting from cheap commodities toward a diversified higher value-added production I feel there is the need to define what is the common sense of “beauty” in China and what Chinese share about aesthetics. Chinese goods already entered the houses of people in most countries, but it’s not yet clear what China can share with the rest of the world in terms of taste.

“They eat everything”

In 2011 I went to visit Today Art Museum (one of my favorite spots) in Beijing, to see the solo exhibition of Jannis Kounellis, an Italian famous Arte Povera master. At that exhibition I heard the best definition of contemporary Chinese culture. At the exhibition a TV screen was showing an interview the Italian art critic Philippe Daverio had with the artist. Daverio says: “the key to understand China in my opinion lies in their cuisine, in the fact that they eat everything, both from a nutritional point of view and from ta cultural one. They can take the bridge of Alexandre III in Paris, they can take Vienna, they can take ancient Greece, or ancient China but then after they cook it, it becomes a Chinese dish.” (video here, starts at 12’44 I couldn’t find the subtitled version)

Bi with two dragons and grain pattern, Warring states

Bi with two dragons and grain pattern, Warring states

Even though it does not give us a tangible idea of what Chinese art, design, architecture, products etc. share in terms of visual identity, this vision clearly reflects how China went in a few decades from a traditional society straight into a post-modern society. Today and in the past two decades, Chinese had the opportunity to express traditional and foreign iconographies completely out of their context. Mainly because icons from abroad or from their own past simply lost their original meaning and were raw materials in Chinese hands.

Cultural fractures

From many points of view China is was more a continent than a country, this is why it cannot be compared to other nations with defined aesthetic value systems like Japan or Italy. Logic wants that it should therefor have several aesthetics. But despite China’s dimensions, when in 1949 China was refunded, the CCP had to deal with a multitude of different regional cultures, different nationalities ethnicities and different languages dialects. The impelling need was to create a common cultural ground in order to strengthen the nation, even in the last two decades the priority was to maintain stability against the pushes for autonomy that come from regions like Xinjiang or Tibet. It’s easy to understand why many local cultures were almost completely washed away, in favor of an overwhelming mainstream.

Shanghai Tang

Shanghai Tang

Besides this I remember one of my Chinese professors in college discussing with me the differences between Italian and Chinese crafting, he said one of the main reason China lacks good craftsmanship was the historical and cultural fraction 文化断层 that China faced during the Cultural Revolution, with its goal to bring an end to the Four Olds 四旧: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. This is in contrast with the cultural continuity 文化传承 and relatively slow mobility that allowed Italian artisans to pass their local traditions down through generations till today.

Revivals

This lack of cultural continuity left Chinese without a clear identity, and is probably also the reason why many Chinese designers feel the moral duty to romantically revive lost traditions when it comes to furniture or architecture design. But most of the times this happens in a rather uncritical way, simply reproducing copycats of Ming dynasty chairs or ancient Anhui houses etc. In the lack of a value system linking traditional design guidelines to modern rationality many Chinese contemporary artists and designers choose instead to import Western aesthetics. This most of the time is likewise a rigid reproduction of a Western design process that not necessarily fits the Chinese social, cultural and sometimes political environment. It is possible that in the next decade China will finally manage to link the overwhelming modernity with its intrinsic traditions without the formalism of reproducing long gone iconographies.

The Humble Administrator's Garden 拙政园, Suzhou

The Humble Administrator’s Garden 拙政园, Suzhou

With the help of foreign capitals and brand management know-how, some Chinese brands are trying to stand out. Examples are the Hermes-backed Shang Xia and the Richemont-owned Shanghai Tang, yet those products are struggling to meet investors expectations. In my opinion their products are still too clique.

Patience – Energy – Time

Western priority in aesthetics and art is to serve a critical function, especially since the achievements brought by Dadaism, in China instead the tradition was to put the emphasis on the perfect control of the artistic medium and arduous practice. On my last year in college I had a discussion with one of my Tsinghua schoolmates. He was angry about how our academy curricula were being reformed, and was questioning that the educational focus was shifting toward a multidisciplinary approach instead of a craftsmanship-based one, as it used to be. Initially I was astonished, also considering that I wasn’t coming from an art school. He went on saying that Chinese art cannot exist without 功夫 Gongfu. Now, in the West the word Gongfu, usually written as Kung-fu, refer to Chinese martial arts, but he used it for its original meaning of “practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete”. In traditional China this was particularly clear. Think of Chinese calligraphy, and the patience it requires to practice; think of Chinese pottery and how many times artisans had to start again over and over. Think of how many hours (thousands) a single block of jade requires to carve out a piece of art. Think of the meticulously refined landscapes of Suzhou gardens. Innovation just wasn’t the priority as much as the pursuit of formal perfection and balance.

Go to part II.