Marcel Duchamp provocatively elevated the “objet trouvé”, whether it was a bottle rack, a ball of packing string or a public urinal, to the status of work of art.
Xu Jianguo looks at the contemporary city, the largest of all objects, the most complex of all artefacts, the one which, in its immensity, contains all other man-made objects and events, and, like Duchamp, also challenges us to contemplate it as a found object, with a sharp observation of its diverse physical attributes and a compassionate understanding of its hidden meanings.
Few artists are capable of doing this. Few architects and urbanists also. In fact, almost nobody has the courage to face the physical reality of the global city, let alone the ideology behind it, with an unflinching eye and with compassion.
In the middle of this second decade of the 21st Century, more than half the world population is now urbanised and the global rate of urbanisation continues to grow exponentially, driven by a seemingly insatiable human appetite to build, devour land and take over from nature, irrespective of consequences. Cities now consume three quarters of the world’s energy production and generate three quarters of the world’s solid waste as well as water and atmospheric pollution. Soon, according to most predictions, global warming and environmental devastation will become so acute that our current way of life will become unsustainable.
We are all haunted by this fear of the city’s destructiveness, consciously or unconsciously, whether or not we acknowledge it, because the survival of our species is at stake. It is this underlying fear of the city’s fatal destiny, behind its often seductive surface appearance, that informs the artist’s perception of the urban objects he shows us, heightening, in his depictions, the contrast between veneer and reality.
Xu has chosen to explore and paint three of the most exuberant, dynamic, iconic and problematic, hyperdense, tentacular urban landscapes in Asia: Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These three cities, for him, have gradually and dramatically become, by default, our second nature, the contemporary substitutes for the mountains and rivers of the past. And therefore he represents them, with a surprising combination of biting irony and loving care, using the traditional ink and wash techniques of classical Chinese painting.
At first, the inherent contradiction between the absolutely contemporary nature of the observed object and the anachronistic nature of the traditional painterly techniques chosen to represent it may come across as a somewhat incongruous mannerism, apparently tainted with nostalgia and a sentimental appetite for the picturesque, but, on closer observation, the work reveals itself to be a most unusual and powerful combination of two profound artistic intentions: on the one hand to provide a radical critique of the contemporary urban landscape and of the underlying forces of exploitation and greed that give rise to it, and on the other hand a deep desire to seek peace, calm and reconciliation at the heart of the resulting chaos. It is the constant tension between the acuity of the artist’s critical gaze and the generosity of his loving contemplative gaze that make his work magical and highly original. In this fundamental ambivalence, he touches the essence of the city and our emotional feelings about it: do we hate it or do we love it? Do we hate it for the harm it has inflicted on nature as well as on people, or are we prepared to respond favourably to its seductions and to embrace the new nature that it offers?
The city, from its very inception, has always been the stage for the ethical confrontation of forces of good and evil. Pictorially, Xu expresses this archetypal ambivalence by emphasizing two contrasting architectural forms in his compositions: the pure, almost sublime geometries adopted by some of the recent iconic skyscrapers and the older, labyrinthine urban fabric from which they emerge. Particularly in Hong Kong, he highlights the clear crystalline form of Pei’s Bank of China building, which figures prominently in so many of his paintings, the jewel-like elegance of Foster’s HSBC headquarters in Central and, more recently, the emblematic towers of the International Financial Centre and International Commercial Centre that now mark the gateway to the Victoria straits. He paints these buildings as main charismatic actors on the urban stage, its fetishized spiritual leaders, with a quasi anthropomorphic expression of their multiple changing personalities. Few architects are capable of revealing with such insight the true material presence, character and animistic aura of the buildings they design. The seemingly naïve, genuine delight that Xu finds in painting these skyscrapers is one that the observer cannot help but share with him, reminiscent of the poetic paintings that Madelon Vriesendorp made of New York’s skyscrapers for Rem Koolhaas’ famous book, Delirious New York.
The Hong Kong Series
The work falls into two categories: the fan format paintings, that are small, discrete vignettes, like views through an old fashion telescope, and the more expansive hand scrolls, that achieve a synthesis of these discrete views. By using these two iconic formats of classical Chinese landscape painting and by preserving the medium of ink, the artist playfully confronts the contemporary with the past, not only in terms of subject matter but also in terms of painterly technique.
In the fan paintings, Xu shows very different perceptions of the city, morphing from one to the other. These changes are fascinating, like Cezanne’s shifting views of Mont Sainte Victoire or, more pertinently for architecture, the changing moods of Monet’s paintings of the façade of Rouen cathedral. The small vignette format of the fan paintings allows Xu to swiftly explore different variations, sometimes accentuating the difference between individual buildings, sometimes stressing their homogeneity and continuity, sometimes revealing the structured clarity and luminosity of the iconic buildings against the more complex geometry and darker tones of their context, sometimes peaceful, sometimes sombre, always emotionally expressive.
A Bird’s Eye View of Hong Kong (fig. 13) depicts not only the Bank of China but two other key buildings, the HSBC bank and the International Financial Centre. It playfully disregards the actual spatial positions of these building and relocates them. The contextual buildings, the generic high rise urban fabric of the city, in which the formal differentiation of built elements is not stressed, act as a neutral foil for the main buildings. The ambient light is bright and the star buildings are given glowing outlines, like the halos of saintly figures. Together, they form a genealogy of buildings in Hong Kong: HSBC, being the oldest, shown almost as the skeleton of a dinosaur, the Bank of China shown as the key archetype and the recently completed International Financial Centre as the new god on the block. If this is a bird’s eye view, the bird, in this case, is a peaceful dove, its gaze quite serene.
The second fan painting, also entitled A Bird’s Eye View of Hong Kong (fig. 7), only includes the Bank of China. If the first bird was a dove, this one is a menacing bird of prey. The mood is sombre, verging on the apocalyptic. There is more contrast. The outlines of the contextual buildings are sharp, crenelated, full of asperities. They appear eroded, decomposed by time or by fire, leaving gnarled tormented forms, as those of a burnt forest. The feeling is reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s romantic ink drawings of architectural ruins or of Piranesi’s Prisons, with their endless vertical cascade of carceral spaces. Pervading the whole painting is a fog, a misty vapour, flowing into the city (or rising out of it?), at times heightening its contours, at times obscuring them, as if it were the all-pervading life force of its objects, their inhalations and exhalations.
The Bank of China takes centre stage again, in Moonlight over Hong Kong (fig. 3) while the HSBC building is displaced and relocated at its foot. The composition frames the urban landscape between the two sides of a mountain gorge. This painting draws a clear analogy between the sharp prismatic cross-bracing structure of the Bank of China and the more expressionistic triangulated trusses of the earlier HSBC building. It also depicts the branch structure of the trees and vegetation in the foreground in a way that makes it clear that both these high tech buildings derive their essential structural principles from an observation of nature, while also heightening the contrast between them, marking the evolutionary step from natural forms to human artefacts.
Street Life in Hong Kong (fig. 4) is one of the very few paintings that includes the inhabitants, and even crowds of people, as well as street signs that also show images of human beings. The bamboo scaffolding echoes the triangulated structure of the Bank of China, here shown, for once, in the distant background rather than occupying centre stage. Note how the painting draws a parallel not only between the triangulation of Pei’s building and that of traditional bamboo scaffolding, but also with the diagonally outstretched arms of Michael Jackson in a giant poster.
The large horizontal scroll, Bird’s Eye View of Hong Kong (fig. 11) depicts the famous view from the peak. More balanced and consciously controlled than the “fan” paintings, it is a synthesis of more contained expressionism. A smooth fog is seen to be drifting through the city, descending from the mountain slopes on the left side of the scroll. The built mass of the urban fabric is craggy like a rock formation, out of which key buildings emerge, crystalline and ethereal. The individual idiosyncracies expressed in the smaller fan paintings are recomposed into a calmer synthesis without losing their essence. The topological position of buildings is generally respected, with the exception of the HSBC building, which appears to have vanished, leaving the stage to the Bank of China and, prominently, to the recent International Financial Centre.
The painting displays a balance of dark and light, of sharply delineated lines against more blurred forms, an interplay between geometric precision and labyrinthine complexity. The island is drawn precisely, while Kowloon and particularly East Kowloon, in the New Territories, are more abstract. They appear shrouded in deep fog, or seized in an ice flow containing indistinct forms.
In contrast to the previous hand scroll, Metropolis Reimagined (fig. 15) is less respectful of the actual topological relationships between buildings. Many have been shifted, as in the inaccurate memories of a subjective cognitive map. As in the classical Chinese paintings of mountains and rivers, this is psychogeography rather than geography, the city as we piece it together in a dream, a distorted, personal memory trace. Although ostensibly an observation of the external world, this work makes us acutely aware that the creations of the artist are fundamentally introspective rather than outward looking. They are not primarily intended as accurate, objective recordings of physical reality but are the manifestation of a process of transformation that starts with a highly sensitive observation of reality and is followed by a process of internalization where the mode of perception is as much philosophical, ethical, intellectual, emotional and political as it is visual and sensual. What the artist sees and shares with us is an intimate glimpse of his own internal world, an extraordinary amalgam of sensorial stimuli and abstract ideas, physics closely intertwined with metaphysics. What he is drawing up, as he takes us through the mountains and rivers of his urban landscapes, is a map of his own multifaceted psyche as well as that of our collective unconscious.
This painting catches that magical moment in the early evening, so characteristic of the view from the Peak, when the air finally becomes cooler and when the urban landscape suddenly shifts from day to night. There are accents of colour as well as lights glowing, on the island side, likes fires in the bush. Some buildings are precociously lit, producing a surreal effect of temporal distortion, reminiscent of Magritte’s day/night painting, a space-time shift that can also be found, in a more pronounced way, in the Shanghai paintings.
The International Financial Centre and the International Commercial Centre, now the two tallest high-rise buildings in Hong Kong, face each other like silent sentinels on opposite sides of the Victoria straits, two contemporary re-enactments of a lost figure from antiquity, the lighthouse of Alexandria, once known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
One feels the tension between Hong Kong island and the mainland, the dynamic of Kowloon peninsula thrusting south towards the island. The distant mountain formations of mainland China are more distinct in this scroll than they are in most of the artist’s paintings.
The Shanghai Series
The architectural language of Shanghai is different from that of Hong Kong in that it introduces, at least in the Pudong area and parts of the Bund, the sphere as an archetypal form. Along the Huangpu River (fig. 17), a highly charged composition and closer to earth than most of the artist’s views, is a dynamic interplay of three primeval forms and platonic solids: the cube and the rectangular forms of most buildings; the triangular forms and related pyramidal and conical shapes, found in some buildings, the suspension bridge and the numerous cranes; and finally the sphere and related organic forms. This powerful composition is foreshortened, stressing the dynamic interplay of mingling contrasting forms and embracing the ample sweep of the river, the movement of the ships and the all-pervading light haze.
Evolution of Shanghai (fig. 16) is similar to the previous view, but pulled back and different in that it introduces, in addition to the representation of Shanghai’s complex formal vocabulary, as described above, a depiction of Shanghai’s older urban fabric in the foreground and shows the tension between the old and the new. It has more tonal contrast than the previous view. The power of the piece is that the composition achieves a dramatic foreshortening of both time and space.
The hand scroll, New Vista of Shanghai (fig. 31), is a very powerful depiction of the city. It gives us an account of its huge scale, extreme complexity, variety and dynamics of constant change. Every building appears to have its own personality and style. They are not depicted as anthropomorphic, but nevertheless, there is something distinctly human about them. The city is shown to be constantly under construction, always undergoing a process of mutation. The mixture of old and new is shown as being characteristic of the urban fabric. So is the interpenetration of built form and infrastructure, while whiffs of fog remind one that nature is never far away.
This major piece is the earliest of all the works shown in this exhibition. The large size (8m) allows the artist to fully express the urban landscape as the contemporary manifestation of the mountain and rivers concept. The size also allows for the time component to be represented: Shanghai, the archetypal “24 hour city” of global capitalism, is shown here simultaneously at dusk on the Pudong side, deep at night in the French concession, and finally at dawn out in the country outskirts. Not only is the city depicted as a changing object, constantly subjected to relentless transformation, but the painting itself doesn’t exist in one single time frame. Without being necessarily aware of it, the viewer is sucked into that accelerated temporal vortex and, as we know from Einsteinian physics, into the foreshorthening of space that comes with it. The somewhat esoteric concepts of an “alternate nature” and “alternate reality” that are manifest in this painting and are, like the scientific concept of relativity, so difficult to describe in words, become almost palpable in this seminal piece. Through this partly unconscious immersion into the distorted space-time continuum of our cities “outside of nature”, the artist indirectly asks the viewer to question, in these new hyper-modern times, his/her own understanding of the self.
Yang Cheng Fu Tu series
Xu creates, in Vista of Guangzhou – Dragon Boat Race (fig. 23) a very dynamic composition, all about movement: the upward thrust of the Guangzhou Tower, the sideways swing of the bridge, the plowing ahead of the racing boats, the lateral floating of the clouds. It is a choreographic display of multiple “vectors of movement”, as Bernard Tschumi would say. The contrasts in tone, from deep black to luminescent white, accentuate the dynamics by introducing an intense tonal vibration.
Vista of Guangzhou – Scene along the Pearl River Coast (fig. 20) is a generous, expansive view, albeit contained within a small fan, with vast expanses of water and sky, as well as drifting clouds, in the centre of the image. Within this generous natural realm, architecture begins to manifest itself, but it comes across as still in the making, still incomplete.
There is a lot to be learned from Xu Jianguo’s passionate engagement with the city and the pictorial means he has chosen to reveal its forms and its meanings. Looking at his oeuvre as a whole, both the large pieces and the small ones which, like fractals, seem to contain the whole in all its variety and complexity, there are a number of layers of observation that can be made, by way of conclusion, concerning different facets of the work and its recurrent themes.
To quote the artist’s own words: “Mountains and rivers exist by themselves, without any interest in worldly affairs”. Is this what he is showing, urban landscapes detached from worldly affairs? Many of the views are bird’s eye views, not the view of someone walking down the streets of the city. They are seen from a great distance and very seldom show any human presence. This is the remote view of the gods and of their angels. One is reminded at times of the shots of Wim Wender’s poetic film, The Wings of Desire (Himmel Über Berlin) and his two compassionate angels. And yet, at times, the artist leaves his position of spiritual elevation and comes down to earth, engaging with the inhabitants of the city, just as Wender’s fictional characters do. It is this paradoxical oscillation between detachment and humanistic empathy that is particularly striking in his whole oeuvre.
In the same way that the work oscillates between detachment and engagement, the painterly technique pulsates, from painting to painting and, more interestingly, even within individual paintings, between precise representation and abstraction. This pulsation between the two is much more interesting that the tension between Eastern and Western cultures that is often pointed out as the underlying dialectic behind Xu’s paintings. It explores the constant tension, in his vision of the city, between the sublime and the real. As the eye of the observer travels across the work, it always has two paths to choose from: the path of abstraction and that of realism. The two are intertwined and never far from one another. The medium of the brush and ink, which characteristically allows both intense abstraction and realistic portrayals at the same time, enables the artist to be simultaneously abstract and concrete.
The critical stance is also fascinating in its variations. It ranges from the serene to the tormented, from the generous to the unforgiving. At times, the artist looks with the naïve gaze of a child, ready to be surprised and delighted, almost akin to the charmed gaze of Douanier Rousseau. In such moments, the views of the city are calm, peaceful, harmonious, elegant, balanced, embued with kindness and an impulse to embellish. At times, it is quite the opposite: the gaze reveals the vanity of the city, its fetichism, greed and cruelty. At such moments, the artist shows the urban landscape undergoing a process of decomposition, of entropic degenerescence and decay, a chaotic mass of conflicting desires.
The artist’s perception of architecture and of the urban landscape is highly original and challenging. As opposed to the consistently positivistic and functionalist stance usually taken by architects and planners, it is a view that, while very precise, is prepared to combine objective observation with subjective feelings and emotions. He brings buildings and cities alive in a way that only a handful of poets and film-makers do. He sees buildings as real characters, with many different facets and changing personalities. Sometimes, he stresses their uniqueness and singularity, particularly that of the iconic tower buildings of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou, which fascinate him and which, in his view, stand out from the crowd; but sometimes he does the exact opposite and portrays the urban milieu as a homogeneous, continuous mass. This reflects the phenomenological reality of our perception of both people and objects, characteristic of our experience of the world from early childhood on: sometimes blurred, sometimes sharp, sometimes highly individual, sometimes collective. The portraits that Xu gives us of our cities are, in effect, portraits of live human beings, of the diversity of the human species seen through its most expressive and prominent artefact.
Deep down in our unconscious, Xu’s paintings strike us as a passionate but lucid declaration of love for the contemporary city, soon the only landscape we will be left with, the only partner we will have, with all the delights, pains, contradictions and difficulties that a sincere, lasting and profound love entails.
About the Author
Colin Fournier is Emeritus Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London and is currently Visiting Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He was an associate member of the radical experimental design group Archigram Architects, Bernard Tschumi’s partner for the design of the Parc de la Villette in Paris and co-author, with Sir Peter Cook, of the Graz Kunsthaus, a contemporary art museum in Austria. His recent project “Open Cinema”, in collaboration with artist Marysia Lewandowska, was completed in Guimarães, Portugal and was also part of the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale. In 2013, he was President of the Jury for the M+ Museum international architecture competition in Hong Kong and Chief Curator for Hong Kong of the 2013 Hong Kong/Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture.