I was invited by editor Georgie Sedgwick to write about the artist QingLan Huang's projection City Dream (housed in Lingham Lane in CBD Melbourne) as part of the Site Unseen publication. Download the entire Site Unseen publication here
Love, Death and the Cosmos
Eugenia Lim on QingLan Huang's City Dream
There is a dark nook of our city that transmits “electricity graffiti”. Like the sound of one hand clapping, it beckons without fanfare. When you find this nook, there is a child’s torch, a play of light over the bluestone bricks of Lingham lane. An unassuming fiction that could just shake you out of worker-ant Orwellian mode if you give it a little time to get under your skin.
This is a tale of urban intervention, of indulging in a little fantasy in order to wake up again.
One day, a shy black-haired girl left Guang Zhou, China, a subtropical hub of 8.5 million Pearl River Deltans, for a city at the opposite end of the earth. A young city housing weird colonial-deco-victorian-modernist-edwardian architecture, walls embossed with ritualistic markings, and flora and strange-accented human fauna not found back home. The city was much sparser and drier than she was accustomed to. Its restaurants, cafes and diets placed strong emphasis on root vegetables (not previously a favourite) and wrapped these within focaccias and paninis, big, white, doughy objects served with coffee sometimes made from the same stuff as tofu. Any so-called Cantonese cuisine she deemed passable at best. Not entirely sure what to make of this subterranean city, the girl became obsessed with its graffiti. She would walk through the laneways and streets of her new home, eyes drawn north, south, east, west, hungrily collecting its language and symbols. She was particularly drawn to images sprayed, painted or glued onto pockets of wall that were almost too high or too low for the average citizen’s eyeline. She, however, was brave enough to look up and down, and began to collect these pieces in her mind’s eye as a kind of anonymous, temporal library of inspiration. The girl saw that this city was young, had an egg-timer length of history compared to her Pearl Delta home – yet the feverish drawings and markings of hundreds upon thousands of hands and brains had already given Melbourne a myriad histories.
"The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering—a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons—a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting—three hundred million people all with the same face."
– George Orwell, 1984
Qing Lan Huang, landscape architect-urban planner-designer-illustrator cum artist, sees graffiti as a territorial rite, the manifestation on bricks and mortar of our need to feel and respond to otherwise “monolithic” political and geographical landscapes. Once a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, Huang is no stranger to a structured and fortified existence. Guang Zhou has withstood 8th Century AD pirates, aggressive foreign trade and Japanese occupation during World War II to become the third most populous metropolitan area in mainland China . And, even as China modernizes and the grip of cadres loosens, communism remains as omnipresent as rice ¬– probably more so. The party loyal are loyal indeed with more than 74 million members making the Community Party of China (CPC) the largest political party in the world. There are party branches in Wal-Marts (yes Uncle Sam, there are Wal-Marts in China) to accommodate shoppers frisky for sanctioned commerce, and there are even plans for a CPC branch outpost in Space . Social order is the city ¬– at its extreme, a dystopia in which humans allow their behaviour to be governed through a neat trick of urban planning and architecture.
So who or what governs our cities? Do we call the shots? Or is it or our skyscrapers, our well-paved roads, our concrete, bricks, steel and double-glazed glass? Huang’s Dream of City is born of the artist’s childlike determination to rebel against neatness and conformity. In Guang Zhou, there is no graffiti. Or at least, Huang grumbles, “nothing good”. But even despite the lack of street art and public dissent, citizens like Huang are not hindered by austerity and unmarked cement. According to Huang, no matter how robust and how stifling our city, an urban space can never be “100% ordered”. Like art and humankind itself, graffiti polarizes. Cities, and those who govern them (its buildings or its people?), treat graffiti as blight, an open wound or acne that necessitates “treatment” wherever it spreads. The city is too perfect – it needs to be messed up a little, and what better way than with art? To Huang, a city’s quintessential character depends on the scars of meaning and identity graffiti provides.
In 2008, Huang was a finalist in the City of Melbourne Future Melbourne exhibition with a sculptural work incorporating cross-cultural symbols set against the hyper-futuristic landscape of the Docklands. Currently undertaking her final year of a Master of Art in Public Space at RMIT, Huang is a relative newcomer to both art and Melbourne ¬– Dream of city is her first major commission. In the short amount of time she has been creating, Huang’s digital and hand-drawn illustrations, images and installations belay an accomplished talent, albeit a tentative one. It’s interesting to note that in contrast to the value Huang places on the fluidity and rawness of street art, her own creative output to date has been remarkably clean, composed, digital, prize-winning, safe. And, while not by any means a complete or even distinct departure from these sensibilities, perhaps Dream of city is the start of a new chapter in Huang’s career – a public purging of fears and uncertainty in the form of public art; a territorial claim on Lingham lane and her place in a new continent, a new social order.
"Basically, when I look around, I see us living in a modern day Babylon, full of temptation, sin, distraction, corruption, injustice, and misguided fools being mentally enslaved. It seems to me the only way to wake people up from this kind of numbness is to destroy what they know: their business, their places of commerce and their biggest place of gathering, the cities! Put it on their trains, on the lines they take to work, on their rooftops, on their highways, on anything just to make some people realize that culture isn't lost and that, at the very least, a small group of kids is fighting to keep it alive."
– Coda, U.S. graffiti writer .
As Huang matter of factly puts it, a person can have many identities in one day – a man by day can become a woman by night. The city, tacitly or otherwise, caters for this dichotomy because it has to. Cleanliness cannot exist without dirtiness, order needs chaos for a bit of street cred. Humans by our very nature are contrary beings. We experience happiness because we know sadness, we aspire to conform and succeed while leaving room for spontaneity and chance. Huang feels an affinity with the drama of urban life – Dream of city is her reflection on the desires latent within us city dwellers as we scuttle from home to office in order to send our polite emails, lunch at our desks, work long days and return home so late that as good bureaucrats and citizens, we run out of time to dream. Sometimes we forget what we are living for; order, architecture and rules become subterfuge for life and dreams.
Dream of city is silent, whimsical, pretty, feminine, esoteric. But beware – despite an air of Zen that could arguably be traced back to classical Chinese calligraphy and paintings, Huang’s intent with the work is to subvert, to lure its audience out of 1984-esque patterns of Doublethink and Newspeak by giving them space to think and feel for themselves. Central to Huang’s fascination with graffiti is what she sees as its energy, its “movement”, transience and unpredictability. Dream of city is Huang’s attempt to transfer this energy and life force to the viewer via a somewhat hi-tech rendering of a lo-fi hand-drawn aesthetic. Real movement or “electricity graffiti” replaces the implied movement of a graffiti tag, an iPod transmitting a digital animation to data projectors replaces the spray can onto the wall. The lines appear naïve, the animation basic, yet one is reminded of the cutesy-powerhouse “superflat” imagery of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Like Murakami, Huang employs flat, 2D techniques and animation to distill more complex and difficult aspects of the human condition. But unlike the internationally-renowned Japanese elder-statesman of otaku (nerd) or what I would call “angst-cute” art, Huang’s Dream of city is more ink-brushstroke than sinister J-Pop cartoon. In a world of visual and sensory clutter where humans sicken themselves with realer-than-real simulacra in the form of reality tv, virtual worlds, video games and frozen food-by-numbers, she has created a black and white panoramic animation so simple that it charms and courts our eyes. Looping to eternity, storm clouds appear through the darkness, pushed by cartoon winds that buoy birds and stars. In the slow, child-scrawl style of Huang, all appears innocent until – cripes! One notices disturbingly cute bombs, a sword, an umbrella, snakes, ghosts, skulls and a kamikaze puppet. WTF!
One of Huang’s inspirations is the prolific Melbourne-based street artist Phibs, whose fluid, graphic geometric murals feature prominently on inner-city walls in Fitzroy, Collingwood and the CBD itself . Often, says Phibs, the average punter is threatened by “straight graffiti” or tags because they feel shut out of its codes, symbols, and anti-typeface. Although Phibs is considered well-versed in “traditional” graffiti, he opts to also create mythical, very often tribal portrayals of animals and creatures that entice the viewer into the very subversive pastime of (gasp!) Graffiti Enjoyment. This same fantastical sensibility can be witnessed in Huang’s flat panorama – its protagonist, a marionette puppet, travels through shifts in seasons and weathers, swept along like the aforementioned birds and stars on storm clouds and seas. A commanding stag figure with birds nesting in his horns seems to offer protection, formidable head-gear and mythic power through the turbulence, reminiscent of the Shishigami (Forest God of Life and Death) creature from Hayao Miyazake’s Princess Mononoke, the cautionary tale exploring human and industrial impact on the natural world. The number 4 and the letter “L” disturb peace symbols and it seems our young marionette is lost on the high seas. But, cut to the end of the second projection panel and at last, the marionette unmasks and cuts her own ties to her maker.
Huang asks that her viewers piece together their own narratives from her language of electric symbols and clues. She paints a number of grey areas in a black and white utopia for us to decipher. One might see memento mori and mortality (the number 4 is a placemark for death in Chinese culture) and metamorphosis where another sees peace and love and a rad skull (a symbol that is kind of five years ago, back when Ricky Swallow led the so hot right now skull comeback in art). No readings are wrong because Huang is an undemanding artist whose most fundamental message is that we need more space and time in our lives to think, to grow a little younger, and to draw our own hippy and esoteric conclusions about love, death and the cosmos.
2. article from The Guardian Online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/20/china-changing-communist-party
3. Article ‘Graffiti: Art and Crime’ http://www.graffiti.org/faq/tucker.html