When someone suggested that I might I like to attend the opening of the "Get it Louder" exhibition in Shenzhen, in southern China, I had no real idea what I was signing up for. I was in Guangzhou for the opening of "Communicate", an exhibition about independent British graphic design that I have curated. Still, this other exhibition of work by young Chinese designers sounded promising, so I joined two bus-loads of local design people making the two-hour drive to Shenzhen at breakfast time on Saturday morning.
"Get it Louder" — subtitle: "Lifexperience 2010" — is billed as the first exhibition of its kind in China. It has been curated by a team of designers for informal venues, rather than official museums, and it covers graphic design, fashion, product design, architecture, multimedia and music, showing the work of more than 80 designers. It will travel on to Shanghai and Beijing and, as its title suggests, it aims to generate some noise. The lunch-time opening was attended by perhaps 200 people. One by one the curators and participating designers took the stage. The show is the culmination of a process of assimilation and development that has been under way for some time. Its sponsors include Chivas whisky, Epson and Ikea. If not for the sticky heat, requiring steady use of the mouth-shaped "Get it Louder" fans supplied by the organisers, we could have been anywhere. The audience had the usual haircuts, shaven or spiky, and the same tastes in branded designer gear.
The exhibition occupied a big warehouse space at the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. The floor was marked out as a series of rooms — theatre, living room, bathroom — a bit like the town in Lars von Trier's Dogville and you entered these spaces to look at hanging works and projections. Again, it was striking how many of these pieces spoke in the lingua franca of young international design — the designers' average age is 25. They showed the same concern with graffiti, T-shirt designs, doe-eyed cartoon figures, cute toys, robots and illustrations based on whimsical doodles. Although some of this work was produced outside China, its inclusion was clearly an endorsement of this imagery.
More interesting was the work that seemed to have something to say about China today and where it stands in relation to its past. A set of skateboards was decorated with images of smiling workers and the slogan "The People's Republic of Skateboarding". A T-shirt by a designer based in Shanghai bore the legend "Worker, Peasant and Soldier" (in English) next to a drawing of the trio. The worker and the peasant appeared to be kissing, which would never have happened under Chairman Mao, while the soldier looked the other way. In the US, Shepard Fairey's "Obey Giant" campaign regularly parodies the heroic poses seen in communist propaganda, while books celebrating original propaganda posters find a keen audience among western ironists. The extraordinary photographs in Red-Color News Soldier have exposed the hidden history of the Cultural Revolution. It's hard to see how the graphic allusions to communism in "Get it Louder" could be read without irony, but I'm still not sure that irony is quite what is. Earlier in the week, I saw a magazine picture showing a hip-looking Chinese film-maker posing in his home next to a large painting of Mao's face. I asked whether this was meant ironically. My companions, fashionably dressed journalists from the magazine, seemed mystified at the suggestion. Politics remains a highly sensitive area in China and I didn't pursue it.
Ou Ning, one of the show's curators, notes that, "When doing the selection, we especially avoided those works that use Chinese elements on purpose." In his mid-30s, he is the very model of a restlessly mobile, boundary-breaking contemporary design person. He works as a writer, music promoter and graphic designer — his art direction for Modern Weekly magazine, displayed in the show, is excellent. He is also the founder of U-thèque, an independent film and video organisation. Ou Ning argues that since China's social and political reforms began in 1979, there have been three generations in Chinese design. Until the early 1990s, the first generation still created mainly handmade work as there were few computers in the country. The second embraced the Macintosh and began to absorb international design influences. The third, represented in "Get it Louder", grew up in the age of the Internet with access to information not available to earlier Chinese designers. They have an international outlook, often completing their education abroad, and they share the "independent DIY spirit" found in young designers the world over.
In a recent article for Modern Weekly, Ou Ning draws a picture of the new China as a nation of dedicated conspicuous consumers. "Luxury goods have become the latest obsession," he writes. "The Chinese new rich, with vanity and sheer emptiness, are exhilarated by European brands." In the words of one recent American book title, there are "three billion new capitalists" in the east and 1.3 billion of them live in China, the most populous land on the planet. Ou Ning suggests that material seductions have diluted political passions and led to a decline in civic consciousness and a growing indifference to public affairs. It's exactly the same complaint, of course, that we hear so often in the west.
Some of the most telling exhibits in "Get it Louder" are photographs that document the phenomenal pace of change in the Special Economic Zones where unrestricted capitalist development holds sway. Guangzhou photographer Zhu Ye's pictures show factory chimneys in the Pearl River Delta belching smoke. In subtropical Guangzhou, a thick pall of pollution, visible even at night, clings to the city and the sky is permanently grey. Photographs by Sze Tsung Leong, a New York artist and one of the editors of Great Leap Forward by Rem Koolhaas and his Harvard students, document the "maelstrom of modernization" — as the book terms it — with a meticulously objective eye. Leong contrasts the few surviving older buildings with the new and shows the ravages of demolition alongside sleek emerging structures thrown up by the Chinese economic miracle. Shenzhen itself has grown from little more than a village to a wealthy modern city in 20 years.
If there is cause for hope, for Ou Ning it lies in the Internet, which he sees as a new form of public space, and if that sounds a little starry-eyed, look at it from a Chinese point of view. "Large quantities of information are now able to break through the traditional system of information control," he writes. The Internet gives the Chinese an anonymous platform for opinions that cannot otherwise be expressed freely. He attributes a similar liberating power to DVD piracy, which has broken down cultural isolation by allowing the Chinese cheap access to previously unavailable films. Digital images, he suggests, are helping to create a new, more democratic order in Chinese society. While "Get it Louder" vividly reflects the aspirational "life experience" of its globally-aware young participants, it remains to be seen whether Chinese design will be able to confront social reality in more overtly critical ways. One thing is clear, though. This huge country developing at awe-inspiring speed is making itself part of the international dialogue and we will be hearing a lot more from Chinese designers in the years ahead.