Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture: Two cities grin and bear it for one uneasy biennale

Interesting work, relaxed censorship and sheer scale belie tensions in joint Hong Kong-Shenzhen project


The third edition of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture opened last month—with two unique challenges: to combine art and architecture, as well as create a relationship between the cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Despite the biennale’s name, Hong Kong and Shenzhen hold separate events, with Hong Kong’s opening earlier and lasting longer (4 December 2009-27 February). The Art Newspaper attended the Shenzhen portion of the event (6 December 2009-21 January), which was independently curated.

As a relatively new city (2009 was the 30th anniversary of its founding) and partly due to its proximity to Hong Kong (the centres of the two sprawling metropolises are only 35km apart and their peripheries are, in places, adjacent), the atmosphere in Shenzhen is less inhibited than most Chinese cities.

The multi-site exhibition featured works by 64 artists and groups. Works such as Pale Vessel—a house built out of tofu by the Polit-Sheer-Form Office—and Demolition-relocation by Liu Xiaoliang would have been censored by authorities in Beijing, “if they had been aware of it”, a journalist from Southern Weekend newspaper said. After the Sichuan earthquake, many buildings were popularly said to have been “made of tofu”—especially schools, where thousands died. Liu’s work refers in part to “nail houses”—where people refuse to move out of buildings slated for demolition.

The opening ceremony was held on the roof of the Shenzhen government’s offices in the large sprawling Shenzhen Civic Square, featuring a performance by the Shenzhen Philharmonic Orchestra. The large crowd was treated to an animation of the imagined Shenzhen skyline in 2040, resembling a scene from “Blade Runner” or cartoon lawmaker Judge Dredd’s Mega City One. Deputy secretary general Xu Chongguan, a senior official with Shenzhen Municipal Planning Bureau, told The Art Newspaper he had not seen planning applications for any of the buildings in the animation.

“Hong Kong has one representative on the Shenzhen curatorial committee but we don’t have one on theirs, [however], my cousin is on the Hong Kong team, so communication was better than before,” curator Pauline Yao said, describing the relationship between the two biennale teams. The dichotomy of a twin-city biennale was highlighted by each city placing their name in the ascendant in their show title. “I am happy to attend the Hong Kong Shenzhen Biennale, Shenzhen city opening event,” Carrie Yau, Hong Kong’s Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs, said, after a succession of Chinese leaders congratulated the opening of the “Shenzhen Hong Kong Biennale”.

The deputy leader of Shenzhen district told The Art Newspaper: “We want to be a twin city with Hong Kong, but they don’t.” In the exhibition catalogue the organisers stated “we believe that we are closer…to the target ‘Two Cities, One Theme, One Exhibition’.” The problematic relationship was illustrated by a work by artist Lara Almarcegui, A Wasteland in the Shenzhen River. She found a piece of land belonging to Hong Kong on the Shenzhen side of the river which marks part of the boundary of the two cities. The abandoned land is fenced off and, for her piece, the artist wanted to allow public access, but failed to get a permit from the authorities. Curator Ou Ning pointed out that, in the past, refugees from China would swim the river to escape to Hong Kong.

The large, sprawling show, predominately funded by the local government, was spread across the city. Ou, who is also sound art curator with the Serpentine in London, told The Art Newspaper he wanted to increase audience participation, with some works even being located in shopping malls.

The main issue was the perennial problem at shows in China, as audio visual equipment broke down on the second day, meaning a lot of installations were not functioning. Key projects that were successful were those with little reliance on complicated technology. Landgrab City—A Geography of Spatial Prostheses, by Joseph Grima, Jeffrey Johnson and Jose Esparza, which took the form of a scaled-down representation of the agriculture needed to sustain the city, was placed in the middle of a shopping district, garnering much public attention. The architect team Weak presented a particularly strong work with Bug Dome—a bamboo structure built by local migrant workers on wasteland next to the government offices.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Two cities grin and bear it for one uneasy biennale'