Shanghai, CHINA -- Wowo met Zao three years ago at www.poobbs.com, a popular design forum where they exchanged drawings online. Zao, a plump-cheeked Bjork look-alike, was a fashion student at the Tianjin Art Academy, while the lanky, bespectacled Wowo studied product design at Shanghai University. He liked her colorful drawings of elephants, monkeys and strange girls wearing hats; she liked his funny, offbeat pictures, including one of a little boy wearing a box printed with the words “Easily Broken”. They fell in love. When Zao moved to Shanghai in 2004, they started the design company Perk.
Perk’s products, a cheerfully twisted array of notebooks, stickers, clothing and toys with a snappy graphic flair, are wholly representative of the work on show at Get It Louder, an ambitious exhibition featuring around 100 mostly Chinese designers, which drew to a close at CITIC Square’s Salon Vogue on Sunday. The criteria for inclusion in the show were hard to pinpoint, explains Qian Qian, who at 26 is the youngest of the show’s four curators and a remarkably youthful assistant professor of graphic design at Missouri State University. The show was billed as, “A visual noise made by young, talented designers and artists around the globe,” and, as Qian explains, “That’s partly why we say ‘noise’: there’s no theme. [We] focused on characteristics and moods of a whole generation, rather than thematic works.” Put more simply, Perk’s designs are Qian’s idea of ‘cool’.
Tall and broad-shouldered with the thick plastic glasses all but mandatory in certain circles, Qian gives me a tour of his favorite exhibits. Perk, our first stop, embodies contemporary Chinese designers. For one, they’re young. Both Wowo and Zao are 25, the average age of artists featured in the show. Their designs are preoccupied with personal experience, they intend to cash in on their work and, as evidenced by the origins of their relationship, they are technologically savvy. Furthermore, they work in cross-cultural multimedia, a fancy way of saying that they jumble up Eastern and Western iconography, using graphics, fashion and product design. For the exhibition, they’ve submitted a fanciful set of stuffed dolls: near life-size wolves wearing rabbit-ear hats and Red Riding Hood costumes. Beneath them is a Perk-designed plastic wardrobe printed with wolf-faced Beatles trotting across a zebra crossing (hello ‘Abbey Road’), a goggle-eyed carp, self-portraits of Zao and pixilated rabbits.
Qian then leads me to three striking posters by Guangzhou artist Wu Zhen. “This is one of my favorites,” he says. Each features a Guangzhou snack: soup noodles, steamed buns and sticky rice balls. “Before, a topic like sticky rice balls wouldn’t have been considered serious art, but we want to include everything as long as it’s real. They [create] such a weird mood with the black and neon yellow. Usually, when you think about food, it’s delicious. You expect warm, delicious colors, but these are dirty, poisonous. I mean, that guy is crying as he eats his noodles. And Guangzhou as a city, it’s dirty.”
He turns to another artist, Geng Chen, who works for an advertising company by day, saving her personal design projects for nights and weekends. She has created a series of flying female ‘Monkey Kings’ in cotton-candy pink fiberglass. While she makes obvious references to the Chinese classic ‘Journey to the West’, her figurines look as though their direct ancestors were the Japanese cartoons ‘Rocket Man’ or ‘Astro Boy’. Furthermore, the figurines all resemble the artist herself – an interesting twist that emphasizes the growing trend of self portraiture among Chinese designers.
According to Qian, the things that characterized the previous generation of Chinese designers were threefold. They were very serious about the titles of “artist” or “designer”, worked primarily in print media doing posters, and didn’t receive much in the way of outside influences. Ou Ning, a fellow curator, agrees. In ‘Creative Invasion’, an essay published in the March 2003 issue of ‘Modern Weekly’, he writes, “The first generation trained in traditional fine art academies in the 1970s and 1980s. Basically equipped, with no command of English, they rose in prominence during the late 1980s to early 1990s. At this time the personal computer had scarcely established itself and they executed their designs manually.” In comparison, what he terms the third, current generation, “has grown up with the internet, has higher technical skills, a higher command of English, and a broader vision and multiple creative capacity in areas such as graphics, web, animation and sound. Around the mid-1990s, non-commercial assignments – those for international competitions – appeared for Chinese designers. To say the least, bona fide creative autonomy began with the third generation.”
In many ways, Get It Louder was conceived as a metaphor for the current directions in Chinese design, both in its curation and exhibition design. US-based Qian Qian first conceived of the show with Jiang Jian, a Chinese designer living in Sydney, Australia. They met in person two months ago, but they’d known each other online for four years, corresponding through design forums, emails and MSN messenger. Guangzhou-based designer Ou Ning joined as a fellow curator towards the end of 2004, then Ji Ji – a designer best known for his Shirt Flag T-shirts – joined as the Shanghai contact. Incredibly, the four curated the show entirely online, sending between 10-20 emails a day and conducting meetings once or twice a week through MSN messenger.
It is a fitting curation for a design culture that has been strongly affected by technology. For many Chinese designers, the Internet provided a portal to outside influences as varied as Czech photography or British post-punk music, as well as a means to communicate with each other more easily.
The show had no qualms about commercial support, and was sponsored by Chivas, Grohe and Epson, among others. While this commercialism can be seen in a negative light, Qian is unrelentingly positive. “Being commercial is not in conflict with being artistic. A lot of what you see here is merchandise.” Plus, he adds, it is just proof that design has entered most aspects of daily life, including everyday products.
The exhibition, which has already traveled to Shenzhen and Shanghai and hits Beijing this month, has successfully pulled in the demographic the curators were hoping for: everyone.
Qian admits that many designers “are still too obsessed with the West”. When thinking about American design, he says, “I think it’s like fast food. It’s not thought provoking at all. It’s so bland, so direct, but because it’s so simple, it’s easy to take in. And, of course, it’s facilitated by commerce.” He feels that Chinese design, in contrast, is more nuanced, historical and rooted in philosophy. He described Chinese history as “our treasure, our bank of inspiration. In the Cultural Revolution, our heritage was ruined. My generation is grown out of emptiness, like the desert. You don’t have a lot of things to see or get inspiration from. Then there were 20 years of opening.”
He hopes that in a few years Get It Louder will be a biennale. “I see this as a rebuilding project. It’s a new image of China. Not as an America on the other side of the ocean, but as something unique.”