words by Kevin McGarry
“We lie a lot. We’re based on misrepresentation in many forms.” What could be a more honest disclaimer about Shanzhai Biennial than this, told to me by its co-president Babak Radboy? Radboy, the creative director who led the design of Bidoun magazine, was speaking about the venture he runs with Cyril Duval, whose artistic alter ego is Item Idem, and Avena Gallagher, a stylist who also collaborates with Bernadette Corporation. Looking at Shanzhai Biennial through the lens of contemporary art, the fact that it’s built of untruths is not inherently provocative. It’s more a validation that contemporary art can be an appropriate rubric for it. Famously, lies that edify are what art is, and Shanzhai Biennial’s enlightened musings erode the varnishes that encase creative enterprises in knowable classifications. But this is not to say that Shanzhai Biennial is about breaking molds. Conversely, they show a preternatural ability to conform to concurrent facades—most squarely, art project and luxury brand—like a Darwinianly super-powered, conceptual organism, which preemptively diversifies rather than adapts.
Deceit begins in the project’s naming. Shanzhai Biennial is not an exhibition, and so it’s probably not a biennial. (But who would go on the line and box in our most high-minded platform for aesthetic inquiry with fixed criteria!) Most evidence identifies Shanzhai Biennial as a fashion label. The placeholder standing in for the company website is a splash page titled “COMING SOON.” On top, an animated gif rapidly cycles through thumbnails of corrupted corporate logos: sideways McDonald’s arches, American Idol rephrased as “I Am I do!,” Calvin Klein’s initials tweaked to read “ok,” and several constellations of Chinese characters which, to most Western eyes, mean only anything we’re told they mean. Below, an awkwardly tall Chinese model dressed in a navy cardigan patterned with the Apple logo apes the toothy grimace of a Yue Minjun painting, an intentional counterfeit of the artist’s trademark caricatures.
This image is taken from Shanzhai Biennial’s first advertising campaign, which ran not in a self-published leaflet but in China’s most widely read lifestyle magazine, Modern Weekly (circulation: one million). The Apple-checked sweater is a product from the debut collection, which along with similarly brand-abstracted knock-offs like a “Holisister” top and “The South Place” jacket (hacking the respective identities of clothing companies Hollister and The North Face), was presented as a sensationally choreographed highlight of Beijing Design Week in September 2012. A spotlighted, velvet rope-lined red carpet led bold-faced guests not to a runway show or to a more situational presentation of the clothes, but to a dead end step-and-repeat marked with another batch of logos. There were no actual clothes present.
Today audiences are prepared, obligingly or not, to read almost anything that occurs under the auspices of art as performance. Often enough, these interpretations seem drummed up as a substitution for lack of meaning and ought to be discredited. But what accompanies the expansion of pop rhetoric around performance art is a broadening consciousness of the processes by which evidence and effects associated with events—theatrical, virtual, fictitious, etc.—are fetishized as instruments of value. Shanzhai Biennial does not advertise itself as engaging with any dimension of performance, but these processes are at the heart of their creative logics and thus their brand (and vice versa).
Are Shanzhai Biennial’s clothes for sale? Not at the time of printing. Will they be soon? Maybe. Do they truly exist as objects? Ostensibly. Is the project diminished if they don’t? The importance of whatever Shanzhai Biennial tangibly does—design clothes, for instance—is eclipsed by all the collateral evidence that circulates around their activities. Rendered so explicitly, these circumstances are less prevalent in art than in fashion, where it’s a well-known fact that the most important names are kept in business not by selling wardrobes but by successfully marketing (at great expense) materially fleeting incarnations of their brands, like bags and perfumes. What is anything but explicit, however, is how Shanzhai Biennial represents itself to its core audience of meta-savvy readers of culture who are familiar with the imposter model of generating critique from within an infiltrated industry. Shanzhai Bienial cultivates evasiveness as a Mobius strip around which art and fashion must chase each other, and this is a more sustainable means of inquiry in an age that’s desperately in need of perpetual motion machines.
The other deceptive thing about the name Shanzhai Biennial is that Shanzhai is not a city in China. The translation is “mountain stronghold,” referring to places built in craggy villages for stockpiling contraband outside the reach of authorities. There’s a political aspect to the word that suggests the lawbreakers are Robin Hood types, within their ethical rights to do wrong, perhaps a similar entitlement as what’s advocated by free culture vigilantes. In popular usage, Shanzhai most often refers to the prolific industry of items clumsily appropriating brand names. This is of course the phenomenon Shanzhai Biennial riffs on in all their designs and interventions.
Errors in language are an intrinsic difference between Shanzhai and counterfeit. A fake is designed to pass as the real thing whereas a Shanzhai product is designed to evoke the real thing, but also to be caught as a fraud. Contrary to any assumptions about funny ESL mistakes, most Shanzhai products use spellings that are intentionally incorrect. As an exercise in near rhyme, they join concepts through poetry while creating subtle disruptions in an globally oversaturated matrix of visual referents. Dents like these command more attention and are arguably clearer signs than the slick source codes they adulterate.
In collaboration with lawyer and curator Pati Hertling, Shanzhai Biennial recently developed a clothing tag that hosts an entire waiver and release of liability indemnifying the company from claims that might be brought against them as a result of the public display of their bastardized logos. The large swath of fine print is draped over the potentially offensive icon that appears on each garment, and in the spirit of those mattress disclaimers that are also not to be removed, if it is, the terms still apply. Under the eyes of the law, the project begins to make some distinctions here about what it is and what it is not. Item (E) requires the tag-tampering wearer to acknowledge that “Shanzhai Biennial is not an actual Biennial and is not involved in the business of exhibition or presenting works of art to the public.”
This unambiguous statement only corroborates the complexity of the project’s dubious status as a biennial. In black and white, sure, it isn’t one. But in these pages does it make sense to say that Shanzhai Biennial is not involved in presenting works of art to the public? A binding assurance that they are not integrates another system of interpretation and meaning-making—law— into an already crowded stream of consciousness following from their dissemination of images. In their propositions, Shanzhai Biennial abstains from pointing, winking, or making any anthropomorphized gestures that clue their audience into the rules of the games they, as cultural players, are inevitably playing. There is a resolute stillness in they how occupy their schizophrenic being. Is this Eastern mysticism at work? Could it be sold as such?