18 Dec

Shenzhen by Guy Delisle

It was slightly surreal to read one of Guy Delisle‘s other books about being a temporary resident among famished, fearful citizens in an oppressive Communist country (Pyongyang) while I was a temporary resident sitting among beautiful, healthy Scandinavians in an extravagantly equipped, wonderfully comfortable and relaxed public library in über liberal and progressive Norway. It was in some ways even more surreal to read more recently his similar graphic memoir about working as an animation director in the Chinese city of Shenzhen and to realise that he’d had almost identical experiences and reactions to the place as myself. I don’t mean I identified with it. I mean he had exactly the same experiences as I did. Delisle was there in the late 1990s and I lived there ten years later (2007-2008), but surprisingly little seems to have changed. Probably a lot more buildings went up, and the metro system wasn’t there, and the population was smaller, but I could still even recognise some of the places from his drawings. I was there as an artist in residence at a gallery in Shenzhen. You can read about the (mostly ludicrous) experiences I had at that gallery in my book.

Delisle mentions the occasional blessed escapes to nearby Hong Kong where it feels like a massive weight has lifted from yourself and from everybody else; the fine Communist art of doing the absolute minimum amount of work (or less if you can get away with it), what’s called in Russian tufta; the pathological Chinese aversion to the sun, “as if it’s radioactive” to use Delisle’s perceptive phrase; the worrying amount of time you spend, with hindsight, lying on your bed in your underwear doing nothing, just for some respite from the dirt and the difficulty and from people randomly shouting HELLOO at you on the street when it’s clearly a kind of racist dig rather than a genuine greeting. I experienced all this too. When I finished this book I just wanted to give him a big hug and tell him with relief that it was OK, somebody understands, I felt exactly the same.

Venice/Paris mashup at Windows of the World, Shenzhen. Photo by Alistair Gentry.

Venice/Paris mashup at Windows of the World, Shenzhen. Photo by Alistair Gentry.

It’s all here, even a trip to the bizarre Windows of the World theme park with its miniature replicas of international landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge; not to mention the fact that Chinese people love WotW but think its neighbour and counterpart Splendid China is boring. QED. I used to live only a few blocks away from WotW so I went there quite a lot because it cheered me up in some weird, masochistic way.


On the subject of simulacra, he seems to have missed out on Dafen Painting Village, which I’m sure would have fascinated somebody like him who works in drawing and animation. It’s an absolutely insane enclave of artists– primarily painters– who spend their days manufacturing copies of famous art works, (mainly for export) or making new works to commission in the style of old ones. Most of these painters are technically amazing but sadly they have no other opportunities in China to be painters, other than this glorified factory work. You can have yourself painted in the style of Van Gogh or Rembrandt, for example, and while nobody would be fooled by the subject matter the painters are sometimes nearly as good as whoever they’re imitating. It’s another example of every institution and daily practice in China seeming somehow to be a metaphor for China as a whole, like the hollow control panel Delisle finds in his room, just a dial and buttons that have no wiring and don’t actually connect to anything or change anything. In China the sense of one’s own agency and autonomy (perhaps always illusory, wherever we are in the world) are blatantly ripped away anew almost daily, whether it’s by finding a dial with no internal wiring or in the process of trying to use a Chinese bank all afternoon but eventually having to give up because apparently nobody who works there actually knows how to run a bank. This latter experience is another one that Delisle and I share.

Paradise with peeping Mao: replica canvases for sale at Dafen Painting Village, Shenzhen.

Paradise with peeping Mao: replica canvases for sale at Dafen Painting Village, Shenzhen. Photo by Alistair Gentry.

I’m working on a script commission right now about the changes in China from the time of the Communists fighting their way to power circa 1949 and going through to the present, and reading Delisle’s book definitely brought back a lot of memories from the times I lived and worked in China myself.  Both Delisle’s and my own experiences should also be instructive for anyone who, in their ignorance, excitedly talks about China as a growing art and media market. China’s art market is as problematic and as warped by the Party’s dead hand as just about any of China’s other guarded attempts at engaging with globalism or plurality. The malpractice, unfairness and stupidity of Western art circles seems positively sensible by comparison. I also devote a whole chapter to Shenzhen in my own book. You can read a substantial extract from that chapter here (Shenzhen: The Empire of Fuckedup), and buy the book here.

4 Responses to “SHENZHEN”


  1. WHAT THE DUCK? | CAREER SUICIDE - 21/05/2013

    […] on everyone from street hawkers with yellow bath ducks (almost certainly made in neighbouring Shenzhen, the world’s factory) to hotels offering “duck view” hotel rooms. Rubber […]


    […] To further plumb the depths of China’s kitsch and unoriginality, read my post about visiting Shenzhen’s Dafen Painting Village, where any painting ever made can be copied and re-painted perfectly to […]


    […] a fine artist and not a plagiarist… and how is what he does substantively different from a hack doing the same thing in a factory in Guangdong? Why is an artist who misunderstands basic scientific concepts “questioning established […]


    […] I’m 100% behind artists finding new and more direct ways to sell their work or otherwise to make a living from their practice, but it breaks my heart to think of all the brilliant, hard-working artists who toil in obscurity while the barely competent daubings of Amazon’s no-talent shitgoblins are bigged up as worthy of five figure price tags by some shiny faced, dead eyed entrepreneur of nothing in particular/designer/ad person/self-appointed expert/marketing twonk/media whatever. If you must buy quasi-industrial hack work, support some low paid Chinese hacks who at least know how to paint. […]

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