Art China Fashion Finds Shanghai Society Technology

Digitally Sculpted Controversy. Andrea Baldini Writes For Sixth Tone

With the emergence of social media, discussions of public art have reached a much larger audience and play a greater political role in determining the use of public space. Professor Andrea Baldini writes for Sixth Tone.

Thanks to the communicative prowess of China’s sweeping social media platforms, one Shanghai statue has triggered wide public response some three years after its original placement, instantaneously becoming a prime case study of the modern day over(t)ly sensitive and sculpted digital opinion. 

The future of the artist in this digitally interactive age sparks tricky debate with the pros and cons of our online existence locking horns over the plans to be taken for this new road into art — from the visual arts to the tactility of fashion, we at Temper do not play favorites. Or do we… Either way, one may wonder whether the romantic idea of one artist as a creature extraordinaire can find its way in an online world of ideas and images being shared ad infinitum.

Will the futuristic artiste be intensely individualistic and visionarily enigmatic or will this individual become the literally tortured artist and merely manage the creative activities of the (online) masses? As far as Shanghai’s PTA meetings are concerned, art shall be molded by public opinion. On- and off-line.

“A heterogeneous web of users — residents, passersby, political authorities, local businesses, and so on — find themselves in a constant power struggle to determine what is acceptable and what is not.” Professor of Aesthetics Andrea Baldini.

Urinating Man Sculpture Controversy
Covered by a red tarp or “in shame”? Courtesy of VCG, May 2017

Temper Magazine’s Trending segment casts a net upon all that is throwing tantrums within the world of China Fashion across a variety of global sources. This very necessary segment makes for a collection of largely non-Temper Magazine-original content dipping its toe into the deep indigo-dyed pool that is the ocean of Middle Kingdom fashionable astonishment. This time around…

We head on over to Shanghai where one sculpture depicting a man urinating installed in 2014 just outside the Shanghai Fashion Center in 2017 has become an object of controversy. What’s interesting here is not the suitability of the piece as public art, but the context in which the discussion started.

Cutting to the chase for the sake of fluency, the online reaction of over(t)ly sensitive outrage blatantly shows how netizens can deeply influence the physical realm. Associate Professor of Aesthetics and Art Theory at the Art Institute of Nanjing University Andrea Baldini explores how the 21st Century digital dialogue is shaping China’s public spaces. Baldini takes to the keyboard for Sixth Tone.

Controversial Sparks

In effect, the controversy started on Weibo, a microblogging site that is one the most popular social media platforms in China. Parents took to Weibo to air their concerns, casting doubt on the artistic quality of the piece, and on its suitability as an outdoor installation. Thanks to the communicative potential of Chinese social media, the statue elicited diverse public responses a full three years after its original placement.

Some parents who visited the park found the explicit nature of the sculpture vulgar and inappropriate, especially for children. Authorities responded quickly to these concerns and ordered the removal of the piece, citing safety issues. According to claims from the Shanghai Fashion Center’s representatives, the nearby Zotter Chocolate Theater imported the piece from Austria at least three years ago. So why is it only now making national headlines?

As argued by French philosophers Henry Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, the term “public space” does merely identify specific physical locations or a peculiar legal status. Contrary to common understanding, open access and state ownership are insufficient conditions for a space to be public. In other words, there is more to public space than matters of accessibility and ownership.

A Case Of Space

The distinctive feature of public spaces — indeed, what makes them what they are —  is the fact that they are contested. They are spaces whose borders, statuses and functions are constantly negotiated by their users. What one can do in a public space is never fixed, but always in flux. In other words, whether an activity such as playing music or dancing is acceptable within a public space cannot be determined a priori.

Instead, a heterogeneous web of users — residents, passersby, political authorities, local businesses, and so on — find themselves in a constant power struggle to determine what is acceptable and what is not. The open-ended uses and functions of public space are its most striking features and the very reason why it is key to understanding human societies and cultures, as well as their evolution.

richard_serra_tilted_arc_TATE_CO_UK
Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc”. Courtesy of TATE

Theorists like Rosalyn Deutsche and Hilde Hein have long understood that public art can play a relevant role in “producing” and negotiating the nature of public space, including its acceptable uses and functions. Far from being mere decoration designed to beautify our cities, public artworks are effective catalysts of public engagement and discussion. In effect, the installation of a new public artwork usually generates a response from those interested in the space that the piece occupies, fueling the conflict of interests, desires, and preferences underlying the existence of public space.

The deep link connecting space and public art only became evident to modern audiences in the early 1980s, at the time of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc.” A monumental installation at New York City’s Federal Plaza, Serra’s vast wall of steel created controversy for its menacing silhouette and intrusive presence, which prevented pedestrians from taking the most direct path across the square.

Virtual posts about public art can not only transport us into the materiality of the city, but also change the physical nature of our surroundings. Andrea Baldini

The criticism led to legal action and eventually ended with the removal of “Tilted Arc” from Federal Plaza. This outcome highlighted the struggles behind the definition of public space, its possibilities and limitations. Of course, Serra’s “Tilted Arc” is just one of the many examples that revealed this aspect of public art — a set to which Shanghai’s “pissing man” statue certainly belongs.

Nevertheless, something more than just their respective artistic qualities separates the “pissing man” from Serra’s installation. In the digital era, what we do with our public spaces, the ways in which we think about them and how we carry out the struggles that constantly shape their nature do not just happen in the material world. The controversy that led to the removal of the ironic piece in Shanghai started — or was at least propagated — online, showing that today’s public space depends on the interplay between material and digital realities. Public art — and therefore public space — exists in between these two realities: It is both conceptually and practically impossible to separate them.

 

Read more of Baldini’s vision on this most sensitive sculptural topic right here on Sixth Tone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This trending topic was originally written by Andrea Baldini for Sixth Tone 2017 All rights reserved
Edited by Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh for Sixth Tone
Additional editing and introduction by Elsbeth van Paridon for Temper Magazine
About Sixth Tone: There are five tones in Mandarin Chinese. When it comes to coverage of China, Sixth Tone believes there is room for other voices that go beyond buzzwords and headlines to tell the uncommon stories of common people. Through fresh takes on trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating contributions, Sixth Tone covers issues from the perspectives of those most intimately involved to highlight the nuances and complexities of today’s China.
Featured Image: Courtesy of China Daily
Temper Magazine does not own any of the above English content. All featured English content belongs to Andrea Baldini for Sixth Tone 2017. All rights reserved.