Archive for May 15th, 2007

The Loss of Community, The Power of Art

The BBC publishes a photo-series by Dandan Chen today on a young couple who’ve taken to living in a tiny glass house in Beijing’s art district to prove a point about the city’s invisible walls.

Ye Fu and Hairong Tiantian will be living in their respective spaces, separated by a transparent wall, for an entire month. They explain that this living art exhibition is aimed at getting people to think about the kind of lives they’re living, as China becomes increasingly modern and materialistic.

The couple’s living space is like the small one-room flat most young couples live in nowadays, show curator Huang Yan said.

“We as modern people are all living in high-rise flats like this. Every morning they come out of that jail, every night they lock themselves up in it. People don’t know each other.

“We are losing the sense of community. That could be a price we pay for our advancement,” he said.

I’ve written before about China’s raging development (here and here), but to me this is an interesting new angle. In one sense, the exhibition is ironic, as it is arguably the Western-style sense of freedom, which came piggy-backed with capitalist development, that has allowed for this type of expression to be legally and socially permissible in the Communist nation.

But overall, I think the artists’ statement is entirely valid. The modern high-rises that are popping up all over Asia (and especially in China) look sleek, but decidedly cold and impersonal. The dynamic of destruction/construction is erasing Beijing’s historical character, and the denser the city becomes, the less space there is for people to interact with one another. Hip-hop artist Cool Calm Pete described New York City in a similar way when he said, “In a city of millions, someone can feel stranded.”

And so as China’s urban dwellers are forced into closer physical proximity, the emotional attachment between each other degrades. But the wheels of development are churning at full speed, and so what are everyday people supposed to do about it?

If we understand these artists’ take-home message, perhaps the best thing we can do is simply be conscious of how we interact with our environment, and the people within it. We become activists for the construction of real social networks and mutual understanding by making the effort to relate to others.

In this sense, we advance positive change by knowing our neighbors’ names, or by actually listening to the answer when we ask about someone’s day.


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