BY Adam Minter
Upon first examination, the wallpaper pattern shown below appears to be little more than a modern, perhaps psychedelic, update of a traditional Chinese paper cut.
But closer examination reveals something more subtle, and more playful:
Though not obvious in this photo, there is a third key layer to this work: the images underlying the various logos were taken at Shanghai recycling centers and garbage dumps, and depict various types and degrees of consumer waste.
Designed by my friend Chen Hangfeng, a Shanghai-based artist and designer who has spent the last few years creating similarly playful, but serious works about the impact of consumerism on Chinese culture, this work - and others - constitute “Daily Prosperity,” a solo show currently on display at Shanghai’s Art Labor Gallery.
There is much to recommend this show, and I’d post about it even if Hangfeng wasn’t doing some interesting thinking about the role of waste in contemporary society. But, for the purposes of this blog, I’d like to recommend it precisely because Hangfeng is perhaps the only artist I’ve encountered who has touched on this subject without wrapping it up in undue layers of irony and politics. His work states its case succinctly, and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions and - if necessary - politics.
One of the things that I like about Hangfeng’s work (and Hangfeng) is his willingness to go out and “report” his creations. Last year, for example, he traveled to Zhejiang Province’s small-scale, export-oriented Christmas ornament workshops to obtain footage for his “Christ Mass Production,” an installation that - again - playfully challenged viewers to think about the consumer waste stream (in this case, a Christmas waste stream). Meanwhile, the filmed footage he obtained there remains - to my knowledge - the only such footage of those workshops in existence. It’s good journalism and it’s good art.
As it happens, Hangfeng and his gallery have made a film documenting his visits to the local recycling centers where he obtained the photographic images that underly the logos in his “paper cuts,” as well as the actual items that comprise Daily Prosperity’s chandelier centerpiece. The artist spent nearly three months collecting those items, choosing them by color, shape and function. Since most people in Shanghai don't separate their garbage from their recyclables, the recyclables often are often filthy and malodorous. Thus, Hangfeng and the videographer wore masks when they were collecting from the garbage dumps and recycling centers. Later, Hangfeng sterilized the various items before assembling them into the installation. He jokes that "washing and cleaning the garbage has become the education instead of the process of an artwork, but it's actually a pain in the ass".
Note that the chandelier hangs over a rug woven with another version of Hangfeng’s logo cutout designs (logomania, to use Hangfeng’s title), surrounded by the wallpaper I mentioned before.
At the Friday night opening Hangfeng related to me the initial difficulties he had to overcome when he started showing up at his neighborhood recycling center, hoping to purchase items that - from the point of view of the managers and employees - weren’t worth much more than recycling value. “They wondered if I was doing some kind of investigation,” he told me. “Finally, I convinced them that I wanted the things for an artwork.” For those who know China’s recycling culture, the conclusion is predictable: “So finally they sold the things to me for more than what they sell them for waste.”
This article was published on Shanghaiscrap.com, Adam Minter’s popular Shanghai-based blog. Adam Minter is an American writer based in Shanghai, where he writes about culture, commerce, Chinese recycling, and other topics for international publications, including The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, National Geographic, and other publications.