8 artsy reasons to go to Shenzhen

8 artsy reasons to go to Shenzhen

Water buffalos, giant swings, and rare photographs of the city circa 1980s inspire us to hop across the border to the Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism\ Architecture
Shenzhen Hong Kong biennale
Pre-industrialization Shenzhen can be seen at the My City and Shenzhen in 1980 exhibition.

Bigger and more polished than its Hong Kong counterpart, the Shenzhen edition of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale is worth a schlep across the border. Here is a quick guide to the highlights of the biennale:

1. Street Life

shenzhen hong kong biennale

Imagine this: you're eating a bowl of noodles at a dai pai dong when you notice something glowing at the bottom of your bowl. Lo and behold, it's a scrolling LED message about something arts-related. Using a simple LED screen embedded in an ordinary plastic bowl, architects David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang have done just that. They've even persuaded some Shenzhen restaurants to participate in the project; you can find out more at the exhibit.

Exhibit 27, Shenzhen Civic Centre

2. My City and Shenzhen in 1980

shenzhen hong kong biennale

Almost thirty years ago, a young American named Leroy W. Demery, Jr. was visiting Hong Kong when he was told that it was possible to take a half-day tour of the newly-created Special Economic Zone just across the border in China. He went and returned with images of Shenzhen's daily life just as it was on the cusp of being transformed into an industrial metropolis. At the same time, lifelong Shenzhen resident He Huangyou was snapping photos of his city, building up a collection of images that show Shenzhen's evolution since the 1960s. To anyone familiar with the city today, seeing it as a dusty backwater is a shock.

Exhibits 15 and 16, Yitian Holiday Plaza

3. Double Happiness

shenzhen hong kong biennale

It's a child's deconstruction of the city's commercial face: a billboard turned into a swing set. Created by the French architecture studio Bureau des Mésarchitectures (which translates as "Office of Misarchitecture"), the swing questions our materialistic urban culture in a way that's both accessible and fun. Perched on the Civic Centre's podium, with a full view of the square and Shenzhen's burgeoning skyline, it's the most memorable swing ride you'll ever have.

Exhibit 45, Shenzhen Civic Centre

4. Demolition Relocation

shenzhen hong kong biennale

Using rough cut steel sheets, the sculptor Liu Xiaoliang has created meticulously detailed models of Chinese cities in transformation. The chaos of the modern Chinese city is perfectly rendered with hanging electrical wires, gridlocked traffic and an orgy of signage. So is the destruction taking place in the name of economic progress: one model depicts a "nail house" left standing in the midst of a massive construction site while another represents one of Shenzhen's urban villages, which are slowly being replaced by upmarket new developments.

Exhibit 17, Shenzhen Civic Centre.

5. Gangxia Village

shenzhen hong kong biennale

Though it's not part of the biennale, this urban village is a real-life example of the questions it raises. One of the handful of villages that predate the creation of the SEZ, Gangxia's indigenous villagers enjoyed special rights similar to those held by villagers in Hong Kong's New Territories. They profited from Shenzhen's growth by selling their farms for development and replacing their village houses with walkup apartment buildings. Villages like this became havens for the migrants who flocked to Shenzhen from around the country; their narrow, aimless streets were filled with activity around the clock. Now Gangxia's landlords have collectively sold their village to a property developer and the whole neighbourhood is being demolished by a new shopping, office and residential complex. The streets are still intact and you can walk through what looks like a disaster zone, rubble piled up all around.

From the Civic Centre walk west along Shennan Avenue for 10 minutes; turn right on Haitian Road.

6. Snow Bull Station

shenzhen hong kong biennale

There's a giant water buffalo sitting in the middle of Shenzhen's seat of government and we have Rigo 23 to thank for it. The Portuguese-American artist spent a month in Shenzhen crafting the bull out of mud and bamboo. Inside, a flat-screen TV plays video interviews with Shenzhen residents about their experience of the city. The interviews are shown in Cantonese and Mandarin without subtitles, but even if you don't understand, the buffalo is still worth a visit for the simple fact that it's so fun. There's even a bamboo ladder that lets you poke your head out of the top of its bum.

Exhibit 46, Shenzhen Civic Centre

7. The Bug Dome

shenzhen hong kong biennale

Taiwan-based architects Hsieh Ying-chun, Roan Ching-yue and Marco Casagrande used materials scavenged from the construction site of Shenzhen's future contemporary arts museum to make this insect-inspired cocoon. It's a surreal, soothing structure filled with bamboo chairs and a small stage that is used for poetry readings and performances. It's especially memorable on a clear day, when rays of sun shine through the cracks in the dome's bamboo shell.

Exhibit 57, Shenzhen Civic Centre

8. Urbanism/Architecture Film Exhibition

shenzhen hong kong biennale

Four screenings are left in the biennale's series of city-related films, including the great Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, a 1928 documentary that depicts a life in the day of Weimar-era Berlin, and the 1957 short film N.Y., N.Y., in which a day in the life of New York is seen through a distorted lens. See the biennale's website for information on screening times and locations.

Various locations

Getting there

The biennale runs until January 23rd at the Shenzhen Civic Centre (Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-7pm, Friday-Saturday 10am-8pm, Sunday 11am-7pm), Shenzhenwan Avenue (daily, 10am-10pm) and the Yitian Holiday Plaza (Monday-Friday, 10am-10pm, Saturday-Sunday, 10am-10:30pm.)

To get to the Shenzhen Civic Centre, take the East Rail Line to Lok Ma Chau. After crossing the border, take Shenzhen metro line 4 to Shiminzhongxin, exit C or D.

To get to the Yitian Holiday Plaza from Lok Ma Chau, take Shenzhen metro line 4 to Huizhanzhongxin, transfer to line 1 and take it to Shijiezhichuan, exit C.

To get to Shenzhenwan Avenue, take a cross-border bus from Kowloon Station to Shenzhen Bay, then take a taxi to Shenzhenwan Avenue, Nanshan District.

See all program details for the Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism\ Architecture at www.szhkbiennale.org

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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