23 April 2015


'Post-Critical China: There is no Author, just Content!' by Christopher Brisbin, in critic|all I International Conference on Architectural Design & Criticism (2014) asks
do we critique contemporary creative works or speculations that claim of themselves no inherent critical function—that claim to transcend any conscious act of criticality—works that are apparently nothing more than outcomes of programmatic and commercial pressures placed upon them? In the 1990s, architects Robert Somol, Sarah Whiting, Michael Hays, and Rem Koolhaas identified the emergence of a new kind of critical practice in Western Architecture that transcended the dogmatic and labored theoretical pursuits of the preceding anti-humanist theories of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Liberated from the esoteric self-indulgencies of trans-disciplinary high theory, post-critical architecture sought to reassert its explicit disciplinary knowledge and expertise and absolve itself of any overt critical functioning, however its critical functioning is not so easily erased, especially in the contemporary architecture of China. The paper complexifies the commonly accepted definition of post-criticality as uniformly uncritical, suggesting that, whilst pretending to be neutral, post-critical works, such as those of exemplary post-critical artist Michael Zavros, are in fact—by the very condition of their active claim of opposition to avant-garde critical practices—"inherently political and partisan.” The paper concludes that the acquiescence from criticality itself therefore becomes a form of critical action and “conformist non-conformity” that demonstrates the inherent potential to re-purpose the operative mechanisms of the neo-liberal political economy to an artist’s or architect’s own post-critical and creative ends. Whilst written from a Western perspective, the paper reflects on the cultural intersection of East and West that is manifest in recent counterfeit architectural projects in China. As China attempts to reconcile its own political ideologies of hierarchical Communism with the economic structures of free-market Capitalism, it facilitates the ultimate transgressive act; consuming the post-critical ruins of the West and regurgitating them anew as a new form of global criticality. Perhaps we have more to learn from China then they do from the West. In the East, there is no author, just content.
Brisbin comments
Whilst the literature in Art, Architecture, and Philosophy generally indicts the post-critical as explicitly ‘un-critical’ in its ideation and inert of any deliberate critical functioning, it is the aim of the essay to argue that post-critical work, both within art and architecture, is inherently critical; not through its conscious application, but through the instrumental analysis of its unconscious application of the capitalist market-system that is its supposed author. In so doing, the essay aims to therefore demonstrate ways in which a post-critical position can be re-framed as a critical lens through which to reflect upon the work’s socio-political and socio-economic context. In particular, the essay explores the affect of the affirmational practices of Chinese Capitalism as a means through which to cast a mirror upon the world of the narcissistic consumptive practices of glamour and allure that is fueling the feverous ‘status consumption’ of Western luxury brands and architecture by the swelling Chinese middle-class. The essay therefore proposes that China requires a post-critical reading in the form of a ‘critical u-turn’ so as to cast a critical gaze upon the affects of Chinese growth and the quasi-oligarchical rule of the People’s Republic of China.
As Jean-Francois Lyotard has identified in his critique of the postmodern condition, it is not theory that binds the apparent randomness of postmodern plurality, it is Money. The cultural value associated with the artistic practices of Art and Architecture is replaced by an ontologically flat conception of the world as no greater than its commodified market value. Artworks are no longer valued for their pleasure or affect, nor are houses valued as culturally enriching ‘homes’: they are quantifiable and measurable financial investments. Critical theory’s esoteric indulgences isolated its audience and diluted its cultural relevancy to the point which society demanded an affirmational quality of its Art; a sense of familiarity that subverted any productive critique of the systemic mechanisms that led to its benign cultural relativism; or its subsequent celebration of increasingly narcissistic notions of beauty and taste and the predicable affects these notions had on the composition of the built environment.
As Lyotard observes: “Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and “retro” clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games.” Every aspect of our consumer life is thus tainted with contradictions of cultural authenticity, fused together as a lattice of simulacra of exotic places, experiences, and identities. It is this cultural branding that Nigel Thrift argues has manifested in contemporary culture as a ‘glamorous celebrity sign system’ in which the legible aesthetic signature of branded architects and artists has become paramount in achieving the transformation of inanimate objects into sites of lust, desire, and status, which are all fundamental to the effective functioning of the market system.
This overarching financial force resulting in, as Leonard further observes, “some prominent art … [preferring] instead to be appealing, entertaining and affirmative.” They elevated themselves, through the direct engagement and manipulation of the fundamental economic practices of supply and demand, to the status of a brand. In order to explain this shift, Leonard cites art historian Rex Butler’s indictment of the ‘artist as brand’ as a ‘post-critical’ turn that can be understood as an irreconcilable outcome of our consumerist age and, as I argue, a fundamental reflection of the thirst for familiarity in the milieu of semiotic and informational saturation that is emblematic of the age. This definition of the post-critical is applicable more broadly than just within an art practice or a theoretical pursuit.
China offers, I argue, the most extreme post-critical cultural context. China has appropriated the architecture of the West vehemently embracing them as accoutrement of modernization and social status. To promote the image of success in China apparently means to look like, and dwell in, the icons of Western modernity; such as reproductions of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp (1954) in Zhengzhou in 2004; reproductions of the architecture and engineering of Haussmann’s nineteenth-century Paris in the ironic montage of Tianducheng’s 2007 Eiffel Tower copy with surrounding baroque cityscape buildings (Fig. 1); or, more recently, reproductions of Zaha Hadid’s SOHO shopping complex in Beijing (2011–14) in the Meiquan 22nd Century building in Chonjing (2012) (Fig. 2), to name but a recent. As a western onlooker, what has become curious is the seemingly unquestioning belief in the right to the production and consumption of counterfeit goods. It is an economy that is fundamentally built upon a culture of appropriation of the best that Western Architecture has to offer without any approval or acknowledgement of copyright ownership. Architect Rem Koolhaas observes that the sheer speed of development and rapid growth in China creates a kind of design practice based in the art of collage and figurative appropriation; a Photoshop-based architect whom practices a kind of aesthetic and compositional design process that resembles Photoshop montage. The socio-political power structures that are embedded within these Western exemplars are effectively reduced to a form of image-based collage as any uniform meaning carried by the semiotic language of its collaged elements is usurped by aesthetic conditions of familiarity and affirmation.
It is important to acknowledge that this is not necessarily a new phenomenon in China. China has a long-standing history of cultural appropriation and consumption that has privileged the collective over the individual. Ideas are not perceived to be owned by an individual, they are owned by and shared with the collective.9 Sharing takes the form of both conscious and deliberate contributions in order to benefit the whole, and also an acknowledgement that work generated within China is openly accessible to appropriation and re-fashioning to ends never intended by its authors. This is at odds with Western concepts regarding the individual rights of the designers of artifacts. They cannot be replicated/copied without the permission of their author. This clash of Western and Eastern culture produces a vastly different cultural perception as to what it means to copy another’s work. Whilst Chinese Law closely mirrors ‘in-principle’ author rights and copyright conditions that we are familiar with in the West, these contrasting social perceptions about the Chinese right to copy continue to linger today. Whilst much has been written in both the academic domain and in the popular press about China’s meteoric economic rise and the cultural factors directly affecting the consumption of counterfeit goods, there is little literature accounting for broader cultural attitudes that may offer an alternative perspective as to why the Chinese appear so relaxed in their attitudes towards the copying of Western architecture.
... The display of luxury denotes economic, and thus, social and familial success in China.
This phenomenon is fundamental to Chinese culture and is widely applied as a form of demonstrable social and economic conformity by the middle-class through the collective consumption of widely recognizable Western aesthetic styles, brands, and architecture. The consumption and display of such objects, through their desire for, and consumption of, fashion, jewelry, and homes, aims to deliberately promote the social status of the middle-class, and demonstrate their good judgment and understanding of socially defined notions of ‘taste’. Thus, as Kant observed of the emerging middle-class of Europe in the eighteenth-century, a citizen is able to denote their social standing by demonstrating their knowledge of the limits and boundaries of acceptable ‘taste’, and thus be assimilated within that socioeconomic grouping. Whilst drawn from a Western definition of taste, its application still applies today in China; however, the Chinese are more susceptible to the social pressures that arise in maintaining the aura of their social status than their Western counterparts, expressing a “need to identify with or enhance [their] image in the opinion of significant others through the acquisition and use of products and brands [and] the willingness to conform to the expectations of others regarding purchase decisions.”  ...
There is little academic literature accounting for the widespread copying of Western architecture in China, aside from Bianca Bosker’s Original Copies, Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China (2013), which primarily examines Chinese architectural copying from the perspective of the conceptual relationship between the authentic original and the nature of the Baudrillardian ‘simulacra’ that is present in the copy. However, much can be learnt from the research that has been conducted into the prolific counterfeiting of movies and computer games in particular, in order to perhaps better understand the motivations of the Chinese in their architectural piracy activities. ...
[E]ven architecture can become a commodification of the consumerists brands it aims to house. Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Michael Zavros are recognizable International brands that embody lifestyle, success, and luxury.  In Koolhaas’ Prada New York (2001), the architecture becomes an objectified ‘spatial version’ of the Prada brand that brings into being the aesthetic ‘excesses of exclusivity’ that such luxury brands embody in China. They represent a culture of desire and lust that is deferred through the symbolic allure and promise of lifestyle and taste that is presented by the star’s associations with the work they produce. It is no wonder that in the copying culture of China, the work of architect brands are reproduced so openly.
For Baudrillard, aesthetics and economics are ontologically reified as a “single cultural form that becomes the essence of the consumer society.” The irony is that as artworks critically react to market forces placed upon them within the dominant Western economic system of Capitalism, they are subsequently consumed by the very system that they seek to disrupt. For Firat and Venkatesh, there are only two possibilities for cultural critique in this capitalist framework: re-appropriation or marginalization. It is either subsumed into the market, or it is marginalized by it, to the point that it is no longer relevant. Faced with the undeniable agency of post-critical architecture’s causal effects, postcritical architecture can be argued to be far more critical than the traditional criteria for asserting criticality would infer: “the post-critical turn is not the rise of uncritical approaches to art, but a reconsideration of what it means to be critical.”  As Diana Mihai has observed, “[p]ost-critical architecture pretends to be politically neutral/post-critical and rejects social critique, but the fact that it is modeled on contemporary business practices and market systems renders it inherently political and partisan.” As such, architecture, when conceived of as an edifice of cultural values and principles, cannot be easily be differentiated from its economic and political symbolism—even when its voice is left relatively mute by repressive cultural forces, such as those in China.
It would appear that the Chinese middle-class—perhaps even more than their American counterparts— desire an art and architecture that is affirming, and that does not challenge the overarching power structures of (for the Chinese) ‘Commu-Capitalism’. As Chinese contemporary artists Chen Danqing notes: they wish to be “an artist within the system”, not against it! Architectural examples such the Beijing National Stadium (2003-8), known popularly as the Bird’s Nest, deploys symbols of Chinese culture that are familiar to the West, but say nothing new and are inert of any active contemporary voice.  They are simply propaganda expressions that ‘stage Chinese-ness’. Its audience is the West, not the Chinese themselves. When Australian architects Ashton Raggatt McDougal say ‘sorry’ in braille above the Garden of Australian Dreams in the National Museum of Australia (2001), barely a ripple of discussion or cultural debate was catalyzed in the Australian media acknowledging Australia’s highly contentious history of mis-treatment of indigenous Australians. When Chinese contemporary artists Ai Weiwei said sorry on behalf of a grieving Chinese nation for the unacknowledged loss of 9000 children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he was ‘detained’ for ninety-one days by the Chinese government. ....
A ‘post-critical u-turn’ is required to ensure a critical engagement with the “present imbalances in power and opportunity” that Architecture so often ignorantly reinforces. ... As China attempts to reconcile its own political ideologies of hierarchical Communism with the economic structures of free-market Capitalism, it facilitates the ultimate transgressive act; consuming the ruins of the West and regurgitating them anew as a new form of global post-criticality. In China, there is no author, just content subsumed from the West. Cultural artifacts are therefore interpretations and translations of what the artist and/or architect see in their world, regardless of whether their author intended then to be explicitly critical or not. These creative artifacts always possess a critical voice—the question is whether we have the fortitude and resilience to objectively listen to what they critically have to say about us. So what do the copied art/architecture works in China say? In reflecting on the deconstructive lens through which the paper has attempted to trace contrasting cultural meanings of copying, copyright, and criticality in China, the discursive zeal and indictment of ‘counterfeit’ copying has perhaps naively led to a negative and Western-centric inference that China should adopt the West’s ideological attitudes to copyright as a basis for Capitalism. ... What we can yield from much of China’s contemporary art and architecture is that it engenders a kind of complicit-ness in/to consumer culture that in turn engenders the work with a “conformist non-conformity.” As Virginia Postrel astutely observes, “form follows function” has been effectively usurped by “form follows emotion,” but is this outcome such a bad thing?