Shanzhai is the Chinese appropriation of Western luxury goods like Apple phones or Vuitton handbags; but Shanzhai Biennial is a collective of three artists, exploring Shanzhai culture through high-gloss surface rich images, that revel in the uncanny.
Images courtesy Shanzhai Biennial
What was your first exposure to Shanzhai culture? Did Shanzhai Biennial come directly from that?
Yes actually, we lived in Chinatown in Manhattan at the same time and actually connected over our love for the products we would find there, delving deeper and deeper into the markets. All of us make 'things' in one way or another and these things were completely fascinating to us, it was impossible to reverse-engineer an iPhone shaped men's cologne in the Chanel font spelling the word "HAPPLE" and covered in Angry Birds! The answer of course was Shanzhai.
How did you end up doing the first SB event in Beijing?
Everything we have done seems to take place in reverse order. We received the invitation before we had produced any work, produced our fashion campaign before we produced any clothes.
How do you approach interviews, when everything else you do is really about branding?
When we began we really tried to control the message but soon realised telling the truth had the same effect.
How did the project for Frieze come about? Are you applying Shanzhai culture to Frieze and subverting it in the way you would any other luxury brand?
We were always interested in art-event totes; it's the cheapest bag you own but actually makes the most complex statement about your economic status, taste and propensity for travel. We combined this with another phenomenon of Shanzhai branding we like to call 'brand arbitrage' — when the Shanzhai version of something is able to take advantage of a brand in ways that the brand itself can not imagine… such as the massive popularity of Apple Computer branded clothing in China. Frieze has a really massive cachet that it can't, in good taste, address. This is true of all luxury brands, they all create desire in excess to their ability to fulfil it, and this is where Shanzhai steps in.
Can you tell us about just what you have planned for Frieze yet?
We were given a booth right at the entrance, the first thing you see at the fair. We are taking this valuable cultural real estate and using it to sell actual real estate; marketing a £32,000,000 estate in Saint John's Wood, London. Around the property we've created a fashion advertorial, abstract architectural photography and a slick and eerie video. We've done this in conjunction with the luxury estate brokerage Aston Chase and are making a healthy commission on sales.
How do you approach each project?
We operate first and foremost as a brand. When you receive an invitation from an institution you are given a kind of carte blanche which can actually be quite stifling and put you in danger of accidentally producing art! For our booth at Frieze we have really just produced advertising, what is art or what is immaterial about it is really the potential sale and our commission: transforming a commercial transaction into the medium for a work of art…
How do you see your relationship to pop art then, and the post-modernist obsession with image and consumer culture?
To be honest we're not interested in consumer culture but in the total control of the environment by the market. I think we are probably responding to the same types of changes in the environment that inspired pop at a different moment in history.
So how interested are you in fashion? Your images, though often hyperreal, sit within the form of fashion editorial.
We are all very interested in fashion from different angles, but not necessarily from within its own vocabulary. Fashion like the Shanzhai project is on a kind of border between culture and commerce always playing one against the other. Beyond fashion though the core of our project is about commercial image making to which we have a relationship that goes far beyond parody. We really try to insist that our work is commercial abstraction not corporate aesthetics.
One other overlap could be the surface and superficiality, in that fashion is about appearance in the same way SB is about giving the impression of depth from the superficiality of brand names or shop fronts.
Why should we accept that art is so much deeper than advertising? For us the surfaces and dynamics of advertising are incredibly complex. Advertising has this unique power in relation to the audience that art categorically lacks… In advertising you are obsessed with your audience, but the secret power of advertising is that your audience is not an external thing to the ad. There's almost a blind spot in cognition wherein the viewer misidentifies themselves as an audience that you have in effect designed.
What do you see as the intended effect of SB? Consumerist critique? Cultural enquiry? Subversion of iconography?
We are trying to sell a house!
Text Felix Petty
Images courtesy Shanzhai Biennial