Saw a major traveling exhibit on contemporary Chinese design, China Design Now, at the Portland Art Museum yesterday. My understanding is that this is exhibit started at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in early 2008; I don't know where it's been since, but somebody at the PAM said it was the last stop.
My second reaction first: this seems like it was planned as a big global PR blitz (given that it's China we're talking about I was tempted to call it a propaganda effort, and really, what's the difference?) on the eve of the Olympics. That the Beijing Olympics are over now doesn't make it any less interesting, though.
The exhibit is formally divided into three parts: "Shenzhen: Frontier City," "Shanghai: Dream City," and "Beijing: Future City." But read as PRopaganda, the show essentially breaks down into two parts. The first half (in the PAM the break conveniently happens between the two floors of the exhibit) celebrates the explosion of design ideas that came with the opening up of the country to a market economy. The message: we're cool, we're hip, we're capitalist, we're market-savvy: don't fear us. The second half looks at designers who acknowledge social problems in their work, and architects and city planners who strive for sustainability. The message: we have an open exchange of ideas, and despite everything you saw in the first half of the exhibit, we're not about to let capitalism create new problems: don't fear us.
To all of which I think the only appropriate response is: maybe.
But that was my second reaction. My first reaction, just as honest and maybe healthier, was: cool. The first (ultra-capitalist) half especially is a garden of visual delights, a barrage of poster, video, textile, tactile, and audio pleasures. My favorite might have been the most low-key part of the exhibit: a wall of posters from twenty years of design competitions/exhibitions. Brilliant play with Chinese characters.
This is an essential exhibit, in spite of any qualms it may inspire. Or maybe partly because of those qualms: spend some time in the Nike corner, where Portland's favorite world-destroyer tries to convince you how authentically it's connecting with contemporary Chinese street culture and liberating underground design golpes. Don't fear us.