“We lie a lot. We’re based on misrepresentation in many forms.” What could be a more honest disclaimer about Shanzhai Biennial than this, told to me by its co-president Babak Radboy? Radboy, the creative director who led the design of Bidoun magazine, was speaking about the venture he runs with Cyril Duval, whose artistic alter ego is Item Idem, and Avena Gallagher, a stylist who also collaborates with Bernadette Corporation. Looking at Shanzhai Biennial through the lens of contemporary art, the fact that it’s built of untruths is not inherently provocative. It’s more a validation that contemporary art can be an appropriate rubric for it. Famously, lies that edify are what art is, and Shanzhai Biennial’s enlightened musings erode the varnishes that encase creative enterprises in knowable classifications.
But this is not to say that Shanzhai Biennial is about breaking molds. Conversely, they show a preternatural ability to conform to concurrent facades—most squarely, art project and luxury brand—like a Darwinianly super-powered, conceptual organism, which preemptively diversifies rather than adapts. Deceit begins in the project’s naming. Shanzhai Biennial is not an exhibition, and so it’s probably not a biennial. (But who would go on the line and box in our most high-minded platform for aesthetic inquiry with fixed criteria!) Most evidence identifies Shanzhai Biennial as a fashion label. The placeholder standing in for the company website is a splash page titled “COMING SOON.” On top, an animated gif rapidly cycles through thumbnails of corrupted corporate logos: sideways
McDonald’s arches, American Idol rephrased as “I Am I do!,” Calvin Klein’s initials tweaked to read “ok,” and several constellations of Chinese characters which, to most Western eyes, mean only anything we’re told they mean. Below, an awkwardly tall Chinese model dressed in a navy cardigan patterned with the Apple logo apes the toothy grimace of a Yue Minjun painting, an intentional counterfeit of the artist’s trademark caricatures.
This image is taken from Shanzhai Biennial’s first advertising campaign, which ran not in a self-published leaflet but in China’s most widely read lifestyle magazine, Modern Weekly (circulation: one million). The Apple-checked sweater is a product from the debut collection, which along with similarly brand-abstracted knock-offs like a “Holisister” top and “The South Place” jacket (hacking the respective identities of clothing companies Hollister and The North Face), was presented as a sensationally choreographed highlight of Beijing Design Week in September 2012. A spotlighted, velvet rope-lined red carpet led bold-faced guests not to a runway show or to a more situational presentation of the clothes, but to a dead end step-and-repeat marked with another batch of logos. There were no actual clothes present.