City of Gold
Shanghai Eurasian, oil on canvas, 1.5m x 2m, 2007
“City of Gold” is a six-month visual essay on contemporary Shanghai
commissioned by the Shanghai Art Museum and painted by Chris Gill.
Chris Gill is an artist from Todmorden, West Yorkshire, in the UK. He has
lived in Shanghai since 1997. This year Shanghai Art Museum commissioned
him to produce a visual essay about the city.
China is a recurrent theme in Chris’ work. He has been painting and
exhibiting in the country since 1992. To see how this latest project
progressed, see the artist’s website: www.shanghaieye.net.
The exhibition will be held at the Shanghai Art Museum from November 17 to
November 26, 2007. To find out more, please contact xxxx
Artist’s statement on “City of Gold.”
Why gold? If you need to ask, you know little about China and nothing about
Shanghai. This is a country obsessed by wealth and nowhere is the hunger
for riches greater than in the commercial capital. From the gold ingots
sold on the streets of Shanghai to the government’s Golden Shield project,
there is only one colour that counts. Forget red. These days it is gold
that symbolises success, luck and power. And it is gold that draws
countless millions to this great city, where they hope to achieve the
modern China dream best expressed by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping:
“To be rich is glorious.”
This series of paintings shows how gold is colouring and shaping
social change. It explores several issues that have recently drawn my
attention. One is the emergence and acceptance of the center as a
controlling force. There is no rebellion against authority; people prefer
to mould themselves to fit the norms of the new society as they are
projected in fashion magazines, on the Internet and in popular TV shows.
Some go so far as to change themselves physically so that they can conform.
Plastic surgeons have never been in greater demand.
Personal aspirations take precedence over all else. Individual worth
is measured by money and compared to the highest tiers of capitalist
society. The message we see everywhere is “Fit in or Fail”. But the trends
are not all in one direction. Society is constantly changing, reinventing
itself and forcing people to redefine their concept of a successful image.
On one side, this leads to the mass adoption of fashionable clothes; on the
other, it has produced a more uniquely defined self-image
In this work, I want to reflect the changing and multi-faceted nature
of the modern self-image as I see it in everyday life. From the celebrity
gay authors presenting TV programs to the village entrepreneurs who become
overnight economic superstars, there are an increasing number of
alternative models of success. Consumers pick-and-mix, creating identities
for themselves by cutting and pasting ideas and images from what they read
and watch. Yet once they have a self-image, they stick to it with great
self-discipline. It is fascinating to observe and I am constantly thrilled
and surprised by the variety of new themes and concepts I encounter walking
on the street, gazing from the windows of taxis, watching TV, or riding on
The nebulous uncertainty of political and economic reform provides
the backdrop of the ‘Futuro’ pieces. The Unknown Idea is a theme I have
returned to many times, in the shape of political posters for and against
the Idea, as well as leaflets, stickers and other merchandise.
People often ask me, “What is Futuro?” Early in 2006 I visited an
exhibition of Xue Song’s original artwork for the posters of historic
revolutionary campaigns. Though still sensitive, these posters have lost
much of their power. For many modern buyers, they are attractive merely as
kitsch souvenirs of the past. This exhibition have me the idea of creating
a series of my own political posters based on a fake political movement
that does not, has not and will never exist. This is Futuro. Even I do not
know what it stands for.
Coincidentally, my Futuro works were exhibited in the same gallery a
few months after Xue Song’s. It is not the only strange aspect of this
series. Currently, Futuro works have taken on aspects of Italian futurism,
Chinese superstition and positive radical elements promoting integration,
communication, development and reform.
The anti-Futuro posters are reactionary warnings against the
seduction of Futuro and all that it stands for. This encourages the
audience to think about the political conditions of today’s one-party
state, where no opposition is permitted. But it also touches upon a
crucial question that China cannot avoid: one day, there must be a
multi-party democracy so what kind of opposition groups will be formed?
Will they be like Futuro or something completely different? This is not
obvious in the work and in some ways it is a question best left unanswered.
Those who see this work can make up their own minds.
The Futuro movement is based on fortune-telling and superstition.
Both have strong roots in many Asian cultures, but neither has manifested
itself explicitly in politics. The Futuro Party tries to tap into this. It
predicts the future and expects people to support its predictions. In this
sense, the work invites the audience to compare and contrast Futuro with
the Communist party, which tries to foresee and shape the future with its
Futuro denies history and historical precedents, and charges towards the
unknown at a breakneck pace. Anti-Futuro warns people not to be blinded by
superficial and dangerous concepts.
Futuro is fake capitalist brand, which can be used for clothing and other
merchandise. It is designed for Shanghai, where high-end boutiques now sell
clothes that are painted on customers. Fashion designers
here already believe they are artists.
What will happen to Futuro? Who Knows? The movement may just fade away like
so many other lost causes. It may be embraced by the masses. It may be
vigorously opposed. Anything is as likely as it is unlikely.
Only someone who has lived in China for a long time could reach such
a conclusion. That is true for me. I opened my first studio at the Old
Summer Palace in 1992. I used to ride there on my Flying Pigeon bicycle
from a dormitory at the People’s University of China. To get to my studio,
which was previously a farm house, I rode through paddy fields and thickets
of trees. The ground was littered with remnants of the Old Summer Palace,
fragments of marble and the debris of the Opium Wars. At that time the
palace grounds were home to an artists’ colony. They were attracted by
loose regulations and low rents. It was good business for the local
community. Farmers and artisans built up cottage industries supplying
canvas, frames, housing, food and baijiu.
It was an unforgettable era. Some artists were manically deranged,
others cool and rational, almost all were extremely talented. With little
else to do, most evenings ended in raucous baijiu drinking session. One
wild night in 1993 ended in a tragedy. The authorities intervened and the
commune was closed.
I continued living in Beijing on and off until I moved to Shanghai on 19
February 1997. The date is easy to remember. On the train to Beijing, there
was an impromptu loudspeaker announcement: “Comrade Deng Xiaoping has
died.” It was the end of an era. And, of course, the start of another.
I arrived in Shanghai with exactly 100 yuan and a portfolio of
My first job in Shanghai was as a teacher , then I moved
into media and advertising. In the years since, I have written at least a
thousand articles, which have helped me to gain a deeper understanding of
Chinese culture and society.
No matter how I have earned my income over the years, I have never stopped
painting. Nor have I stopped exploring China. Travelling extensively, I
have visited farms, factories and workshops, met officials in numerous
provinces and interviewed people from all walks of life. A recorder by
habit as well as profession, I keep diaries, take photographs and make
sound files of much of what I see, hear and experience.
Recently I was fortunate to secure a studio in the center of Shanghai. The
old warehouse at 696 Weihai Road is now
the creative home for about 30 artists. The studio has transformed the way
I work, allowing me to express my ideas on much larger formats and with
little chance of being interrupted. It reminds me of the community in the
Old Summer Palace in Beijing, though my artist neighbours in Shanghai today
live a lot less close to the edge. In a way, this more stable environment
indicates the change that has taken place in China’s art community over the
past decade or so. The angst ridden youth of the past are now urbane
sophisticates. There is even a growing place for foreigners, especially in
Shanghai. For many of us – and so many others – it has become a city of
City of Gold