Estrangement of Everyday-life-ness: Shanghai on the Flow

The image of Shanghai as a highly developed city is a construct founded in the 1990s. In 1990 the State Council of the People’s Republic of China made the decision to open and develop the Pudong area, and in 1992 established the Pudong New District. Ever since, all kinds of development projects, on a massive scale, have been implemented. In the past 20 or so years, these projects have facilitated the global flow of capital into Shanghai, bringing global corporations to settle here. The landscape of Pudong has also drastically changed. Existing piers, docks and warehouses are rapidly overshadowed by a skyline of booming skyscrapers. Today the futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the culturally-hybrid Jin Mao Tower, the bottle-opener shaped Shanghai World Financial Center and the newly established Shanghai Tower dominate the skyline of Shanghai.

If you search ‘Shanghai’ on google, a picture of these four magnificent buildings will pop up immediately. If it is a picture taken at night, the surreal shapes of lighted buildings become a glamorous constellation of shining stars. This picture seems to have become the defining image of Shanghai! It exemplifies the peak of capitalistic development and urbanisation in contemporary China. Previously described as the ‘Paris of the East’, Shanghai now is the ‘Manhattan of the East’. The iconic skyline image symbolises Shanghai’s unreserved welcome of global capitalism, while this capitalised image of Shanghai has come to dominate people’s cultural imaginary of the city.

The Huangpu River and the Suzhou Creek, both running through the entire Shanghai area, were the economic veins of this city before the advent of the era of financial capital. They witnessed the historical changes in trading and industrial developments as well as the tracing the changing lives of ‘the boats’ people on water.’ By the end of the 19th century, Western settlers started to develop both banks of the Huangpu River. Along the east bank of the Huangpu River (now the Pudong area), they built docks, shipyards, factories and warehouses to allow efficient import and export of raw materials and goods. The basis for trading and financial economies was established. The Suzhou Creek took a different course of development; both banks were turned into bases of manufacturing and industry. With the acceleration of development, more and more people swarmed into the area. These people became known as ‘the boats’ people on water,’ working along the rivers, lakes and the ocean to make a living. In 1953, the municipal government even established an administrative district1 to manage these residents on the water.

More recently, these rich historical traces have gradually been erased as Shanghai enters a new phase. Today the majority of Shanghai residents are land-based; they cannot imagine how pivotal the water area is to the sustenance of livelihood in Shanghai. Nowadays, when people give an historical account of Shanghai, they rarely adopt a perspective from the water area. Due to gradual estrangement from the water area, people’s understanding of it has become superficial. It is as if the hazy surface of the water itself further prevents people from investigating its depth. The historical and cultural significance of the water area, slowly but surely, is becoming unknown or lost to nostalgia. Contemporary residents typically only have shallow understandings of the water area, let alone engaging their imaginations regarding its future.

Let the Water Flow (2017) and Xiao Pudong (2017), both artworks by Field Recordings, can be regarded as attempts to rescue the cultural memory of Shanghai’s water area from oblivion. Using ethnographic fieldwork and audio-visual narratives, this group of artists seek to retain some of the disappearing traces of everyday life in this area. In the five-channel video installation Let the Water Flow, the artists juxtapose shifting perspectives in parallel to estrange our ordinary perceptions of the city landscape in Shanghai. We see, hear and feel great disparities among the five channels while also perceiving similarities. In bringing these sonic and visual discrepancies to index each other in a synchronic line of temporality, the works estrange the ‘everyday life-ness’ of Shanghai to the degree that we start to approach its image critically. Especially when the visible and the invisible, the still and the moving images come across each other, we start to question how boundaries within both the city landscape, and in personal lives, are drawn.

For example, the shots of still and moving images inside apartments on the bank of the Suzhou Creek seem to be irrelevant to the water area; nevertheless, when the shot cuts to a water tank with fish swimming inside, the sequence seems to suggest that these inland residents are like the fish, who cannot be without the water. But the images also imply that these inland inhabitants, even while living physically close to the water area, are psychologically removed from it. Indeed the Suzhou Creek has been a living resource for residents in Shanghai; its water also enables the urbanisation of Shanghai. However, the booming industries and residents on both banks also brought pollution. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Suzhou Creek has been infamous for its pollution and called ‘a stinky gutter’; its polluted water prevents people from getting close to the area. Even though the pollution has subsequently been treated; the physical and psychological estrangement of people from the water area can no longer be redeemed.

On another channel, we see a barge docked in Yangpu pier. The camera follows this barge all the way to the sea. In the process of sailing, the camera cuts between shots of the private barge, other steamships, and city landscapes, suggesting the inter-relationships among the three. When we hear the narrator, the barge owner from Subei area, talk about his banal personal life, in contrast to the cost of building the steamships, we feel how powerless he and his fellows are in the shadow of capitalism. From the perspective of the barge, the city landscape recedes into the background. For the barge sailors, the land is merely a pier where they can anchor their barge at night.

On yet another channel, the camera takes us further away from the land to where the Yangtze River meets the sea. The sequence is shot from the perspective of a barge sailing between Hengsha Island and the East China Sea. It begins at dawn when the barge sets out for its daily routine. The camera moves with the barge’s course, during which we see a spectacular shot of the East China Sea Bridge. Once again, the everyday lives of these barge sailors are presented in contrast to the monumental scale of modern infrastructure. We feel how small we, as atomised modern individuals, are. The barge finally arrives at its destination before sunset and the people work hard to load sand during the night. The next morning the barge sails back to where it begins to unload the sand. It is not until this moment that we see three identical barges arrive, and realise the barge that holds the camera’s perspective is just one of the many streamlined for mass sand production. Like numerous others, this barge repeats its relentless routine, one day after another.

In the three channels discussed above, we see a recurring motif: the stark contrast between the spectacle of capitalised mass-production and the individuals who labour within it. Furthermore, this contrast reminds us of people’s estrangement from their natural environment through the demands of capitalist production. This visual irony reaches its zenith in the last channel where we see the reflection of working cranes on the surface of the river. The image of a capitalist machinery of production is softened, distorted and destabilised by the rippling surface. This reminds me of an old Chinese saying: “the water can carry boats but it can also submerge boats.” This unsettling image seems to suggest that the water can resource the prosperity of Shanghai but maltreatment of it can also foster destruction of Shanghai.

To borrow a concept from Michel de Certeau, we could say that the channels present a dialectic tension between the activities of individuals and the strategies of capitalist modes of production. Regardless of the monstrosity of the machinery and facilities, the individuals, in their labour and personal narratives, attempt in different ways to resist or find space within the rigid structure imposed by capitalist systems.

This tension is foregrounded in Xiao Pudong, a short documentary focusing on a crane worker’s life. Zhu Weihua, the narrator of the film, gives us a frank account of his life. His tone is optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. He knows how powerless he is facing the invincible power of the capitalists, while hoping to become one of them. He seems to be able to free himself from the worries of money, talking about getting rich by “keeping snakes.” It is through his narrative, against the spectacle of the Shanghai urban landscape, that viewers are confronted with the dynamic between affluence and poverty. When the people at the ‘bottom’ of this system put their hopes in becoming overnight millionaires through gentrification, how do we think about the questions of wealth distribution and class mobility?

Through juxtaposing visual and sonic differences, the artists reveal some of the boundaries that define Shanghai’s everyday realities, and yet at the same time destabilise them. With the anticipation in Zhu Weihua’s smile, we return to Let the Water Flow. Through the powerful metaphor of flowing water, this work compels our imaginations in new directions, towards the question of what sustainability and balance could mean for Shanghai. Like a mirage on the surface of the water, the image of contemporary Shanghai becomes one on the flow.

HSIEH FENG-RONG is a founding staff member of Rockbund Art Museum; he joined Rockbund Art Museum in 2009 during its preparatory stage. He was the coor- dinator of the renovation process and implemented the institutional structure of the museum. He has been working with many internationally renowned artists, including Cai Guoqiang, Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Huan, Michael Lin, Duan Jianyu, Hu Xiaoyuan, Xu Bing, Bharti Kher, Ugo Rondinone, Mark Bradford, and Chen Zhen. In 2013, he participated in founding the first HUGO BOSS ASIA ART award and was also the project manager for the award. In 2016, he co-curates Tell Me a Story: Locality and Narrative with Taiwan-based independent curator Amy Cheng.


上海作为一个现在意义上的经济高发展都市是二十世纪九零年代之后的事了。 1990年,中国国务院作出浦东开发开放的决策,并于1992年设立浦东新区,在 浦东进行了一系列大型开发建设项目。历经二十多年的飞速发展,来自各地的 资源大量涌入,跨国企业纷纷进驻,很快地,老旧的码头、船坞、仓库以及公寓 楼房变成一栋栋的地标性质的摩天大厦,未来主义风格的东方明珠广播电视塔, 中西风格合璧的金茂大厦,酷似开瓶器的环球金融中心,以及2016年甫竣工的上 海中心大楼(Shanghai Tower)。打开图片搜索引擎键入“Shanghai”一词, 耸立在黄浦江边造型迥异的高楼组成的天际线,入夜后的灯火更像是璀璨的繁 星,这般景象仿佛成为人们认识这个城市的唯一画面,那是中国最繁荣的城市之一!颂扬金融资本的国度!东方世界的曼哈顿!资本化的形象已成功的占据人们 的视野。

贯穿上海的黄浦江与苏州河,在以金融资本为主发展的时代前,是这个城市的经 济发展的主要命脉,承载着贸易与工业发展时代的历史,包括“水上居民”的生 命轨迹。自十九世纪末起,西方诸国开启黄浦江两岸的发展,在浦东沿江建立码 头、船厂、工厂、仓库利于原料进口与货品出口,着重金融贸易等服务,而苏州 河则是以连结内陆城乡,偏重制造业与工业生产。随着发展,越来越多的人们涌 入水上区域,他们漂流在江河湖海之间、靠水维持生计,到近代1953年,上海市 政府甚至一度设立行政区域管理这些水上居民,这些丰富的历史肌理在新时代的 发展过程中逐渐被抹平、遗忘。现今多数生活于陆地的人们对水域的想象着实有 限,关于历史的书写与探索也较少从海洋史作为主体的观点出的研究。长久以来 的陌生与隔阂,造成人们对河流江水的认知逐渐符号化,对其仅有表面的认知, 浑浊灰暗的水面阻断了对其更进一步的了解,过往的回忆成为回不去的乡愁,对 水域当下状态的单一认知,而对未来更是失去想象。

《让水一直流》以及《小浦东》是现场边小组以上海水域的主题开展的田野调查 与影像创作项目。在五屏录像装置作品《让水一直流》中,艺术家以移动视角的 方式,试图松动人们习以为常的单一观看角度,将观众带往存在于同一座城市但 却令人感到陌生的平行日常景观之中。摄像机的角度从苏州河畔的公寓楼房里向 外眺望,人们的生活似乎与近在咫尺的河流没有产生任何关系,界限分明,反倒 是居民家中的水族箱,象征性满足人对水的需求与关系。苏州河在近代都市化的 过程中,因取水、排水便利,故沿江地区成为工业发展集中地。两岸的工业与人 口的大量成长,工业及生活污水大量排入,从二十世纪初起,苏州河就已经是恶 名昭彰的“臭水沟”,尔后虽经整治,但人与河流之间的切离却难以缝补。画面 转到停泊在杨浦码头的运输船上,艺术家雇佣这艘民船往出海口方向行驶,在行 驶过程中,画面不断在民船、大型轮船以及城市景观之间切换,暗示着三者之间 的关系,来自苏北的船家述说着那不好不坏的平淡生活,谈起价值上千万的大型轮船,在巨大的资本社会之下,他们的存在显得微小不足;从船的角度凝视位于 远景的陆地城市,是那么遥远,对他们而言,只不过提供船在夜里停靠的一块陆 地。艺术家将镜头再进一步地推离陆地中心,在长江出海口,行驶于横沙岛与东 海之间的砂石运输船。拂晓出航,途径东海大桥,壮丽的现代交通基建与船舱内 的日常景象,艺术家再度提醒原子化的个体在现代社会下的渺小。日落前运输船 抵达目的地,夜晚进行装载砂石,翌日回到出发地卸货,在那边,有三艘一模一 样的船,观众这时才明瞭他们只是庞大流水线其中的一环,日复一日,执行着不 变的工作。在无声的水中倒影画面里,陆地上正在作业中的吊机,其稳固的线条 结构因水波而软化、抖动、变形,让人想起“水能载舟,亦能覆舟”,水与人与 城市发展之间的关系曾经是如此紧密,如今水域的没落与污染,陆地城市是否还 能够安然无恙?

相较于移动的多重视角,《小浦东》则聚焦在一个码头吊机工人的生活,映射出 在大都会之中底层群体的生存景况。面对庞大的资本及上层群体的金钱游戏,底 层群体期盼透过房屋拆迁补偿能改善自己和下一代的生活,甚至翻转阶级。纪录 片主人公诸卫华对这个世界的感受复杂,既不耐却也乐天,对金钱虽看开却也想 着有一天能发财致富,在“养蛇”一事体现他对致富仍然充满盼望。艺术家利用 并置的手法,将这些复杂、难解的问题刻画出一条难以跨越的界线,虽不知这条 界线是否有消弭的一天,但仍以主人公的微笑留下希冀与美好的寄托,与《让水 一直流》共同传递一种再次流动、带有力量的永续寓意。