Liu Jianhua

The Shanghai Gallery of Art sits inside an elegant neo-Renaissance structure along the city’s historic bund. Erected in 1916, during the heyday of capitalist expansion in East Asia, the building was formerly a home for international banks. Today, as Shanghai finds itself in the midst of a sequel to its early twentieth-century gilded age, the building seems to embody the city’s newfound extravagance. Renovated in 2002 by Michael Graves, Three-on-the-Bund is home to not only the gallery but luxury stores such as Armani and Hugo Boss and the restaurant Jean-Georges. It is thus undeniably a fitting place for Liu Jianhua’s colossal installation, Export-Cargo Transit, 2007, to deliver its postcolonial wrath.

In early September, as crowds from around the world descended on Shanghai for the first SHContemporary art fair, Liu was busy transporting from Guangdong Province ten tons of “foreign” refuse and installing it in this cosmopolitan landmark. Plastic medicine bottles, computer parts, casings, filters, scraps of foil, shredded resins, adhesive backings, and much more were spread about the gallery. A massive bank of loose debris reached up to the windows to reveal the brand-new city of Pudong posed as the epitome of progress across the river. Inside, an overloaded industrial trash compactor emerged from the mess. Towering Plexiglas walls stuffed solid with colorful waste blockaded the gallery’s center atrium space.

The rubbish was easily recontextualized as captivating, consumable art. There were even some inside jokes—a wall of white medicine bottles seemed to be a reference to Damien Hirst, while the rest recalled Barry Le Va. Broad yellow swatches of fiberglass fabric were pressed against dark, ragged strips of rubber in transparent containers labeled ART EXPORT—a gesture that, given the context, seemed superfluous. On the walls, however, news quotes printed in both Chinese and English revealed the true urgency of Liu’s subject matter: “80 percent of the world’s electronic rubbish is transferred to Asia every year, 90 percent or 36 million metric tons ends up in China” (ABC News); “In one processing town there is no potable water, 80% of the children have lead poisoning” (China Daily).

All of Liu’s garbage has been illegally imported to China from the developed world (the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, etc.). Paradoxically, all of these countries (except the US) have signed the Basel Convention—a pact in which wealthier nations agree to stop exporting garbage to poorer nations. Shipped to China under the pretense that it is to be inexpensively recycled there, refuse often ends up being illegally dumped, polluting the environment and leading to health problems in an area (as the press release reminds us) that once suffered the havoc of the Opium Wars. The convoluted global market dynamic was presented here in multiple overlapping instances, each more entrenched in the logic of colonialism than the one before. Developed-to-developing-world dumping is a reciprocal business, a by-product of rapid modernization. Standing at the gates of East and West at a time when the expansion of the Chinese art market (until recently, exclusively an export business) has bewildered even the most seasoned of speculators, this garbage ties the loop of complicity tightly across the divide.

Mathieu Borysevicz