By Alice Louise
‘We really try to insist that our work is commercial abstraction not corporate aesthetics.’
Unless you’re a very rich person, or someone who works for a very rich person, you may not have seen Shanzhai Biennial’s piece at the Frieze art fair. They were selling a £32million house. While London’s property prices soar in tune with the unrepresentative amount of wealthy landlords in positions of authority, Shanzhai Biennial are selling an overpriced house. Beautiful, yes, but decidedly over priced, even for St. John’s Wood, where it is located.
The group enjoys mimicking and warping advertisements, and play with commercial images and their cultural meaning. Is the house sale a trick; is the art only worth its value as attached to its ridiculous price, suddenly losing worth as it falls into its buyer’s possession? Alternatively, is it when this price is accepted that it becomes worthy as an art piece? The old Duchamp question: was it when he found his urinal, when he carved his initials in, or when it was accepted (it was never shown) into a gallery? Surely we can agree that there’s a wide birth between an overpriced urinal and an overpriced house. The house is still a vessel capable of creating a home, something many people in this country greatly need. Would the purchaser of the piece turn it into a free museum, a place people of all backgrounds, mortgages, letting agents, hotels, can walk around – maybe a feeling awestruck, or nauseous - the home that can never be a home. The packaging – the video, abstract architectural photography, and fashion spread – that came with the house can’t last as an exhibit. Will the collector leave it empty? See if it appreciates, if Shanzhai Biennial works go through a price boom? If so, I very much hope it is squatted. It may add value to the house abstracted from home.
Does art always need a lesson, theory, agenda? Is Shanzhai Biennial’s work intentionally shallow, making any claim on meaning impossible? Do their intentions matter? Now capital is such a strong driving force in culture, can only the market decide? If the piece were brought, this would mean a £32 million is a sum that has been paid for a house it’s likely no one will live in. That same amount was recently paid for ‘Water Lilies’ by Monet. That is also in many ways ‘unused’, but it doesn’t seem as pointless as an unused house. Selling a house at this price connects the inflated prices of the art world and luxury purchases of the super rich to people need, or have and fear they may lose.
What if someone paid £32million to store £32million worth of food, produced in a country struggling economically, so as to leave to rot, uneaten? Would the loss to unvolunteered people take away its status as art?
I can’t directly condemn the group, as a little piece of my heart is hoping this is a joke on the art world, ideally followed by the inclusion of 50 squatters snuck into the contract for good measure. Even if this is the case, there is still the broken premise – if there can be one £32million house in St John’s Wood, how soon till there are more? Shanzhai Biennial did work in conjunction with estate agents.
I didn’t bring this up to put a downer on your day, but to provide contrast.
Soon it will be 1 year since the DIG collective has resided in their, (originally, but no longer, squatted) complex in Lewisham, home to 10 artists’ studios. At 12,000ft, It’s bigger than the St John’s Wood house. Each inch of space is used practically and creatively. There's a lending library for the community, a band rehearsal room, and performance room and exhibition space. It also uses that space to its full potential, putting on plays, exhibitions, gigs, dance classes, life drawing, philosophy readings, and generally supporting anyone who would like some free cultural fun. I will be interviewing the DIG collective, telling you more about them and what they do, on their anniversary this month.
To get involved, or voyeur, click below, then go for a visit.