A City Transformed by Words: Shanzhai Lyric at Abrons Arts Center

Diego Hadis

Abrons_October 2019_Photos by Daniel Terna_websize_CO0A3213
Installation views of AIL PALACES ARETEMPORARY HALACES: A Shanzhai Lyric at Abrons Arts Center. Photography by Daniel Terna.

Like architecture and clothing, language is a complex tool that serves a primary human need. The tool’s effectiveness, and the degree of style with which a particular sentence is pulled off, however, can vary greatly. And sometimes language runs so counter to expectations that it can produce a sense of wonder in the reader, as often happens with the words that appear on shanzhai clothing.

The term “shanzhai” translates from Mandarin as “mountain village,” and refers to unofficial consumer goods produced by marginal actors (proverbially hiding out from society in remote strongholds, as the original Mandarin suggests) working in the shadows of capitalism. These small-scale manufacturers of cell phones, clothing, and other commodities riff on multinational corporations’ well-known intellectual property—the iPhone, Mickey Mouse, the Louis Vuitton monogram—but, in harnessing it to create value or desirability, repurpose it (intentionally or not) and create something new.

It’s illuminating to witness the convergence of clothing, language and architecture in the current Shanzhai Lyric exhibition, “AIL PALACES ARETEMPORARY HALACES,” at Abrons Arts Center. The Shanzhai Lyric, begun in 2015 by Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky, describe themselves as a “poetic research and archival unit.” They refer to the verse with which they’re preoccupied as The Endless Garment: one long, continuous poem whose stanzas appear in fragmentary form on the seemingly infinite and beautifully strange permutations of shanzhai clothes that originate mainly in China’s Pearl River Delta, and frequently surface in gray-market shops around the world.

These items often address the latest fashion trends—and sometimes even up-to-the-minute global news, if obliquely—in a language of their own. It’s not “broken” English, it’s a nonstandard form (as the Shanzhai Lyric identify it) that often reveals truths absent from the original sources.

In past exhibitions (at SBC Galerie in Montreal and Goldsmiths Library in London), the Shanzhai Lyric have experimented with different ways to display items from their archive: draping shirts on hangers or giving them a runway-style fashion presentation. For “AIL PALACES,” Lin and Tatarsky tried a different tactic. Their exhibition takes the architecture of Abrons, which was designed as a gathering place for the various Lower East Side communities, as a starting point. The building, their show implies, doesn’t entirely fulfill its purpose. Its amphitheater, for example, opens onto Grand Street as if to invite in passersby, but the arc is abruptly bisected by a high wall that overshadows it, and the bowl often sits deserted.

To engage with visitors, and respond to the art center’s design, the Shanzhai Lyric commissioned the architectural firm Common Room, which has headquarters across the street from Abrons, to build Reading Apparatuses: large wooden matrices and circular platforms that invite the public to examine individual pieces in the archive. These items are treated less like fashion products than like artifacts, or excerpts of the open-ended, infinite poem. But unlike in a traditional archive, the objects in the collection aren’t treated preciously. Staffers tell visitors they can pick up the shirts to examine them closely, as long as they put them back. No white gloves are provided to handle the shirts, which hang from the crossbars of a Reading Apparatus or are strewn in a pile on a platform for people to peruse, more as scholars than shoppers (though the jumble of clothes does recall the slapdash way some vendors may display items in a market and, at the opening, many visitors thought that the shirts were for sale because of how they were displayed).

Text flashes by, freeze-frames in the churn of information’s flow: we / shoul / allb / feminis (on a striped shirt that reimagines Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay title, as deployed by Dior in a recent collection). stand! / evasioy / violent,uncohtrollble anger. / “her face was distorted woth rage” / lost  genera  tion / Lakeof Fire(1994) / “Forecer for hiehr hole” (above an image from BoJack Horseman—an elliptical reference to the death of Kurt Cobain?). a lone bongo incessantly beating / sound bites / for your eyes (with a photo by Godlis of Lydia Lunch, James Chance, and other No Wavers leaning against a gas guzzler outside CBGB in 1978).

In a sense, these texts are the voice of late capitalism itself, speaking directly to us through the medium of consumerist detritus. But one fragment of The Endless Garment has gone missing. At the show’s opening, a shirt from the archive hung on a wire strung diagonally across the amphitheater, perhaps to activate the space and draw visitors to the underutilized bowl. On a return visit, though, the shirt and the wire that supported it had mysteriously disappeared. Were they stolen by someone walking by, or removed by Abrons? Either way, the amphitheater was completely empty—though one could still see other electrifying stanzas draped across the Reading Apparatuses through Abrons’s plate-glass windows.