Design as Spectacle: Beijing International Design Triennial

Under the guiding theme of "Designed in China, Made in the World", Beijing Design Week opening ceremonies were surreal mega-events to impress a global audience.


Design / Nelly Ben Hayoun

From September 28th through October 3, 2011, Beijing held its inaugural Design Week and International Design Triennial arose from a desire to bring an international design audience to China. The Ministries of Culture and Education and Tsinghua University presented the programming for the parallel events as a progression away from low-cost mass manufacture and toward a culture of innovation, creativity and value-added products. The week's main events were hosted across three primary venues: the National Museum of China, showcasing international works of design; the Millennium Monument for emergent design trends; and the Shijitan Contemporary Art Center, where Alessi presented the commissioned designs from eight Chinese architects for objects designed around the theme of the '(Un)forbidden City'.

I was invited to Beijing to participate in one of several exhibitions coinciding with the Triennial, What If… at the National Museum of China, curated by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. As an actor and spectator of this extravaganza, I attended opening events—which outnumbered the design shows and events themselves.

Top image: The author as seen from the Great Assembly Hall. Photo by James Auger.
Above: Red carpet in the Great Hall of the People. Photo by Nelly Ben Hayoun.

I arrived in Beijing to find an event as scaled up as the city itself, as if we were all Liliputians in a triennial hosted by Gulliver. China doesn't only expand on the tradition of the opening ceremony extravaganza; it takes it to dramatic new levels. Of course hosting and administering such events is a key way for China to position itself with a global cultural status akin to its newfound political and economic ones, asserting the emergence of a previously isolated creative community.

The Great Hall of the People. Photo by Nelly Ben Hayoun.

At the opening ceremony held at China Millennium Monument, the presenters did not disappoint in delivering a spectacle quotient. Clearly taking reference from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, an odd, futuristic structure with a spire, a bronze cross-pieces, fountains, and something called a "holy Fire Square"—all of it rife with symbolism—served as the centrepiece.

If the need for 'Good Design' is simplistic enough, with the stated 'ultimate goal…to help Made in China transform to Designed in China', its mandates are in conflict.

The Beijing International Design Triennial opening ceremonies. Photo by Nelly Ben Hayoun.

Finally, enter the presenters who invite the prominent international design envoys in attendance to join them. Here we can recognize Alberto Alessi, Paul Cocksedge, president of the London design festival Sir John Sorrell, director of Danish Design Center Merete Brunander, and more. A mystifying sequence of events follows, involving a small child, a white board, a question to Alessi about his vision of the future, an inaudible response that everyone applauds, and finally, the entrance of five government representatives who activate giant buzzers which animate the strobe effects of the spaceship.

What is your vision of the future? Photo by Nelly Ben Hayoun.

Loud pop music comes out of giant speakers during the light show, and I can barely see the top of the Millennium Monument due to a deep fog that blankets the scene…and because the state-run television network CCTV is covering the event live, billions of Chinese citizens have also witnessed this opening event of the triennial.

This indulgence in spectacle obliterated the exhibitions themselves, which included Creative Junctions, Good Guys, Rethinking Bamboo, Reason Design Emotion, and the aforementioned What if… It reminded me of the issues that the host city itself presents, a city that Ai Weiwei famously called "a nightmare…a constant nightmare."

Inside the Great Hall of the People. Photo by Nelly Ben Hayoun.

The Triennial was enormous, complex, breathless, original and red...If the need for "Good Design" is simplistic enough, with the stated "ultimate goal…to help 'Made in China' transform to 'Designed in China'", its mandates are in conflict, with education on one hand, the affirmation of China as the leader of creativity in Asia on the other. Is this all 'allowed' because Design is still considered a "safe" form of creativity? Does Design mean compromise?

Preparation for National Day, anti-explosion check. Photo by Nelly Ben Hayoun.

Or is there a pervasive, genuine curiosity now afoot? It would be unfair to not underline the fact that the content of this festival is of increasing quality, that many events ran in smaller districts of Beijing's dense urban fabric, and that the events' officials went for cutting-edge proposals by international curators and designers. We can salute the progress this represents in the current political context.

Red flags, Forbidden City. Photo by James Auger.

But what is the limit? It was almost impossible to tell which events were: part of the design festival or part of the PRC's founding holiday National Day; among the numerous events I saw, how do I know which parade was for what? I left with 6 bags, 10 pins, 7 books for the same exhibition, 2 badges, and 5 invites to official events. I also bought shoes with a label admonishing me to "protect them from meat and hot vehicles"—these of course "Made in China". Like the bewildered K. in Kafka's The Castle, I struggled to identify the mysterious authorities who ran this village for unknown reasons, everyone from those who "make" in China to the officials who orchestrate the whole event. What I found were numerous functionaries, a good dose of surrealism—but I think I got lost on the Great Wall....
Nelly Ben Hayoun

Never expose to intense meat or hot vehicles. Photo by James Auger.

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