“China goes Urban. The new era of the city” on display at the Museum of Oriental Art in Turin

Curated by Politecnico di Torino and Prospekt Photographers, is on show in Turin a research on the fast process of Chinese urbanization, from new town to post-carbon city.

In early March the Italians stayed at home, just like four billion other people in several continents all over the world. The Covid-19 pandemic that began in January in China gradually travelled to Europe and the United States and then on to Central and South America. The effects of this pandemic are deemed to be dramatic in certain areas and for certain populations. The public health emergency has turned into an economic and social emergency: how many enterprises will be able to start again after two months of lockdown? How many workers will have lost their jobs? The forecast is grim, just as grim as our lives were in these last months. This situation seems to make a mockery of our researches and studies. Like many others, we don’t know how long it will be before we can take a plane and fly to China or anywhere else. 


This suspended moment in time, characterised by uncertainty, spotlights an interconnected world in which events in Turin or Nagoya increasingly depend on what happens in Beijing or London; it spotlights relationships, flows, and an increase in ever more intense social, economic and political relationships between different regions of the world; it spotlights the characteristics of a growth model with roots in the history of capitalism, one with limits and contradictions underscored by climate change and currently by the pandemic. Whether the latter will be the reason for a change in the prevalent growth model is more wishful thinking than a real possibility. Neoliberalism and its ‘Chinese variant’ does indeed appear to be inscribed in that biopolitical diagram of the exercise of power described by Michel Foucault as a sort of permanent ‘grid’ that filters, mediates and incorporates every intervention and every phenomenon: a ‘veritable way of being and thinking,’ a ‘method of thought’ turning individuals into economic agents.

Given this situation of uncertainty, we believe that our stubborn determination to continue work on an exhibition about Chinese urbanisation is a form of personal ‘resistance’ that is both significant and important for the collectivity. If something changes ‘afterwards,’ this change will have to come to terms with the characteristics of the situation ‘prior’ to the pandemic. If nothing changes we will at least have used this period — as will the visitors to the exhibition and the readers of this catalogue — to critically assess the world we live in. A world which, from an urban point of view, in China as elsewhere, cannot be pigeon-holed into models, categories, and certainties; a world that needs to be carefully and curiously observed and queried, that needs questions rather than answers because, as soon as we formulate answers, they become reductive and banal. A little more or a little less than keywords such as ‘smart city’ or ‘post-carbon city’ with which we naively thought we had imprisoned urban reality and found ‘the’ solution.

China goes Urban. The new era of the city, MAO Museum of Oriental Art, Turin, Italy. Photo Samuele Pellecchia

This exhibition is not today’s child. Between 2015 and 2017 the Politecnico di Torino coordinated a transdisciplinary study on Chinese new towns involving researchers and scholars from the École Polytechnique Fédérale of Lausanne, the Tsinghua University of Beijing, and also Prospekt Photographers of Milan (Bonino et al., 2019; Governa and Sampieri, 2020). Research on new towns continues to involve exploration; it is a combination of scientific and artistic research in which texts, photographs, and videos are used as tools to narrate the multiple trajectories that continually assemble and disassemble these spaces.

We started our investigation by selecting four very different new towns — Tongzhou, Zhaoqing, Zhengdong and Lanzhou; we don’t claim the selection to be neither complete or an atlas of the various situations and experiences. Tongzhou New Town, located in the Tongzhou district situated in the eastern expansion of the capital Beijing; Zhaoqing New Area, twenty kilometres from the city of Zhaoqing on the western border of the Pearl River Delta; Zhengdong New District, near Zhengzhou, in Henan Province in inland China; Lanzhou New Area, in Gansu Province, one of the poorest in China where the State is building a new town to promote growth and attract investments. These four places are both case studies and the viewpoint we used to observe the features in contemporary cities and the current changes taking place there: observing Chinese new towns is one way to question what exactly cities are turning into, in China and elsewhere.

China goes Urban. The new era of the city, MAO Museum of Oriental Art, Turin, Italy. Photo Samuele Pellecchia

Although every year in China more than sixteen million people move from rural to urban areas and create what the World Bank considers the biggest mass migration the world has ever seen, they are not moving on another planet. The United Nations reminds us that Chinese urbanisation is part of the continuous global growth of the urban population which in 2007, for the first time in history, made the urban population greater than the population in rural areas.

How could we use images and the exhibition itinerary to ensure that a non-specialist public would understand the complex topics we are exploring, and also convey how important they are for everyone worldwide? The exhibition presents a selection of photographs, videos, maps and representations documenting the characteristics of a territory in a state of rapid, continuous flux; however they are also cognitive tools, mirrors reflecting many of the questions about an issue Neil Brenner (2014) called planetary urbanisation, in other words the contemporary version of the ‘complete urbanisation of society’ predicted by Henri Lefebvre in the 1970s. A process that covers more than the meagre 2 per cent of the world’s surface occupied by the dense form of settlement we usually call a ‘city’ and instead paints a picture of the global social, economic, political and functional relationships that establish a physical and material fabric which is probably the urban of our age. Rather than portraying reality, the videos and photographs ask questions: what is the extended form of the city turning into? A form that moves in a different space-time continuum compared to the constraints of proximity and challenges the certainties of Euclidean space. The videos — ostensible representation of reality — reveal a confused and fragmented urban context; they question preconceived interpretations and ourselves as human beings; they trigger a dialogue with visitors and encourage reflection and consideration. The photographs portray the contradictions and possibilities of spaces that are empty yet full of life and let us imagine sounds, words and movements.

Exhibition title:
China goes Urban. The new era of the city
Curated by:
Politecnico di Torino and Prospekt Photographers
In collaboration with:
Tsinghua University in Beijing and Intesa Sanpaolo
MAO Museo d’Arte Orientale, Turin
Opening dates:
from October 16, 2020 to February 14, 2021

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