Doctor of Philosophy thesis 2009
This thesis is about the impact of the collective experience of The Transient City on urban consciousness. It brings together urban theory and art practice to address some intriguing cultural phenomena of today. In a time when the world’s population is increasingly urban, our understanding of what it means to be urban is in flux and current perceptions of the nature of culture and belonging are under review. This thesis is based on a position that argues we are born transient. Thus far the impact of transience on perceptions of belonging has not been fully investigated and indicators of shifts in consciousness are more likely to be found in visual vocabulary than in the linguistic lexicon. Through a focus on two urban phenomena, namely biennialisation and the China Phenomenon, this thesis inquires into the extent to which contemporary art practice maps changes in urban consciousness. Biennales make a particularly interesting field of inquiry because of their proliferation and changing practices that increasingly create moments of cultural convergence. An explosion of interest in contemporary art emerging out of China’s worldwide rapid urbanization and cultural re-evaluation, provides the basis for a pertinent study from which broader conclusions are drawn.
The multi-layered research process combines artistic practice with an analysis of the practice of contemporary curators, artists and audiences, combined with a study of interdisciplinary theoretical positions. The creative components are two mobile exhibitions comprising photography, montage and drawing, utilizing visual metaphors of the body, tattoos, subway maps and windows. The hypothesis was initially formed through art practice in Beijing, consolidated through converging theoretical positions within urban and art inquiry, and exhibited in Beijing, Vienna and Melbourne over 2006 and 2007. A composite picture of today’s urban consciousness emerges from the juxtaposition of an analysis of viewers’ responses, the outcomes of a study of the changing practices of Chinese born curators and artists represented in biennales in Asia, Europe and Australia during 2006 and 2007, as well as the findings resulting from a study of cultural change in China that has shaped that practice. Another mobile exhibition of my work is part of the final synthesis and takes the form of nine original art maps that travel to the viewer. Both exhibition formats invite the viewer’s engagement.
The research identifies a growing awareness of cultural blind spots brought about through a changing sense of cultural scale and understanding of fakeness in the formation of existing cultural concepts. Both indicate shifts in consciousness and perceptions of cultural belonging. It is argued that shifts in consciousness challenge existing cultural paradigms through the questions they trigger at points of cultural convergence. These questions relate not so much to difference, as to the collective experience of transience as an everyday urban aesthetic, within which one feels at home. I refer to this state of mind as urbaness and transphilia.
The dissertation integrates text and visual material in two boxes, including A Transient City Atlas for the Urban Century. It is argued that both research rigour and artistic sensibility are needed to decipher signposts within contemporary art mapping that point to the nature of conceptual cultural territories beyond today’s paradigms. New perspectives within urban and art studies are presented by focusing on transience within art practice to address the themes of The Transient City and urban consciousness in the first Urban Century.