Shanzhai Biennial is not a Biennial, although one can never limit the manifestations that a project of Babak Radboy’s can go. It is a clothing line that is more found then created and is the partnership of Radboy and Cyril Duval. It is a label that takes the rampant Chinese manufactured knockoffs of mainstream designer lines and re-presents them as haute couture one-liners. Their first collection was revealed this fall and its campaign is an interesting mix of art, magazine gloss and tweaking social reveals. Shanzhai Biennial reflects our current time but the way this looks and the tone that it takes is sharper then what most realize and creates a distinct line of who gets it and who doesn’t.
The clothing of Shanzhai Biennial takes brands like Calvin Klein, Armani, Celine etc. and uses their fonts, logos and other brand recognizers but the spelling is all wrong, like Calvin Klien’s “ck” becomes “ok” and Celine become “GELINE” it’s Chinglish without apologies and the duplication is brazen as it is slightly funny. For their first campaign they feature some of these finds along with inserting their own name as logo worn by Asian models who are posed and hamming in the style of Chinese artist Yue Minjun. Minjun is widely collected and recognized for his paintings of Chinese men with cartoonishly gaping smiles doing various everyday and recreational activities. The models also feature this absurd gaping smile and usually have closed eyes making them look plasticky and unsettling. The duplication of Minjun’s work doesn’t end there though, they also have the models posed and stacked unto themselves in positions and compositions that recall Minjun’s paintings. This is an effective source to mimic as it suits the content of the project and the overall eerie tone.
This duplication of duplication and the loss that occurs with each result is the crux of what is behind Shanzhai Biennial. They seem to be embracing these glitches; these attempts are not failures but revelations to the absurdity of it all. The ‘all’ being everything that resembles the goal of progress, of brand design, of status through objects. What is interesting is that there is no critique going on, it is just being collected and shown and there is something that feels like a real love and beauty in the way this it is collected and presented by Radboy and Duval. The counterfeit is more the original then the original in that it shows something more then the signifiers.
There is something odd about the humor factor in this project though. There is something a bit mean about it, not mean per se, but something possibly arrogant. The way that this campaign feels and other fashion presentations of late, like Telfar Clemen’s latest collection, and their uses of the hyper-normal or the hyper-exaggerated smiling and posturing feels off in this iteration. I know it is this off-ness, this discomfort and the embrace of the normal and the way it is styled is the point but there is something nauseating and disqualifying in this as well. It somehow reminds me of high school or mean girls or the cool club. It’s like there is some giant inside joke and if you don’t get it you just don’t get it and if you do get it but you don’t smirk and whisper like all the rest then you are out out out and you are so adorable in your passéness. The visual tools are being used to conceptual ends for Shanzhai Biennial but there is something terribly too familiar in its similarities to what else is in the cultural air. Maybe it’s just me though, probably is (always is), maybe it’s the fact that although I’m glad somebody is finding and making faux brands into a real brand and reveling the deformity that is capitalism, somehow it’s just not that interesting or funny to me.
But it’s not about me (never is); it is about the potential that projects like this can have, and it does. It is crazy how Chinese manufacturing is taking over everything and brand use, disuse and what that all means is central to talking about everything from economies, politics, fashion, art, all of it. The embrace of this and the entrepreneurial vision and realization to make knockoffs into the high-end is just down right brilliant. At the end of the day it comes down to Babak Radboy and Cyril Duval, brands in themselves that can spin culture in any which direction they choose. It would be interesting to see one day, the person as brand and how this can be duplicated and transferred beyond just labeling or the image or the approval. How do you source and sell the essence of a person? Shanzhai Biennial, can’t wait to see what they will do next while also feeling like I already know exactly what it will be. Somehow that is oddly empowering yet also disheartening, I guess this is the new normal now.