USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Have you seen outside your lens?

The most dreadful experience at a museum is to go through the exhibit on a conveyor belt of sorts.  You get pushed through by those around you shift from one exhibit to the next.  But what if instead of looking at each of those displays you saw it through your camera lens?  At the Suzhou museum I witness such a phenomenon.  People held their phones up to each display, never looking at the actual display but waiting as the image loaded on their phone’s screen.  Snap.  Move to next exhibited item.

I guess I can understand this kind of behavior for the exhibition of cultural relics.  Because to some end they all have the same purpose as far as artwork goes, and it’s really the individual craft that makes each piece unique.  But not for paintings, not for art that an understanding of theory is needed to truly appreciate what’s there.  Those attending a guided tour seem bored once they have taken their pictures and don’t seem to be listening anymore.

Imagine my surprise when the contemporary art section consists of paintings of western America?   To my even greater surprise, an old favorite of mine was there- a painting I remember vividly as an 8 year old, one I have gone back to see every time I am in San Diego.  I remember as a child thinking how the girl in the painting looked like me and somehow seemed to embody how I felt.  Every time I’ve visited that painting I thought how the girl and I still had so much in common yet how much I’ve changed since the last time I saw it. I beeline for the art piece, surprised by its presence thousands of miles away from our home, suddenly six Chinese people are around me taking pictures of it deciding if someone is rushing to one in particular it must be better for some reason.  I step back and watch how people observe this painting, how they interact.  No one stops longer than to take a picture.  They quickly move on to the neighboring art piece of a California wilderness at early sunset. Snap. Move to next painting.

How curious.  How do these people, who aren’t even reading the vague information plaques, relate to Americana?  What a curious choice of Americana to be represented in Suzhou, a small outlier of Shanghai.

This incident makes me think of the last time I went to a jazz club back in Los Angeles.  Just as the band warms up, a group of Chinese tourists sit at the table next to me.  I can tell they’re speaking Cantonese, and they have those multi-pocketed, safari-like vests on. Every one of them has huge SLR cameras around their necks.  They immediately start taking pictures, every few minutes they compare pictures.  Then a second round of intense clicking ensues.  By about the fourth round, their picture contest apparently done, they look incredibly bored.  But the band has just reached its peak, how could they be bored now?  Shortly after they left the jazz club.

What conclusion am I left to draw?  It seems that there is no value in what these people are taking pictures of.  Instead the value lies in what they saw, or more precisely evidence that they were there.  Proof becomes the commodity, not the experience of an event or anything one can learn from that experience.   This proof is the copy, and the camera lens the instrument of simulation.  Who cares that they were in the presence of the original, what is more important is that they were there, and this simulation becomes more valuable because it indicates their interaction with the original.  The significance of these pictures could not be farther removed from the artwork’s original function or meaning.  However the pictures are important in ways the original works could never hope to be.  Not because it is like the real thing, it is only a picture.  This is much like the idea of architectural conservation instead of preservation.  It doesn’t matter if the building looks the same as it originally did, or embodies the feel it originally did, what is significant is the demarcation of importance.  They are honoring these things, these pieces of art, the jazz performance by taking pictures; by doing so they are marking the event as important.





Filed under: China

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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