Family History: Capital and Art in the Rear Window

Li Qing: Rear Windows
Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai
07.11.19 – 19.01.20

Translated by Duncan Hewitt

In 1937, when Shanghai fell to the Japanese, the Shenxin Cotton Mills Nos. 5, 6 and 7 were taken over by the occupiers. The Japanese made a point of seeking to co-opt all of Shanghai’s top business leaders. The Chinese Nationalist Party ( Kuomintang ), however, placed those it suspected of collaboration on its assassination list. Soon afterwards, Lu Bohong, who had cooperated with the Japanese, was stabbed to death. The Japanese also planned to invite the entrepreneur Rong Zongjing ( Yung Tsoong-King ) to work with them. But in early 1938, as rumours swirled, he fled to Hong Kong, and died there soon afterwards. Rong Zongjing never had the chance to return to his mansion on Seymour Road.

Since it was taken over by Fondazione Prada, the Rong Zhai ( Rong Mansion ) has become an important landmark on the Shanghai exhibition scene. After three previous shows, its current exhibition, Li Qing’s Rear Windows, is perhaps the one most closely linked to the history of the Rong family. According to the introduction to the exhibition, ‘Li Qing imagines things in this empty mansion which seem to be present yet are not actually here, rousing the mysterious yet vibrant life force of the story, and connecting it closely to modern life in Shanghai.’ And a visitor entering this exhibition would probably get such an impression: the exhibition does actually live up to the image that the artist and ordinary people have of life in such a grand mansion – the opulent exterior scenes of Shanghai, the hierarchy of eroticism and power with the family, the peeping at each other from inside and outside.

The Tetris Windows series inlays paintings into wooden window frames. This series depicts Shanghai buildings, including the Overseas Chinese Town, the Ampire Co. building, the K11 mall, the Amber Building, the Royal Asiatic Society building, the Shanghai Exhibition Centre and the Rong Mansion itself. The description of the work states that ‘[t]hese buildings are mainly taken from Shanghai’s colonial era, early socialist era and the more recent stage of the era of social transformation… They highlight the reallocation of space within the city, and the link between culture and innovation in Shanghai.’

This description is actually a kind of cover-up. In fact, the most obvious thing these buildings have in common is simply the fact that they have all become well-known venues for exhibiting or dealing in contemporary art in today’s Shanghai. When combined with two of the other works situated upstairs – Dark Magazine, which consists of piled-up art magazines, and the collage Writer’s Wall, made up of postcards, tickets and the like, collected by the artist on his travels around the world – Li Qing has, intentionally or not, revealed the environment in which he operates: an art market driven by capital, real estate, media and ordinary people’s material needs, particularly at a time when Shanghai’s real-estate industry has become one of the main driving forces of the local contemporary art scene. For anyone working in the art world in Shanghai – whether in a gallery, auction house or the media – these three works accurately sum up their everyday life.

In the two Neon News installations, Li Qing displays trashy tabloid news stories, such as a wealthy businessman cheating on his wife and getting a divorce, or a celebrity retreating into the mountains to rear chickens, then going on TV to pontificate about how to attain enlightenment. The inspiration for these stories came from news headlines that Li Qing received on his smartphone. But, in fact, during the Republican era, all Shanghai’s major newspapers and tabloids also used to publish lots of similar news stories. This makes us realise that Li Qing’s exhibition is not about the ‘contemporary’ at all – it’s about the ‘modern’. We may have assumed that the ‘modern’ era was over, and that the postmodern or the ‘contemporary’ ( which Heidegger called the destruction of metaphysics ) had already arrived. In this old ‘foreign-style’ house, however, from the time Rong Zongjing acquired it right up to the current exhibition, a particular, adapted Shanghai version of ‘modernity’ – known as modeng – has stubbornly persisted. Leo Ou-fan Lee, in the opening chapter of his important book Shanghai Modern, defined Shanghai’s ‘modernity’ by discussing a scene in Mao Dun’s novel, Midnight ( 1933 ):

The harbor – as I think [Mao Dun’s] rather purple prose seeks to convey – also exudes a boundless energy: LIGHT, HEAT, POWER! These three words, together with the word ‘NEON’, written originally in capital letters in English in the Chinese text, obviously connote another kind of ‘historical truth’: the arrival of Western modernity, whose consuming power soon frights the protagonists’ father, a member of the traditional Chinese country gentry, to death… They are in short emblems of China’s passage to modernity to which Mao Dun and other urban writers of his generation reacted with a great deal of ambivalence and anxiety. After all, the English word ‘modern’ ( along with the French moderne ) received its first Chinese transliteration in Shanghai itself: the Chinese word modeng in popular parlance has the meaning of ‘novel and/or fashionable’, according to the authoritative Chinese dictionary Cihai. Thus in the Chinese popular imagination Shanghai and ‘modern’ are natural equivalents.¹

Much of the exhibition also focuses on relationships within the family. As the head of a large family, Rong Zongjing was well aware of the problems that can easily occur within such a group. This great tycoon of the Republican era actually wrote an essay entitled ‘What is happiness within a family?’, in which he said, ‘When male or female servants are well fed and have nothing to do, they often pick petty quarrels, and no one takes responsibility for such trivial matters as daily necessities.’

In contrast to people of the previous century, Li Qing clearly does not intend to provide such an understated analysis. In the work Images of Mutual Undoing and Unity: Ghosts No. 4, he first painted portraits of Rong Zongjing and his granddaughter ( as imagined by the artist ), then pressed the two paintings together to create another face – even though it’s plain to see that this portrait is obviously derived from a photograph of Rong Zongjing’s granddaughter Malina Yung ( Rong Hailan ). Why does this ‘granddaughter of Rong Zongjing’ have to be an imaginary character, rather than the real, renowned Malina Yung? We can only assume that Li Qing has other intentions, which stem not from the actual, historical Rong family, but from his own vision of a ‘granddaughter’, a young girl.

How does Li Qing imagine the stories that took place within this old foreign-style house? A row of different editions of Lolita from around the world, and the kneeling maid in an oil painting, provide the clearest evidence. In the series of portraits Images of Mutual Undoing and Unity – Love, Li Qing has selected expressions of women having sex from films from all over the world. The artist’s method in this series was to ‘choose pairs of expressions, adjust them to similar angles, paint them individually on two separate canvases, and then, before the paint dried, press the two images together’.

Shanghai is probably the city with the most erotic temperament in China. In her book Shanghai Love, the historian Catherine Yeh, a specialist on the brothels of the early modern era, interprets the lithograph Only When Looking Very Far Does It Become Clear:

 The courtesan became part of the city’s self-staging as a marvellous playground […] One of the courtesans gazes with intense curiosity at Shanghai’s unique landscape, while another views it through a pair of Western-style binoculars. Both direct their attention towards the steeple of the Holy Trinity Church, considered by many to be one of the wonders of the Foreign Settlements. In this fascinated gaze at urban Shanghai, the cityscape and the courtesans join in conveying the arcadian associations of Dream of the Red Chamber

This description reveals how the urban landscape of Shanghai and the world of intimate relations observed each other. Moreover, Yeh also notes that in Zou Tao’s science-fiction novel Shanghai Dust ( 1904 ), courtesans fly from their garden into the city using hydrogen balloon technology. And it’s true, of course: to fly from your own garden to the centre of the city – isn’t that precisely what people want to do when they peep at the world from their rear window?

Yet what is the difference between the ‘outside world’ of Shanghai, and the world in your own garden? What is the difference between the historical city of Shanghai and today’s Shanghai? The banks, the shopping malls, the old foreign-style buildings are still there – it’s just that the opium dens, the brothels and the casinos have been replaced by restaurants, galleries and shops that have gone viral online. Whether you’re on the inside or the outside of the rear window, in the end all you will see is capital, power, gossip and lies, modeng-style modernity and desire. None of these evil, beautiful flowers has ever left Shanghai, not for a moment.

1. Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930 – 1945 ( Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press ), 1999.
2. Catherine Yeh, Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture, 1850 – 1910 ( Seattle WA: University of Washington Press ), 2006.






李青通过《霓虹新闻》的两件装置展现了若干廉价的小报新闻,譬如富商出轨离婚、明星归隐山林养鸡并上电视大谈人生感悟之类。这些故事的灵感来自于李青看到的手机推送。而事实上,民国时期的上海大报小报亦多登载此类新闻。这让人意识到一个事实:李青的展览并不关乎“当代”,而是关乎“摩登”。我们或以为“摩登”已经过去,而后现代。“当代”( 海德格尔称之为形而上学的瓦解 )已经到来。但在这个洋房里,从荣宗敬购置起到现今的展览时刻,“摩登”这一“modernity”在上海的特殊变体始终牢固地存在着。李欧梵在其重要著作《上海摩登》一书的开篇处,通过援引茅盾《子夜》中的描述,解释了何为上海的“摩登”:

“……这个港口—在我看来茅盾希图用他的华丽笔触来传达的熙熙攘攘的景象,还是渗透出了她无穷的能量:LIGHT, HEAT, POWER!这三个词( 光、热、力 ),再加上:NEON( 霓虹灯 ),在中文本中用的是英语,显然强烈地暗示了另一种‘历史真实’:西方现代性的到来。而且它吞噬性的力量极大地震惊了主人公的父亲,使这个传统中国乡绅迅速命赴黄泉……它们象征着中国的现代性进程,而像茅盾那样一代的都市作家在这种进程前都表现了极大的焦虑和矛盾心情。毕竟,英文 modern( 法文 moderne )是在上海有了它的第一个译音。据权威的中文词典《辞海》解释,中文‘摩登’在日常会话中有‘新奇和时髦’义。因此在一般中国人的日常想像中,上海和“现代”很自然就是一回事。”


他如何想象发生在这栋洋楼内部的故事?一排世界各版本的《洛丽塔》以及油画中跪姿的女佣便是最直接的证据。在《互毁而同一的像·爱》这一系列肖像画中,李青选取了世界各地电影中的女性性爱表情,艺术家在这个系列中的做法是“选出几对表情,将其调整为类似的角度,单独绘制在两幅画布上,再在颜料干燥之前将两幅画压制在一起”。上海恐怕是中国最具有情色气质的城市,研究近代青楼的历史学者叶凯蒂( Catherine Yeh )在《上海·爱:名妓、知识分子和娱乐文化( 1850-1910 )》中解读石版画《视远惟明》: