Yearning for an artistic renaissance

After a 40-year ride of economic reforms, Shenzhen is now looking for answers to spur an artistic renaissance. “Many questions of creativity have come to the fore,” says Ole Bouman, director of the Sea World Culture and Arts Center, a head-turning icon in the Shekou area of Shenzhen. It was in Shekou where the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s experiment with economic reforms began. “How can Shenzhen create value other than only industrial value? How can people be inspired to rely not on labour force but also brain power?” he asks. Mr. Bouman draws parallels between today’s Shenzhen and the mid-19th century Britain, when the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) emerged in response to the creative aspirations of a rising middle class. The emergence of Arts Center — the composite space where Shenzhen’s most creative men and women from the arts and industry ideate on modern design — is linked to people who pioneered the first phase of reforms. During the brainstorming, often with foreign experts, questions, for instance, can be raised on the rules of fusion of traditional Chinese design — ranging from architecture to furniture or musical instruments — with Western and other contemporary trends. The Arts Center is the brainchild of Design Society, which echoes the aspirations of the first generation of reformers. It has been established by the China Merchants Shekou, whose former executive vice-chairman, Yuan Geng, is lauded for turning the backwaters of Shekou into China’s first industrial zone on Deng’s watch. From the public terrace of the Center complex, a staircase descends to the waterfront promenade four floors below, where Yuan, who died two years ago, has been honoured with a statue. Inspirational activator The Design Society has set the pace for the Arts Center’s inclusive work culture, focussing on openness, collaboration and debate. Extensive networks have been carefully established with partners in China and abroad from academia, industry, businesses and government. Tie-ups with major museums and archival institutions have been part of this exercise. But it is the partnership with the V&A museum of Britain that has imparted “soul” to the way the Center conducts its business. V&A hopes to contribute to the “national and global design debate in China”, and become an inspirational “activator” for spurring local design in Shenzhen. In the Center’s complex, the V&A’s gallery is a star attraction, where visitors are encouraged to appreciate the beauty of design of regular utility objects encountered in everyday life. A classic 1960s-era ceramic wash basin and an Isokon Penguin Donkey bookcase are among the exhibited 250 pieces, handpicked from the museum’s 2.5-million-piece collection. Star Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki has provided design to the Center, which is well aligned with the area’s geography. One part of the building faces the mountains to the north, while vast views of the ocean open out from the south. Inside the complex, there is space for six exhibition halls. Across a vast glass wall, the old Shenzhen fishing village is still visible, contrasting sharply with a modern container terminal and a marina, which are standout sights from this vantage point. “On a clear day, we can see the flights landing at Hong Kong airport in the distance. It is the energy of contemporary exchanges and of being connected that keeps us going, though we have not lost sight of our past,” Mr. Bouman observes.

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