Q&A with Lu Pan from Aestheticizing Public Space
Wednesday, 19 August 2015
Intellect did a Q&A with Lu Pan, author of Aestheticizing Public Space to find out more about the publication and what drew her to write this book.
What was the inspiration behind this book?
Back in spring 2012, I visited Caleb Neelon, one of the authors of The History of American Graffiti, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts during my stay at the Harvard Yenching Institute. Neelon was inspired to become a graffitist at 13 years of age when his family visited Berlin in 1990, right after the 30-year division ended. Like other tourists, Neelon saw the Berlin Wall and was impressed by the graffiti, tags, and murals that vandalized the wall. He also recalled his amusing experience in Shenzhen, China (a southern city bordering Hong Kong), in which he was invited by the local government to participate in a mural project of a museum in Dafen Village, known as an international manufacturing center of exported commercial paintings. After seeing mediocre imitations of western masterpieces, low-quality copies of best-selling Chinese artworks, and the streamlined, handcraft workshop-style painting process, Neelon called the village as “the center of the world’s worst art.”
My curiosity about Asian graffiti and street art inspired my frequent travels around the continent. I learned from my friends in Japan and Korea about the existence and history of Sakuragicho in Yokohama, the AGIT indie art space in Busan, and the Urban Art Project in Seoul. I also participated in the Inside Out Project of JR, a French street artist, when he took his photo booth concept during his visit to Hong Kong in 2012. All these events and the people I met encouraged me to expand my research beyond the Chinese and Hong Kong contexts and to embark on an adventure. This adventure led to the creation of this book, which explores the street visuals of selected cities from three East Asian countries, namely, China, Japan, and South Korea.
How did you first get interested in graffiti and street art?
Nurturing an interest in the relation between art and public space in general, I find it extremely important to theorize graffiti writing and street art, instead of just documenting the visual existence of them. First of all, I think it is difficult to say whether these graffitists would like to call themselves artists or not. In the world of graffiti, “writer” is the more commonly used name. Although some of writers do have graphic design or art-related training background, there are also many who haven’t received any art education. For example, one of most famous writers in East Asia – VERY (weibo: VERY1HS) from Osaka, Japan has always been mainly working as a DJ, and then took up graffiti writing. In my research, I found that they have a subtle relation with the market. On the one hand, unlike artists, museums and art galleries are not their final destination. Of course also have experience in working with art galleries (e.g. in 2005, Mito City in Ibaraki Prefecture in Japan held an exhibition named “X-Color: Graffiti in Japan”, where I found most of the most active writers and street artists in the participant list), and some also run their own business that is related to graffiti design for commercial use but their best canvas is the city per se: the public space and streets. On the other hand, the debate on whether graffiti is art has always been on-going. Another thing I want to mention is the audience: street visuals expect a much more open and much less institutionalized audience than artworks in galleries do. I think that excitement of reaching out to the whole city as your gallery and the whole urban dwellers as your spectator makes writers remain on the street.
Do you think East Asian graffiti differs much from European and American ones and if so what would you say are the some of the reasons for this?
It is difficult to generalize East Asia as a whole, as you can see in my introduction and the interview chapter the subtle differences among all the cities, sub-regions and nations in the region. Generally speaking, in East Asia, the public space is predominantly occupied by commercial advertisements packed in a highly congested living, business, and leisure space. Most of the East Asian governments had been deeply involved in issues such as order and hygiene, the concept of a “modern” lifestyle, urban visual order, and taxation.
If we look closer, we can see interesting differences East Asian graffiti has from those from Europe and the US. For example, due to the vagueness of property rights in China, which have long been conceptualized as state-owned rather than privatized, economic and ideological obstacles that slow down the information influx into the country have allowed Chinese writers to feel less burdened from outside/Western influence while being able to venture into unexplored territories with their own ideas and experiments.
In Hong Kong, the two cases I address in the book illustrate totally different aesthetic style that you can’t find in western countries. The two unique cases of public writing in Hong Kong are the legends of two “kings,” namely, the “King of the Sewers” (quwang, 渠王) and the “King of Kowloon.” (九龍皇帝) The “King of the Sewers” is a self-employed sewer man. To save on advertising costs, he opted to paint his self-designed ads all over Hong Kong’s slopes, electric lighting posts or drain covers, promoting his service with very concise information and his telephone number, 92263203. Given that many of these advertisements were written in a characteristic font and style, the name of quwang was unmistakably linked to a single “writer.” “King of Kowloon” is a veteran graffitist in Hong Kong who has been writing about his personal history and that of Hong Kong using his paint brushes on the surfaces of various public facilities since the 1960s. Their writings opened up new perspectives for us to think about not only the relation between human and the city, but also between art and everyday objects.
I think the reasons for the differences lie of course in the vastly different historical, ethical, economic context in East Asia from that in the western countries. The difference between how people understand the idea of public space may also be a reason.
How do you think academic approaches to graffiti and street art have evolved over the years?
I think academic approaches to graffiti and street art have not evolved towards a more interdisciplinary direction over the years. We see them mostly in photo books, historical documentation, discussions in sociology, cultural and media studies. My efforts are made to provide a new space of integrating all these approaches. During my research, I see there are a lot of ways of re-considering graffiti and street art not only as subcultural or artistic form but have more profound implications as an intersection between theories and practices.
Do you have any favourite graffiti artists?
Very difficult to say whom my favourite is as many of them are unique and all have specific significance for me.
Where does your own academic and personal Research interests lie?
My academic research interests coalesce around the topic of cultural and cross-cultural analysis of various textual forms. I am particularly interested in topics concerning literature, film, visual culture and art, urban culture, creative industries and cities, modernity theories and cultural memory in modern and contemporary China, East Asia and Europe.
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