I grew up in a small, provincial town in Israel, and when I turned 10, the first shopping mall was opened in the city center. Though I was young, I already understood that it was the first step towards what I like to refer to as the “beginning of the end”. Ever since, this small town’s urban developments have started to move in the same direction as that of the notorious shopping center. Naturally, the same thing happened to all mega cities, medium sized towns and urban hubs globally. Everyone and everything started to mobilize itself around one thing: consumption.
In my last 5 years living in Shanghai, I unfortunately got used to the concept of shopping malls. I even visited some of them out of my own free will a couple of times—mostly due to extreme weather conditions—and I must admit, I started to become slightly fond of them. Soft music, smooth escalators, temperature control; they all became a break away from Shanghai’s hectic streets. As my boyfriend would say “the transformation is complete, you are a true Asian”. So on a rainy cold winter day, I went to check out Vivienne Westwood’s exhibition Get a Life in K11 Art Mall Museum.
When consumption became a part of culture, it was almost inevitable that culture would mirror consumption. The second step in the “beginning of the end” is manifested through the soft power of real estate developers implementing “creative concepts” in luxury shopping malls and commercial centers. Hence, creating “cultural experiences” within a maze of endless shopping arcades designed only to make you forget that there is an actual world out there so that you can spend all of your monthly salary on unnecessary, but oh-so-beautiful designer shit you don't need. K11’s concept is all about that.
The high-end art mall concept facilitates a blend of shopping and art—which actually means that they got tax reduction, and we get crappy art in return.
The K in K11 stands for Kingdom, “a shopping mall kingdom” which derives from the group’s chairman and his childhood dream of having his own kingdom—and indeed, in mega-capitalist-non-democratic-Asia, shopping malls have had more influence than the state. In this political climate, when as a citizen you cannot vote or elect a ruling candidate or party, the only way one can practice his opinions, decision making and rights is through his credit card.
Promising the blend of art and fashion, K11 mall is able to do so by dedicating designated spaces in the mall for decorative art works like benches, sculptures and some interactive corners; while at the same time running a foundation that sponsors art initiatives, workshops and exhibitions. The large exhibition space, K11 Museum is located, on the lowest floor of the building (where else?) and can be easily used as a bunker in case North Korea decides to fight capitalism. Most art shows and activities take place there and change every 3 months.
Get a Life, by Vivienne Westwood is “a fusion of art and fashion, through the lens of activism” and that is exactly its main problem. Westwood’s moral, socio-political “topics worth fighting for” change according to the seasons. 2014 was the year of climate change, now, the hot topic is refugees. Leave African women aside—their saggy handmade bags and micro financing is so 2012.
The show unveils themed collection campaigns from climate change to over-consumption: Saving The Rainforests, Mirroring The World or Intellectuals Unite. You’ve got to give credit to the marketing department of Vivienne Westwood and without a doubt, the designer herself (who actually looks like a pretty cool, opinionated woman). It is a great opportunity to see vibrant, bad-ass immigrant inspired images taken by Jurgen Teller for her latest campaign, as well as a few other samples from past collections. Especially the one dedicated to the House of Worth, the Englishman who invented the concept of Haute couture back in 19th century France.
The room next to Westwood’s show presents a group exhibition, Monument of the Peach Blossom Valley, which tries to underpin the activist spirit of Get a Life from a Chinese perspective.
Here again, in a slightly more humble or submissive manner, artists express their concern for humanity and its relationship with nature. The only concern I had was, what the hell is the connection between those two shows? There were a few interesting, emerging young Chinese artists like Yu Honglei and Zhang Rui whose works are typically visually and intellectually stimulating, however, in this almost random curatorial context it was impossible to be impressed or intrigued.
These two exhibitions somehow mirror each other, in my opinion. They got me thinking that maybe I am traditionalist or old fashioned; but perhaps there are things that don’t blend—art and shopping, fashion and activism, capitalist-consumerism and moral-political campaigns.
To quote Guy Debord from The Society of The Spectacle: “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”
I came down to the K11 mall again to write this post and sat down in a high-end cafeteria concept cafe (like everything in the high-end era we live in), situated in the ground floor of the shopping mall. During my stay, a homeless man came to sit at a table next to me.
At first, I didn't notice from his appearance that he was homeless, but the strong scent coming from him disclosed it immediately. He was wearing a heavy wool jacket suit and a vintage Christmas sweater underneath. He used a rope to tie up his pants closer to his waist. He sat down holding an old chewy piece of meat and started talking to himself. I couldn't stop thinking he could have been such a great art performance to Mrs. Westwood’s exhibition, if only it was the season of "raising awareness to the crisis of homelessness in future cities", oh but wait, that was so 2015.