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Impossible Shelter: On Wang Bing’s Arcades

13 Oct 2023

Impossible Shelter: On Wang Bing’s Arcades

by Luise Mörke

For an hour or two, I pondered prefacing what follows with a Benjaminian epigraph. Fearing cheesiness, I chickened out. Still: it’s worth keeping this quote in mind, a fragment from The Arcades Project. Less the argument (if there is one), but the constellation—of epochal images, class, utopia, edifice:

… In the dream in which each epoch entertains images of its successor, the latter appears wedded to elements of primal history—that is, to elements of a classless society. And the experiences of such a society—as stored in the unconscious of the collective—... engender, in combination with what is new, the utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions.

According to this line of thought, modernity finds its form in the Parisian arcades. The century is young, one revolution has passed, more are yet to come. The city is changing, and the arcades, elaborate thoroughfares for newly minted consumers, are among the first signs of this and other imminent overhauls. Bright lights and alluring wares draw one passerby in, keep another one out (she has no funds to spare). Architecture begs the question of relation: between desires and needs, public and consumers, space and time.

Young Critics Circle

Today, most of Paris’ arcades are gone and so is the version of European modernity they gave structure to. What now? A different century, a different thoroughfare, a different arcade to think with. The one in Wang Bing’s film Youth (Spring) is located in Zhili, a small town some miles from the city of Huzhou, itself about two hours by car from Shanghai’s center. Unlike its outmoded French counterparts, the building in question is not a passage from one street to another, but a dwelling that frames a vast elongated courtyard. Two long wings reach into the distance, lined by dozens of dark green apartment doors and dripping, spinning air conditioning units. The outdoor space, entrenched by faded yellow walls is hardly more than an architectural afterthought, appropriated by residents as a makeshift parking lot, a workshop, a storage space. Plastic-covered shacks have sprung up on the sides, restaurants perhaps, or small stores. One story up, each individual apartment door is connected by an outdoor walkway. In the language of architecture, this too is called an arcade. It is an affordable solution to demands otherwise fulfilled by hallways and balconies, the connective tissue within the building’s internal logic as well as a way out of that very same order. 

Young Critics Circle

There was an arcade building across the street from my high school in Northern Germany. From the music room, I watched couples argue across thresholds and huddled figures claw for their keys in wintertime. Every so often, abandoned pieces of furniture would end up on the walkway, bikes, old mattresses, graffiti tags. I knew this architecture, like plastic bags from ALDI and satellite dishes, codified class by codifying precarity, “life without the promise of stability” (Anna Tsing), gelled into an enduring condition.

In Zhili, the factory workers brush each other’s hair, flirt in the walkways, eat takeout in bed. Each apartment door is decorated with different stickers and posters. They leave laundry out to dry like red and purple garlands, run up and down the stairs in games of catch, smoke, watch the sunset and each other, make long distance calls to their kids. Their lives unfold in the arcades, a space that is neither inside nor outside, neither street nor home. By baring it all, these walkways create an impression of both openness and unsettledness. They disintegrate the façade, usually that which turns a house into an image, a monument, a static eternity, a promise. The building in Zhili, by contrast, is in flux. New stickers might appear tomorrow, the red dress will be replaced with checkered boxers, the landlord will take down the banners or put up new ones. The fluxness of the building mirrors the lives that unfold within it: this is a story of migrant workers who hardly make enough money to get by, let alone to settle down. Far from home, they wait for a moment of return that might never arrive, go back to the sewing room each day, dexterously assembling one garment after

another
another
another
another
another
another.

Where is the utopia in this epochal image? The absence of an answer is the refusal of redemption.

 

 

YCA

For the first time the VIENNALE hosts a YOUNG CRITICS' CIRCLE. A group of young, international film critics are working under the editorial and organisational guidance of author and film critic Patrick Holzapfel on a number of texts dealing with the programme of this year's festival. This initiative is related to our commitment regarding the perception and discussion of film criticism in its permanent state of crisis.