Empire State of Mind

I re-read JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun recently. This was at the same time that I was getting sent beautiful shots of pavilions from the Shanghai Expo, and then writing about it in some kind of historical context. At first the two Shanghai’s seemed so far apart. Today it is the site of architectural grandstanding and in Ballard’s description it was segregated by occupying powers. Today it is a port from whence China’s unprecedented industrial production is distributed to the world and in Ballard’s description it was an apparently arbitrary site for the battle between the British and Japanese empires.

The Singapore Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010

Ballard writes at the very beginning of Empire of the Sun. ‘Wars came early to Shanghai overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yanghtze that returned to this gaudy city, all the coffins that cast adrift from the Chinese Bund.’ He places Shanghai as a city forever in the unfortunate vanguard of imperial struggle: a place over which empires fought. The book is divided into 4 parts and details the attempts of a young boy to survive the trauma of World War II. The story is framed by the collapse of Empires. The first two parts detail with the collapse of British control in 1942 and then the Japanese in 1945. The Third part is a kind of no-man’s land following the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki. It is dangerous time, before the assertion of Amercian control.

The fourth part is just a chapter long. It ends with Jim watching as a group of sailors urinate down the steps of the Shanghai Club. As a succession of imperial powers have exerted violent influence over China, the hero of the book – only a boy – has survived a number of near death experiences through his lust for life and his cunning. In the final chapter he has reached a new found maturity and is able to look forward. Perhaps because he has become inured to the death around him, it takes an act of territorial pissing to prompt his comment on the future of our new superpower.  “One day China would punish the rest of the world and take a frightening revenge’. And yet China appears to be taking revenge on the world in an unexpected way.

The South Korean offering.

Shanghai Expo revives some of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition in a has effectively revitalised the Expo, which since the end of the Cold War have suffered a decline in popularity. Countries, such as the United States, that had ceased to participate in World Expos returned to the fold in order to promote business in a massive new market. China has risen as a global power and as a consequence Shanghai is busier and more competitive than any previous Expo.

Although I’ve been to Shanghai before, I wish I could’ve gone there for the Expo. On one level to see how political organisations have laid out their wares to the world; to see what these strange artefacts really looked like in the humid haze of Shanghai. I would have like a ringside seat at the show: in the game to make the most outlandish pavilion and attract the most amount of trade. The British Council’s brief for the designer Tom Heatherwick was to create a pavilion that should be voted one of the best in the public vote. Imperial competitiveness has been turned into an X-Factor-style vote.

Interior of the Danish Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo

Bjarke Ingels really got this idea with The Danish Pavilion he designed. A simple ramp structure, it offers visitors the opportunity to borrow real Copenhagen city bikes, paddle in clean water taken from Copenhagen’s harbour and transported to Shanghai as balast on ships, and as Ingels himself puts it, ‘the ultimate gesture of the real deal, they can see the actual Little Mermaid at the heart of the harbour pool.’ And, indeed, there she sits, just for the visitor. That subtle whoring of the material culture of ones country wins my vote.

Of course, one should never doubt the political purpose of Expos. The Kitchen Debate at a trade fair in Moscow in 1959 was just one of those rare moments when the naked politics that operates beneath the surface of international trade exhibitions is revealed; when the suit leg is pulled up to reveal the muscle beneath. The argument between Nixon, (then U.S. Vice President) and Khrushchev at the opening of the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow on July 24, 1959 took place as the two politicians walked around a model house containing labour-saving and recreational devices that the organisers say that any American could afford. Khruschev as usual was up for a fight and taunted Nixon about the inbuilt obsolescence of American consumerist goods. ‘Your American houses are built to last only 20 years so builders could sell new houses at the end. We build firmly.’

Bjarke Ingels introduces the Danish Pavilion to the world.

What is perhaps most astonishing though is the fact that this conversation ever took place. An American trade fair, which promoted capitalist values in the heart of Communist Soviet Union, a year before the U2 crisis? It confounds some of our most powerful memories of the Cold War and goes to show what an integral part the Expo had become in the structure of international relations. The Paris Convention of November 22, 1928 was created to regulate the organisation of international trade exhibitions. This legal instrument established the Bureau International de Expositions which is based in Paris, a body which has since then updated the Convention on different occasions in order to account for the shifts in economic, social and political trends, and most tellingly, the emergence of new countries.

I listened recently to a recording of the Archive Hour programme on Radio 4 dedicated to JG Ballard some months after his death, compiled and hosted by Will Self. The programme began with a quote from Ballard: “if we are are going to be truthful about our natures and admit that we are rather violent creatures and we enjoy violence. It might be neccesary to administer not just small doses of violence but of psycopathic behaviour; very small doses rather like the small doses of strychnine in a nerve tonic. They stimulate the system.’ Today these expos are small doses of strychnine in the flows of global capitalism; causing convulsions, creating stimulus. During the Cold War, they were even more important, providing a platform for competition and bizarrely, a frank and heated conversation between Khruschev and Nixon about who made the best fridges: ideological conflict reduced to material competition.

And that feeds into the history of Shanghai.  I’m not denying the violence that soaks Empire of the Sun, that drenches every page is still being played out, quite literally, in hidden corners of the city. But on another level, the violence has been turned into a cultural spectacle, a tool to ensure that its inhabitants remain as one. What is important about Shanghai’s redevelopment today is not the erasure of the past so much as the violence with which it is destroyed. Greg Girard’s Phantom Shanghai pictures capture this really well I think.  The revenge that Ballard predicts at the end of the book has been reeked by China not on the rest of the world, but itself. Violence, perhaps as a political strategy, deliberately hangs over the present. Indeed the construction in today’s Shanghai, outside the Expo, with its high fatality rates and occasional unexplained fires is as violent as the demolition that goes before it.

Interior of the British Pavilion, designed by Tom Heatherwick

History in Empire of the Sun is an unending succession of imperial waves. Yet, unlike the bleak series of novels for which he is best known, the novels of the 70s, High Rise,  offers perhaps the most vivid description of how to live within this world. To live like Jim: with a kind of desperate ingenuity.  One episode for me in the book frames this best in an architectural sense. Jim is in a jeep driven by a Japanese soldier and some sick Europeans looking for the internment camp. They pass Chapei ceramic works.

It’s trademark stood beside the gates, a Chinese teapot three storey high built entirely from green bricks. During the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 it had been holed by shell-fire and now resembled a puncture globe of the earth. Thousands of the brick had migrated across the surrounding fields to the villages beside the works canal, incorporated in the huts and dwellings a vision of a magical rural China.

It’s a truly beautiful image, bricks sequestred from a bomb damaged teapot – signficantly the drink that links Chinese and Britain in terms of trade  – being reappropriated by the workers in the factory, having been scavenged and re-used.

Throughout Empire of the Sun Jim goes from being a child to a young adult as a scavenger. He survives by scavenging and I don’t think this signficant just in a biographical sense but it it also as an artistic strategy. Ballard, it should be remembered was a great scavenger, readings scraps of technological writing and reworking it as fiction. Claire his partner tells a story of how Ballard asked his friend who worked as a government scientist to send him the contents of his bin. This story reminds me of a description in Ambit magazine of how Paolozzi would do cut-outs for his collages whilst standing over a bin.

When I read the book first for my GCSEs, I remember being told that flying is a constant motif in the book. What I wasn’t told though is that Jim ultimately becomes disenchanted with planes and pilots. Although Spielberg’s film is generally a mess, he captures this moment well with young Jim watching as a Japanese pilot goes through the kamikaze ceremony before he flies into battle with the war already clearly lost. Rather than being above the world, viewing it from an aeroplane, Ballard sees himself as a part of that world. Empire of the Sun takes us from the civilised world of the British Concession in pre-war Shanghai to the internment camps, but not as the stripping away of modernity to barbarism, as you see in Golding’s Lord of the Flies but as the consequence of our human nature. That’s not to say he thought we should shrug our shoulders and put up with our animal instincts but that we should look at modernity as a construct and therefore a means of understanding our truer natures. Although this seems to reduce the scale of human possibility, at core it affirms a deeper, humanity. What perhaps gives Empire of the Sun the highest emotive power of all Ballard’s works is that it dramatises his very own journey, at a young age, into making these profound discoveries.

Those that see no redemption in Ballard’s novels of the 1970s must surely be forced to concede that it is present in Empire of the Sun. How else could a self-confessed sentimentalist, Steven Spielberg even look at the book otherwise. Obviously he had to lobotomise the story to actually turn it into a film.  Jim’s tremendously revealing sympathy for Britain’s enemy Japan is excised as are some moments of his brutality. The director who would go on to make Saving Private Ryan is unable to think of the American service man in anything other than a sentimental way.

Tom Heatherwick called his design the - snigger - Seed Cathedral

I would add that I don’t think we should recoil from the apparently empty symbolism of the Expo because of the destruction of some lovely late 19th and early 20th century archiecture. That’s the kind of futile gesture which the young Jim in Empire of the Sun reviles the British for. However, I don’t think we should just despise the architecture of Shanghai simply for its newness either. I think we should do like Ballard does: scavenge them away and re-use them. I am reminded of Koolhaas’s proposal for a replacement to the World Trade Center in New York – a collage of iconic buildings of the twentieth century. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Chinese re-use 238 pavilions built in the middle of their city when the Expo closes in October.

This text was adapted from a talk I gave at a Symposium called Ballardian Architecture: Inner and Outer Space; part of the Royal Academy’s architecture programme.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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One Response to Empire State of Mind

  1. Pingback: Other Ten Percent » Blog Archive » Other Ten Percent 6/4/10

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