The biennale, now in its third edition, is a government-sponsored attempt to establish one thing Shenzhen lacks: a cultural scene. The theme is city mobilisation, which chief curator Ou Ning – who lived here throughout the 1990s, when growth was so fast that the phrase “Shenzhen speed” was born – says is an experiment to unite citizens “in a time that lacks centralised force, spiritual solidarity and practical organisation”. While most architecture biennales are unappealing cocktails of dodgy architectural art and dense technical presentations, this one has a more popular touch. More than 60 installations by artists and architects occupy an underground hall at the civic centre, the massive public plaza above it, and various spots around the city.
Most of them are interactive and easy to understand. You’re greeted in the main exhibition space by a Chinese dragon composed of 12,000 American Apparel vest tops and underpants, made in California and specially imported, hanging from the ceiling in undulating, colour-coordinated patterns. The piece, by LA-based art duo Ball Nogues, attempts a temporary reversal of the world’s normal movement of goods, which usually flows from Guangdong province – known as the workshop of the world – into the US.