An international collective started in 2012, Shanzhai Biennial is an art-fashion crossover “meta-brand” co-directed by Cyril Duval, Babak Radboy and Avena Gallagher. Self-described as “a multinational brand posing as an art project posing as a multinational brand posing as a biennial,” their name refers to the Chinese phenomenon of shanzhai – the imitation and pirating of popular, often prohibitively expensive, brands.
As the critic Harry Burke notes, Shanzhai Biennial frames “the meta-signifying structure of the brand as a condition of contemporary creative production, and questions what autonomy can be found within that”. Each project is designated as a biennial: Shanzhai Biennial No. 1 launched a campaign for an imagined fashion line at Beijing Design Week in 2012. Shanzhai Biennial No. 2, included in the seminal group exhibition ProBio curated by Josh Kline at MoMA P.S.1, consisted of a LED curtain which looped a video of actress, model and “conceptual artist” Wu Ting Ting lip-syncing distorted Mandarin lyrics to a version of Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U. In Shanzhai Biennial No. 3: 100 Hamilton Terrace, 2014, they attempted to sell a £32,000,000 mansion, 100 Hamilton Terrace, London, in their booth with Project Native Informant at the Frieze Art Fair in London.
Shanzhai culture’s cute consumer goods make apparent the otherwise invisible, and always volatile, relations underlying any trade. Shanzhai Biennial’s artworks ride on this, yet suggest that if the current end point of cultural production is the reproduction of the event as image, then, in the emancipatory logic of pirating, this image, and in turn the social formation that it stands in for, can be reimagined.