Shanzhai Lyric: LOOSELY ASSEMBLED CYCLE 3: J'ai besoin d'a Of North 1986
by Fan Wu
Western ideology fetishizes originality. We slaver after the figure of the genius; we relish the ego of the Artist made manifest in the proper name. The Artist is trailed by their original works, works that orbit the Artist as the Artist’s canon. More often than not, exhibitions revolve around individuals who are given title credit for their work, as if each piece were Athena sprung from the skull of a virtuosic Zeus. But what lies between individualistic original creation (which turns the artist into a derivative of God) and the blatant, appropriative rip-off (which we rightfully decry)?
In his concise, reductive, yet compelling booklet Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese (2017), Byung-Chul Han outlines the primacy of the copy over the original in Chinese art forms ranging from poetry to painting. A painter who paints the classic image of a plum tree’s bough-in-blossom with more nuance, flourish and mastery than their predecessor receives as much—if not more—acclaim; “originality,” here, is manifest as the commitment to repetition of a traditional form with a slight but crucial difference that results in a nearly identical work. Value is displaced from genius invention to cyclical perfectibility. Shanzhai (the transliteration of 山寨 from Chinese, which means “mountain stronghold”) is a term that refers to imitation or counterfeit goods, often blatantly ripping off famous brands.
Shanzhai Lyric is a “poetic research and archival unit” that explores the aesthetic politics of bootleg tees around the world. (I adore their Instagram @shanzhai_lyric, which regularly features public submissions of the funniest finds.) Their show LOOSELY ASSEMBLED CYCLE 3: J’ai besoin d’a Of North 1986 at SBC Gallery is another spin of the dizzy wheel that mutually entangles notions of original versus copy. The exhibition’s name was lifted from a T-shirt found in Asia and stitches French and English together via a senseless seam, somehow metaphorizing intra-Canadian relations in its bilingual invocation of “the North.” Displayed on various coat hangers were a collection of garments collected since 2015 that flaunted the astonishing, jagged beauty of the imperfect copy:
to save humanity,
or to increase your vanity?
your vanity? to save humanity or to increase
do that die
humanity, or to increase
only one man could
When I was a teen, I would laugh at those T-shirts in Pacific Mall in Markham, Ont., that didn’t seem aware of their own nonsensicality. Kowtowing to ideals of grammar, semantics and “correct” English—no doubt partially an inherited insecurity from my immigrant history—I dismissed these tees as gibberish to better cement myself in my self-image as enlightened Westerner. It’s only recently, after having learned ways of finding a sublime beauty outside the confines of “genius” human intention, that I became prepared to receive the message of Shanzhai Lyric: a redemption of the wreckage of global cultural capital in the form of this bootlegged proliferation, despite that it had never, itself, asked to be redeemed.
The lyrics of Shanzhai Lyric resemble neural network-generated poetry, or the paratactic works of New York School poets, most famously John Ashbery. They’re like Gertrude Stein’s hypno-repetitive poetics wrung through a luxury streetwear capitalist discourse machine. Their pleasures lie in the relinquishment of agency over language, letting the accident of translation take over. Meaning’s suspended and we’re offered ambiguity in its stead, in a playground that splits the difference between existential reflection and Carrollesque nonsense.
The above quote, “die / to save humanity,” is a masterwork of sharp turns and repetition. In one burst of verse, it asks all the harsh questions of death: Is euthanasia necessary for the perpetuation of the human species? Can death be an act of vanity, a final immolating blaze of self-glorification? The T-shirt ends in the mouth of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, but as though amidst a meshwork of glitch, half-sentences cutting themselves off and forgetting their own momentum.
Delivered from the threat of having an “author” whose intention shadows the work (no matter how loudly we proclaim their death), these tees release me into the free roam of interpretation.
THE EMPTY PAGE BEFORE ME ALL THE YEARS OF
WRECKAGE RUNNING THROUGH MY HEAD PATTERNS
OF MY LIFE I THOUGH
Included in J’ai Besoin d’a Of North 1986 is Shanzhai Lyric’s ongoing project The Endless Garment (2015- ongoing), a long poem comprised of a continually unfolding sequence of texts found on T-shirts. The garment’s endlessness is a parallel to capitalism’s impermanent infinity, an exercise in human selection and curatorial agency amidst the incessant proliferation of language, wearable language and language that slips off the back of sense-making. This iteration was housed within an installation titled The Incomplete Poem (2019), developed in concert with common room—a collaborative architectural practice with a publishing imprint and exhibition space, based in New York City and Brussels.
Adding to an ongoing archive of reference materials provided by the artists in LOOSELY ASSEMBLED’s previous two cycles, J’ai Besoin d’a Of North 1986 also included a selection of essay excerpts, photocopies and books by writers such as Glissant, Apter and Halberstam. Indeed Shanzhai Lyric connects (their project) proliferatively to strands of theory: from accidental ideology to queer failure to glossolalia to global capital. But my feeling is that these lyrics need no other power than themselves: their janky beauty testifies to the vital originality of the copy and to the fireworks of possibility intrinsic to the English language beneath its mundane colonial lacquer.
IDEAL IS THE BEACON
ERE IS NO SECU
CHOP YOUR OWN
AND IT WI LL WARM YOU
Be careful Free shipping can be found at EMPTIE My legacy stopped This is my life I love him so much. Copyright law; Fabrics in the textile industry. The way of life that we think is abandoned. We lost our veto for attention. The effects of “beauty” and “health” affect my body. My ideas the wave of the Taipei night market seem to be the symbol of God that sustains my success, albeit a little too far.
So there are liars who see true beauty. Ezra Libra translates standard paper into the Chinese version of the 20th century, but Chinese “don’t know” and make their own translations. With all these misunderstandings and errors, the best translation will come in the target language and teach you how to communicate. Psychological capitalism unfolds in strange and complex costumes: here’s your free choice. Relief finally. Eager to repeat this day I hope so…