City Limits / Unlimited City
Ulanda Blair
Curator, Moving Image

The invention and proliferation of camera technologies in the late 19th century occurred in parallel with the burgeoning of the modern metropolis. It’s little wonder then, that many of the earliest, and most iconic images from the history of cinema feature cities or urban environments—think of the Lumière Brothers, first ‘actuality’ films, such as The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, and Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon, both from 1895. Even the foundation story of video art has Nam June Paik taking his newly-purchased Portapak camera onto the crowded streets of New York to document the traffic jams and urban disruptions surrounding Pope Paul VI’s visit in 1965.

The patterns and rhythms of urban culture have certainly proved rich inspiration for generations of artists and filmmakers, and not just in the West. M+ Screenings: City Limits considers the 21st-century transformation and urbanisation of Asia, particularly China, through the eyes of fifteen moving-image artists based in the region. Representing the fast-changing realities of urban experience in an increasingly homogenous yet fragmented world, these artists reframe urban space, positioning it not just as the backdrop or setting for action, but as a potent catalyst of history, memory and belonging.

City Limits opens with five short videos by artists working in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD) at the beginning of the 21st century.  According to the World Bank, the PRD has witnessed the most rapid urban expansion in human history. Encompassing nine mainland cities in the province of Guangdong, notably Shenzhen and Guangzhou, as well as the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, this megacity was predominantly an agricultural region up until the late 1970s before it metamorphosed into China’s manufacturing heartland. With a population of over 66 million, the PRD is now the world’s largest continuous city, both in terms of population and geographical footprint. 

Given this momentous physical and social transformation, it is hardly surprising that the artists of the PRD should take the city as their major source of creative inspiration. Hou Hanru, the original curator of Canton Express at the 2003 Venice Biennale, once described the region as a “special laboratory of modernity.” Indeed, the contemporary artists who emerged onto the international scene at this time embraced ideas of urban anthropology, community-building, collaborative practice, ephemeral action, and interventions into public space. Crucially, these artists positioned the PRD as both a global city—one transcending locality and temporality—as well as a city with stubborn local and temporal anchors. The five videos by Xu Tan, Jiang Zhi, Chen Shaoxiong, Cao Fei, and Zhou Tao that open City Limits, all attest to this unique Cantonese subjectivity, showing tradition, innovation, collective memory and local meaning embedded within this globalised megacity.    

San Yuan Li (2003), a pioneering film made by Ou Ning, Cao Fei and the U-thèque film collective, harnesses the agility and flexibility of digital video to help convey the vitality, pace and effervescence of 21st-century urban Guangzhou. This 40-minute black-and-white film is a contemporary reimagining of the European ‘city symphony’ films of the 1920s and 1930s, combining rapid montages, extreme angles, dynamic camera movements and jagged pacing to document the besieged ‘urban village’ of San Yuan Li, an encircled neighbourhood of Guangzhou continuing to uphold its own rhythms, systems and rural social structures in the face of mass urbanisation.

Surreal juxtapositions of realism and fiction permeate the City Limits programme. From the melancholic symbolism of a dripping moon and the human-shaped smoke clouds in Gao Yuan’s short animation Lunar Dial (2016), to the building that launches itself like a rocket into the night sky in Jia Zhangke’s poetic drama Still Life (2006), these perplexing, irrational scenarios highlight the surreality of the true events depicted—in the latter film, the demolition and subsequent flooding of a region rich in ancient cultural heritage, and home to over a million people, for China’s Three Gorges Dam project. 

Documentary is another dominant thread in City Limits. Amid China’s epochal transformations over the past two decades, many filmmakers have worked outside the state media apparatus to provide bold alternative visions of contemporary Chinese society and filmmaking. With an ethos based on direct observation of reality and uncensored personal expression, films like Living Elsewhere (1999) by Wang Jianwei, and The Chinese Mayor (2015) by Zhou Hao, tell of China’s dispossessed peoples living in the fringes between ruin and utopia. These films take an unflinching look at the depredations and hardships of communities displaced either by overdevelopment (Living Elsewhere), or else in the name of strategic government-led cultural revitalisation (The Chinese Mayor), yet they also reveal celebratory moments of resistance. Shining a light on China’s provincial cities, they capture the complexities, contradictions and collisions of progress, politics, corruption, and citizens’ rights. 

Moving beyond China, City Limits also ventures into Hong Kong and South East Asia, to further consider localised experiences of urbanisation, and their representation on screen. Tsai Ming-Liang’s Walker (2012) and Joao Vasco Paiva’s Threshold (2013) highlight Hong Kong’s visual density and speed, albeit in radically different ways. Walker contrasts the chaos and growth of the city against the monk’s withdrawn meditative movements, his self-contained gestures suggesting imperviousness to Hong Kong’s perpetual race against time. In Threshold, the Hong Kong streets are stripped of all excessive sensory stimuli, their blank white geometries becoming palimpsests onto which speculative new visions of ‘Asia’s World City’ might be projected.

Davy Chou’s Diamond Island (2016), a coming-of-age film set in Phnom Penh, reveals a Cambodia in transition, with all the societal growing pains that such change entails. Long shots of the city, with the luxurious Diamond Island housing estate in the background, capture Cambodia’s youth dominated by their socially-stratified surroundings. 

City Limits concludes with two documentaries that consider urbanisation’s influence on South East Asia, and the symbolic power of cultural artefacts. Lee Wan’s video Made In Myanmar (2014) documents the three weeks he worked at a Chinese-owned goldmine, to help connect him personally to the individuals and traditions that are exploited every day by global socioeconomic forces. Tan Pin Pin’s In Time to Come (2017) follows the exhuming and compilation of an official time capsule, using the film to self-reflexively preserve an alternative history of Singapore today. Tan’s cinematically excavated and reconstructed spaces of Singapore represent new histories and memories that exert their own power over historical time. In the words of anthropologist David Harvey: If it is true that time is always memorialised not as flow, but as memories of experienced places and spaces, then history must indeed give way to poetry, time to space, as the fundamental material of social expression.”[1]

[1] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, 1990, p. 202.