Photo by Matt OttoWhen Henry Tsang went to visit Orange County, security guards followed him everywhere. They wrote down the addresses he passed and noted where he stopped to look at the flowers. Any time he happened to attempt to videotape the thickly stuccoed million-dollar mansions, they'd come trotting up to tell him it was forbidden. And the representatives from the SinoCEA company—who were conducting this strictly guided tour of one of their flagship development tracts—kept asking him the same questions: Is this really what it's like back in America? Does this look like the real thing? Because, he says, they were very excited that he'd come all the way from Orange County, California, to visit one of the trendiest and most exclusive gated communities in Beijing—and they wanted to make sure they were selling the most genuine experience money could buy.
"One of the salespeople asked me, 'Do you have a house like this back in California?'" says Tsang, a Canadian student in UC Irvine's graduate studio-art program who smiles at his de facto overseas status as an arbiter of American cultural authenticity. "And I'd say, 'No, we can't afford a house like this.'" The guide "was stunned. She thought everyone in California had a house like this."
It was a moment Tsang sees as an "absurdity of modern living," a symptom-cum-situation endemic in a new kind of global society trading in ideologically unfettered capitalism and the whirlwind exchange of images. And it's just what he may have been hoping for as he put together his thesis show, "Orange County," a video installation exploring what it means when a meticulously constructed replica of an Orange County housing tract—down to the almost as-is blueprints from architectural firm Bassenian/Lagoni, whose homes are scattered across Southern California—is such a hot place to live for residents of the capital city of totalitarian communist China.
"China is trying to catch up," he says. "Anything Americans make, they want. That's why my video installation employs a follow-the-leader motif. And here, they've gone to the trouble of hiring OC designers to do the real thing. The authenticity of American-ness is a huge selling point. But the funny thing is when people look at the footage, they say, 'That could be Toronto; that could be Miami—that could be anywhere.' The houses all look the same—they're all adaptation, anyway. There's no source for them, no point of origin. The American style they're selling is French, Spanish and Italian. But if you go to France, Spain or Italy, you won't find it."
Instead, he says, what the Chinese have done is copy a copy—simulate a simulacra, to use the correct postmodern terminology—and transplant a uniquely ahistorical architectural vernacular into the country that hosted Mao's cultural revolution. And people love it, he says: in a perverse way, an Orange County housing tract is as culturally revolutionary as you can get. These vapid faux-Mediterranean-style homes that cater to both the predilections and prejudices of California's upper middle class—that make OC the disorienting, centerless suburb of sprawl that it is—are a chance for the Chinese to wedge themselves into a new global power hierarchy, to step out of their old history and into the new. Tsang could have stopped in at Starbucks on his way to tangling with the secret police in SinoCEA's Orange County, he says: the government remains as totalitarian as ever, and the communist infrastructure still creaks along, but what the people want now is the simple freedom capitalism promises—the chance to be what you buy.
"Why is that bizarre?" he asks. "People are just head over heels in love with being Western right now, and capitalism is all about the bottom line—it doesn't give a shit about people or about ethics. It only cares about if the bottom line is black—not red."
Tsang says his art has always been about the dynamics of control and power, of urban space, of globalization; he doesn't need to explain the connections in "Orange County," but somewhere in his follow-the-leader video piece are hints about the eventual dissolution of the nation-state, the formation of a global class system, a strange and almost neo-feudalistic future world. Beijing Orange County's hometown-security apparatus echoes the rent-a-cop patrols that putter through the gated cul-de-sacs off the 73, testament to a sad sort of human universality. The Chinese may be famous for building walls to keep out the barbarians, but it's an impulse anyone can understand—and sell.
"I think gated cities around the world are very similar," says Tsang. "They've tapped into a market that has pretty similar values. It's consistent with the movement of people into compounds, where the relationship is going to be stronger between different cities around the world than with the environment right outside the gates. I mean, how many people actually know their neighbors? They use the word 'community,' but it's a pretty loose use of the word. It's purely people who live in proximity. There are none of the other connotations."
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He didn't want to be too explicit in his work, currently up at UCI, but these are the sorts of questions he hopes he evokes. But there's still that same question the Chinese had for Tsang, a question phrased with elegant visual economy in side-by-side footage of Beijing, Rancho Santa Margarita and Mission Viejo: How close to Orange County did the Chinese really get?
Tsang pauses for a split second, something between a sigh and a deep breath.
"It looks," he says, "like the real thing."
"Orange County" at UC Irvine's School of Arts Plaza, New Studio Art Building, Room Gallery, W. Peltason and Mesa, Irvine, (949) 824-3508. Open Tues.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Through May 10. Free.