Mimesis Part III: Rebuilding the Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace, Sydenham

The Crystal Palace, Sydenham

We recently learned of ZhongRong Group Chairman Ni Zhaoxing’s plans to invest 500 million pounds (US$ 811 million) to rebuild the 1851 Crystal Palace in Sydenham, England.  China’s mimetic and shanzhai landscapes has been an ongoing theme of this blog, but this news adds a new twist to the story.  While China has been building replica landscapes all over the country for years now, this is the first prominent example I’ve encountered of China building a replica landscape outside of China.  China is now exporting mimesis!

The Crystal Palace of course was Joseph Paxton’s magnificent monument to industrialism, imperialism, and modernity – a huge warehouse built of steel and glass that housed the Great Exhibition, a spectacle display of thousands and thousands of material objects from all over the world (see this online facsimile of the catalog to get a sense of the overwhelming and bewildering array of stuff that was displayed there).  It burned to the ground in 1936, marking in many ways the symbolic end of industrialism as the measure of progress and imperial might.  And some believe Britain has never really recovered ever since.  “We will make the new Crystal Palace a jewel on the crown for the UK and the entire world,” Ni tells us.   It’s like he’s doing Britain a favor, helping Britannia return to her past glory.  “Whenever I visited the ruins, I kept thinking about ways to restore the past glory of the Crystal Palace,” he says.  In some ways, I suppose, it’s a bit like America’s infatuation with British royalty, something we rejected a couple hundred years ago in a revolution and have been trying to reestablish through capitalism ever since.

Anyway, there are a few people in Britain who are predictably scandalized by Ni’s plans.  One of them is the Telegraph’s Stephen Bayley.  In his criticism of the plan, Bayley employs a familiar rhetoric that casts aspersions on ‘the fake’ as something suspicious and, indeed, immoral.  Ni’s “nerveless replica of Paxton’s revolutionary Victorian original,” he writes, “is another contribution to the woeful Disneyfication of modern life, where nothing is real and everything is a pastiche or a forgery.”  Bayley continues:

This is all the more shameful because the original Crystal Palace was a magnificent gesture of national confidence, a multi-media demonstration of absolute authority in the material world.

I’m not sure where Bayley’s sense of shame originates here.  Perhaps he feels shamed (as I would) at the thought of rebuilding a monument to imperialism, colonialism, and belief in the ‘authority of the material world.’  But I don’t think that’s it.  Instead, he seems to think that Britain should be ashamed for enabling Chinese fakery itself:

Why do the Chinese want to fake it? One theory is that their fetishisation of handbag brands and European architecture is a delayed reaction to drab Maoist uniformity. Belief in Louis Vuitton or in Prince Albert offers a simulacrum of the family bonds which the Cultural Revolution so effectively destroyed. Thus in Mr Ni’s native Shanghai you find spectacular examples of what US critic Bianca Bosker calls “Duplitecture”, bizarre reproductions of European buildings, even whole cities.

It’s bad enough, Bayley seems to think, that the Chinese can’t come up with anything original, but to allow them to export their shanzhai culture really gets under his skin:

…why would we ever want to entertain experiments in forgery here? Only xenophobes would resist Mr Ni’s capitalist tools, but the rest of us would prefer that dabbling in misunderstood historical reference were restricted to his native Shanghai.

Copying the Crystal Palace is a shaming refutation of everything its prototype stood for: originality, pride, enterprise, ingenuity and a refusal to compromise… The new Crystal Palace will not be edifying. It will be a monument to a heartless global parasitic culture that, having no inspiration of its own, finds it in badly translated history. It is a bad-taste insult to the intelligence. If it gets built, it will only remind us of what we have lost.

While Bayley appears to have read Bosker’s book on China’s mimetic landscapes (also discussed on this blog), it’s clear he has failed to understand most of what she has to say about these landscapes.  Here’s his reading of her view of China’s ‘simulacrascapes’:

Bosker charitably says the Chinese have a “more permissive and nuanced attitude to copying” than us. Maybe this carnival of kitsch is a learning process which will, when the true spirit of authentic faking eventually becomes fatigued, result in a new Chinese style. Then again, maybe not.

But Bosker’s point is not so much that authentic fakery will result in a new (authentically) Chinese style, but rather that fakery is itself productive and creative and not merely derivative.  Through the fake we tend to grasp what is real.  It’s not the fakery that should scandalize Bayley, but rather the attitude that being reminded of Britain’s lost imperialism is somehow a bad thing.


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