Grass Stage's Theater of Precarity in Shanghai

Authored by: Mark Driscoll

The Routledge Companion to Art and Politics

Print publication date:  January  2015
Online publication date:  February  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415645102
eBook ISBN: 9781315736693
Adobe ISBN: 9781317567806


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This is a figure ubiquitous in contemporary Shanghai. He enters a simply-lit stage, carrying two soiled leather sacks full of the emblematic commodity of ecocidal, hypercapitalist China—empty plastic water bottles—the detritus he collects to survive. Despite readily available recycling bins, the bottles are now an integral part of the Shanghai cityscape, marrying the class polarities of bottle-collector and financial analyst as the only two expanding jobs in urban China.1 Echoing Walter Benjamin’s ragpicker from the Passagenwerk, the bottle recycler applies himself assiduously to his work, deftly salvaging the empties that will pay him the equivalent of one cent for ten bottles and ignoring those lacking any value. The obvious skill at identifying value where others see only trash is registered smugly on the face of the collector, who after a few minutes of focused salvaging, stuffs his bags to the limit and proceeds to break the fourth wall by smiling directly at the audience. Closing up (shoulong) the bags to prevent any losses, he breaks into a communist song popular in the 1950s.

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