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December 9, 2009

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Visiting artist holds a sign: 'I love China just the way it is'

ONE square mile can be a cross-section, a microcosm of life in a big city, and English artist Richard Layzell is exploring his own "1 square mile" in Xuhui District.

He has found it all: schools, shopping, parks, church/temple, restaurants, a train station, gardens, universities, migrant communities and the Huangpu River. There's a public toilet he particularly likes.

Layzell, who calls himself a "freelance artist," has been connecting with his own square mile in Xuhui District as part of a six-week international project called One Mile Squared.

His "thing" is "intervention" and community "interaction" - he doesn't call it performance art. A little video, a little photography, a little sound, a little standing around with signs in Chinese saying "I love China" and "I love China the way it is."

He has been here four weeks; eight other artists are exploring other square miles in Dhaka, Delhi, Tehran, Edinburgh, Johannesburg and London.

Layzell has been putting himself in some unusual situations - standing still in a bustling train station and holding his "I love" sings.

It's not art in the traditional sense but Layzell doesn't care.

"It's to socially engage, people don't need to know whether it is art or not."

His message to China, which, says Layzell, gives foreigners too much status and puts too much emphasis on learning English, is "don't change."

"I love China the way it is," he says.


Three things come to his mind - recycling, food and petrol-free vehicles (bikes and hauling tricycles.)

In Layzell's square mile is a recycling center, "old fashioned but brilliant, here it really works."

He is comparing "it" to the UK where he says people recycle half-heartedly.

The local produce has also made an impression on Layzell.

He says UK supermarkets have too much power and influence, telling the consumer they want exotic fruit and vegetables all year round when they don't want it at all (he claims).

Layzell is used to buying produce from around the world - green peas from Zambia, mangoes from the Philippines - which is why he was surprised and delighted to learn that most of what he buys from Shanghai markets have been grown in the suburbs. Of course, there's lots of imported fruit as well.

Another reason Layzell loves China - the widespread use of pedal-power, though dwarfed by polluting internal combustion engine vehicles.

One morning in rush-hour traffic, standing on the corner of Shilong and Longwu roads, Layzell counted over 1,000 petrol-free vehicles in 30 minutes.

"The?relationship to?pedal power here couldn't be more different from bike culture in?London. Here it doesn't matter how it looks, so long as?it moves."?

Layzell's exploration of his square mile has also been about proving or disproving some theories he had about China.

Standing very still in a bustling crowd, Layzell suspected he wouldn't be pushed or bumped - he was right.

"In the UK people would bump into me but in China people have a different spatial awareness - they move differently."

Also Layzell's square mile is graced with an extraordinary toilet near the Shanghai South Railway Station.

Encased in bamboo and glass, it is a piece of architecture in its own right.

The artist says he was so affected by the whole experience that he asked to take a photo of the toilet with the attendant.

This simple request turned into an invitation to Layzell to visit a makeshift classroom underneath the railway station where the attendant learned English.

Layzell says making these connections with the local community has been the most fulfilling part of the square mile project.

"Being invited into their home space to contribute to these migrant workers' English lesson - I won't forget that."


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