It's Electric 

China Design Now Wakes up the Sleeping Dragon

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The electric pink walls throughout the Portland Art Museum's China Design Now exhibit indicate the youthful, hyper-stylized mood of its contents. China is on a design high after decades of socialism—the very idea of someone working as an artist or designer outside of a government mandate is less than a generation old there. As a result, the newfound freedom of expression is rapidly changing the culture. Outsider associations with sweatshop manufacture, iffy sanitation, and sinister government actions are giving way to recognition of China's artistic blend of invention and loyalty to tradition, a combining theme evident throughout the sprawling exhibit.

Originally assembled for London's Victoria and Albert Museum, China Design Now is organized around three of China's major cities: Shenzhen ("Frontier City") is the nation's graphic design hub, replete with poster art, limited-edition sneakers and skateboards, and an average resident age of 27. Shanghai ("Dream City"), the "Paris of the Orient," is all about glamorous couture, elegant modern furniture, and the cultural empire of Yue-Sai Kan, who is roughly as influential as Oprah. And Beijing ("Future City") is a massive, heart-stopping sculpture garden of architectural innovation, including the "bird's nest" stadium and swimming center built for the 2008 Olympics—an occasion that served as one of the most far-reaching realizations of China's newfound creative power.

Considering the pace and scope of the movement this exhibit covers, the onslaught of mediums can feel a little soup-to-nuts, with a different film/costume/poster/architectural model confronting you at every turn. The Shenzhen and Shanghai portions pale a bit next to Beijing—the graphic designs, fashion, and lifestyle branding are not without Western parallel. Yet the architectural adventurousness in the "future city" is like watching the construction of the ninth wonder of the world. The China Central TV building alone, a massive, gravity-defying angled loop where over 10,000 people go to work every day, is impressive enough to warrant an exhibit of its own.

As it becomes increasingly clear that no one country can lay claim as the world's cultural authority (sorry, France), lovers of art and design should be eager to add another destination to the global roadmap of invention. This exhibit, one presumes, represents merely the cusp.

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