In 1756, at the request of Emperor Qianlong, the Italian architect Giuseppe Castiglione created a European style garden for the Old Summer Palace just outside the Forbidden City in Beijing. The garden took the form of a maze—a motif popular in Europe at the time, with a history stretching back to ancient Greece—and was known as the Wanhua Zhen (10,000-flower maze). In the winter of 2011-2012, in response to another Chinese invitation, we used common orange traffic cones to build a temporary installation on Citizens’ Plaza in Shenzhen that nodded to that historic garden.
Traffic cones, in their bright orange uniforms trimmed with reflective tape, can seem like small soldiers, stoically standing at attention and restricting our movement according to the orders they’ve been handed. Ubiquitous on roads and at construction sites around the world, they have become visual metaphors for progress, but also reminders—particularly in places like urban China of the dangers of over-development. In groups, they herald change like a kind of alarm.
On Citizens’ Plaza we deployed an army of these soldiers for a different end.
The plaza, at the foot of Shenzhen’s city hall, is a vast, gray and inhospitable expanse that only comes to life at night, as kids, streaming in on rollerblades, transform it into a skatepark. There, asin plazas and parks around the world, the skaters create obstacle courses for themselves with afew strategically placed cones. Like mazes, these courses challenge by prescribing precise routes for traversing them.
Inspired by both the skaters’ obstacle courses and Castiglione’s maze, our installation spread 5,000 cones in geometric patterns across the plaza, like strokes of bright orange paint across a gray canvas. Rather than prescribing a single route, our arrangement suggested many. The cones themselves were toppled, precariously balanced or decoratively arrayed in floral patterns. Instead of standing at dignified attention, the little soldiers, stripped of their authoritarian nature, danced irreverently across the surface like mischievous toys.
The plaza became an alternate world that everyone was invited to enter and explore. For the two months of the installation, it was filled day and night with rollerbladers, bikers, joggers and strollers of all ages, especially children. (Their movements through the space were accompanied, as in a garden, by the sound of chirping crickets, emanating from the cones.) The largest and most ceremonial of public spaces was transformed by a small, utilitarian object that can be found on any street.
After the close of the Biennale the installation was disassembled and nearly every par t recycled. In the end, the only significant resources consumed were the energy used to transport the cones and the labor to install them. The cones themselves were unharmed, and are now serving out the rest of their time as originally intended, warning both of physical risk and of impending changes in the world.