9,600,000 square feet. 2,350 retails spaces. Spraying fountains, amusement park rides, video game arcades, replicas of international monuments, including the Arc de Triomph, the bell tower of St. Mark’s in Venice, and a 1.3-mile canal with gondolas. This is the New South China Mall in Dongguan, China, a sprawling, colorful complex that has been poised as the one-stop consumption center of the future since its opening in 2005. But in the words and images of photographer Matthew Niederhauser, the mall is an “unabatedly empty temple to consumerism.” Of its 2,350 retail spaces, only 47 are occupied, and the top floors remain unfinished, sitting in settled dust, inhabited almost exclusively by an eerie coterie of dismembered mannequins.
Niederhauser’s photos of the mall are undeniably compelling. Its empty halls are reminiscent of the drawings of visionary architect Joseph Gandy, who depicted John Soane’s Bank of England as a massive new construction and a grand, illustrious ruin of Roman lineage, one and the same. Likewise, Dongguan’s mall basks in a precious state, visibly detached from economic, social and human flows and from temporality itself, so it seems.
The image, however, is more bleak than sublime. The mall’s manager and his team of a dozen or so operators are clinging to hope in the form of a government-sponsored investor, who refuses to let the project succumb to bankruptcy. But it remains to be seen whether or not China can pump life into this massive consumerist monument, built over 220 acres of farmland with barely any connection to the populated provinces of Shenzhen and Guangzhou nearby.
In an upcoming Oscar-nominated film about the mall by Sam Green, mall consultant Ted deSwart hailed the hulking complex—the product of a billionaire’s myopic vision—as an illustration of “how fast China is not only catching up with the West but surpassing the West too.” The New South China Mall undoubtedly dwarfs its western predecessors, spanning twice the size of Minneapolis’ famed Mall of America and appearing more like a condensed city akin to Las Vegas than a mere shopping destination. However, its ghostly interiors and empty walkways and escalators are a testament to China’s eagerness to fabricate superficial visions of grandeur with little to no regard to their context.
[All photos: Matthew Niederhauser]