A HISTORY OF EXHIBITIONS: SHANGHAI 1979–2006, edited by Biljana Ciric. Published by the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester, 2014. Soft cover with full color illustrations, 466 pages. 

Jan 21 2015

A History of Exhibitions: Shanghai 1979–2006

by Denise Tsui

You may wonder why we would want to add yet another book on Chinese art into our already overflowing office shelves. But let me explain. This publication is not your average Chinese art book. A History of Exhibitions: Shanghai 1979–2006 (2014) is a treasure trove of documentation on a lesser known part of Chinese contemporary art history.

Published by the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, in Manchester, UK, the book chronicles 34 seminal artist-initiated exhibitions held in Shanghai between 1979 to 2006. The publication is a compendium of archival materials assembled by Shanghai-based curator Biljana Ciric, and it was developed from her curatorial research undertaken for the exhibition “History in the Making: Shanghai 1979–2009,” held at the Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art in 2009. Ciric clarifies in her introductory essay that the project suffered from a lack of many of the original literary documentation of the featured exhibitions and, therefore, relied on information and personal insights gathered through artist interviews.

In discussing the exhibitions, Ciric avoids academic jargon and excessive analytical text. For each of the exhibitions there are details of its basic factual information, as well as floor-plans, media coverage and catalogues for those that were available (which in many instances were not). Also included is a brief statement explaining each show’s significance in the historical development of exhibition-making in Shanghai. Rich in photographic images of the exhibitions, as well as its artworks and related events, the book is a visual feast.

The anthology begins with the “Twelve-Man Painting Exhibition,” held at the Huangpu District Youth Palace in 1979, which was the first show to present artists not belonging to any official artists’ association in China. It marked the beginning of artist-initiated exhibitions and activities in Shanghai in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). According to the book, 1986 was the most fruitful year for such exhibitions, including the “Concave-Convex Exhibition” at the Shanghai Xuhui District House of Culture. One of the earliest recorded thematic exhibitions in Shanghai, it is influential for having introduced new concepts of sculptural practice to the city’s art community. What makes this particular exhibition notable was the evident influence of New York’s 1980s East Village art scene on the Chinese artists in this show.

A HISTORY OF EXHIBITIONS: SHANGHAI 1979–2006 (interior), edited by Biljana Ciric. Published by the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester, 2014. Soft cover with full color illustrations, 466 pages. 

Breaking free from institutional structure and challenging established exhibition formats, many of the shows featured in the book were pivotal, experimental events. In 1996, Shanghai hosted the first exhibition in the city to show international artists alongside those from China. “Let’s Talk About Money: Shanghai First International Fax Art Exhibition,” held at the Huashan Vocational Art School, contested the traditional definitions and formats of art and art-making. The exhibition was a project developed in collaboration with Western Front, an artist-run space in Vancouver, Canada. During the exhibition period, artworks arrived as faxed messages, which were pasted on the gallery walls on a daily basis by local artists.

Another exhibition that the book discusses is “Art for Sale” (1999), regarded by Ciric as one of the most ambitious shows in Shanghai for its large scale and complexity, which expanded the boundaries of curatorial practice at the time. The participating artists, responding to what was becoming a rapidly commercialized art scene in China, used the interior of a local supermarket as the site of the exhibition. The show was shut down after only three days due to several artists displaying moving-image works, which required a special permit that had not been granted.

Of the 34 exhibitions surveyed in the book, the significant number of shows that were prematurely shut down by authorities offers a fascinating art historical perspective. Although Ciric’s personal research extends beyond 2006, she specifically chose to end this book with “38 Solo Exhibitions,” for the lasting impact this show has since had on the Shanghai art scene. It was one of the largest exhibitions in Shanghai during that time, bringing together artists from several other cities in China. The exhibition was held in the independent art space Creative Garden and received support from various local institutions such as the Zendai Museum of Modern Art and BizArt Center. Ultimately the exhibition was shut down after only a few hours, and two of the participating artists jailed, when authorities purportedly found “offensive” works that depicted “lewd” images. Ciric marks this event as a major milestone in the exhibition history of Shanghai for the radical influence it had on the country’s burgeoning museum infrastructure and rising commercial sector. She notes that after this exhibition there was less emphasis placed on exhibition-making as a formatted practice, and the mentality of artists towards the presentation of their works also saw a change.

Although the experience of reading A History of Exhibitions: Shanghai 1979–2006 is mostly enjoyable, there are a few bumps along the way, as a consequence of there being minor editorial errors throughout the book. Nevertheless, it is a brave effort at presenting an overlooked and under-documented yet important part of Chinese art history; and for this one could forgive the occasional grammatical slip. The depth and commitment of Ciric’s research is most evident in the publication’s abundance of artist interviews, which is the true gem of the book. The interviews offer a rare glimpse into the professional and personal lives of these artists—the breadth of their experience both as artists attempting to break free from institutionalism and as individuals living through turbulent times in China’s modern sociopolitical history.