Dec 11 2015

Shanghai: the Next Art Capital of China?

by Andrew Stooke

‘Tis the Season for Art Fairs

Shanghai has the ambition to contest Beijing as the locus where big art is seen, made and discussed, and Hong Kong as the financial hub of the Chinese art market in Asia. In September, Shanghai played host to an art week in which three art fairs—Photo Shanghai (9/11–13), West Bund Art & Design (9/8–13) and Art in the City (9/11–14)—brimmed with optimism, bolstered by the enthusiasm of the increasingly urbane Shanghainese ready to be marveled and tempted by world-class art. Barely leaving time to rest, November delivered another package of high-end contemporary art in the form of Art 021 (11/19–22). Meanwhile, only a week earlier, the larger and well-established Shanghai Art Fair (11/12–15) had also taken place, seemingly under the radar of all but local Chinese press, with a lineup of 152 international galleries. Although a little more modern than contemporary, and occasionally ghastly, the 19th edition of the fair saw huge footfall and positive sales.

In Shanghai there is the feeling that few spaces in the city have quite the scale, resources or the assurance to pull off the type of bravura spectacle, or curatorial intricacy, that has become the standard for the contemporary art exhibition. Commercial galleries in Shanghai prefer the unity of a single artist’s statement, as opposed to museum-like juxtapositions with a critical axis. For this reason, art fairs provide an opportunity to assess styles and predilections as galleries draw together their stable of artists under a single location. Art 021, now in its third year, moved its venue to the Shanghai Exhibition Center and almost doubled its size. Uniting more than 60 Chinese galleries, Art 021 provided an overview of both established and emerging contemporary art in China. Prominent international galleries such as White Cube (London/Hong Kong) and Hauser & Wirth (Zürich/London), who had already participated in West Bund Art & Design, presumably didn’t have the appetite for another Shanghai fair. So it was left to Western titans Gagosian Gallery (New York/Hong Kong), Pace Gallery (New York/London/Beijing/Hong Kong) and Marian Goodman Gallery (New York/Paris/London), among others, to present the quality and dignified reserve expected of blue-chip displays.

The proliferation of art fairs in Shanghai can be seen as a manifestation of a crucial moment for the contemporary art scene, where an inconclusive overlap between the concerns of diverse institutions, private art museums, state museums and foundations thrive alo­ngside a budding commercial sector. Where other cities turn their attention to the narratives of their past, Shanghai concentrates on an imminent future, where its art ecology is consolidated, and the city’s unassailable status as a meeting point of international influences—an outcome of its past as a trading port. A number of new shows and initiatives across town coincided with Art 021, and here, too, was a mix of reserve and brio.

Shanghai M50 Gallery Hopping

PIMO, the offshoot of Xu Zhen’s MadeIn Gallery, staged its own alternative contemporary art festival at its studio facility in Shanghai’s Songjiang district. Meanwhile, in the M50 art zone, MadeIn Gallery itself opened “Project” (11/19–1/3/2016), a collaborative show between Xiao Xiong and Zhang Hui. As part of the work, Zhang literally occupies Xiao’s paintings by covering over the latter’s images of figures and aerial landscapes with a swarm of crystal like facets. The emphasis of both programs was exploring the creative possibilities that arise from collaboration.

Where history sometimes appears irrelevant to a city’s progressive trajectory, art often connects the past with the present. Tao Hui’s astonishing video, Talk About Body (2013), which was shown as part of Aike-Dellarco gallery’s group exhibition of the same name, presents the artist, sitting on a bed, dressed in the garments of a Muslim woman and surrounded by a group of people seemingly in the role of press reporters and close family members. In discussion with an interviewer whose back is to the camera, Tao describes characteristics of his body in relation to Chinese ethnic origins. Slowly the body in question emerges as a hybrid outcome of migration and encounters with place, culture and intangible heritage.  

New-media art is always a formidable presence in Shanghai. For the final installment of a seven-exhibition series, Chronos Art Centre—China’s first non-profit organization dedicated to new-media art—presented British duo AL and AL’s, Interstellar Stella (2006). The 12-minute film, featuring a combination of computer-generated environments and live performance, evokes the use of visualization to organize and recall information extrapolated from the concept of the method of loci, better known as “memory palace.” In the film, a young girl enters a shifting, computer-generated world. Here she inspires a smart-looking avatar to overcome a sect of faceless iconoclasts. The film concludes with a rendering of a Paris underpass and we see a burning car indicative of the real-life tragic fate of Princess Diana of England. In common with other works in the series, the film depicts a scene where human memory has been superseded by relentless surveillance and image-data storage.  

Where Interstellar Stella looks forward, forebodingly, toward image-data saturation, Beijing-based Guan Xiao’s exhibition, “Basic Logic” (10/9–11/27) at Antenna Space, looked back to archival motion-picture sequences, which segue into rhythmic arrangements, in two multichannel video works entitled Hidden Track (2015) and Action (2014). These were complemented by Documentary: From National Geographic to BBC (2015), a set of grandiloquent assemblages of sculptural elements grouped in front of photographic backgrounds. The aesthetic of the objects suggest anthropological evidence perverted by ecstatic or drug-induced perception. Despite a fashionable surface, the work is rooted in a period of time before the internet, where knowledge came in disconnected chunks and images were not yet worn smooth and dull through excessive circulation.

Nearby, ShanghArt Gallery has organized “Critical Pervasion” (11/4–12/19), a solo exhibit of pioneering video artist Zhu Jia. The works in the show span his output from the 1990s to present day. They often suggest the presence of a cultural statement that lacks an appropriate or a receptive audience, such as, Absent Expression (2015)—a series of photographs that capture a group of impassioned karaoke singers crowding close to a camera, which is being overseen by an image of a parrot on an opposite wall. With more ambiguity, the two-channel video Distance Makes a Distance (2004) portrays a singer and a dancer performing, while a man sitting on a stool appears absorbed in private thoughts.

The Fresh, Young and Experimental at M50

At the newly established A+ Contemporary gallery, the Bao Dong-curated “Evolution of the Model” (11/21–1/17/16) has drawn together seven artists who use architectural structures to suggest modes of existence that quickly move from appearing desirable to flawed or unattainable. Ji Jun’s Niao Jing Xin 2 (2012) is a video circling around an open spherical structure that is reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and somehow uneasily cage-like while also suggesting natural utopian harmony. Cho Mi Young’s sculpture, The Islands–Psychological Space (2015), evokes a curious archipelago in crystal clear water. Its tranquility yields an uneasy sense that these vestiges of civilization have been abandoned to an invisible or possibly imagined flood. In a similar spirit, Cai Lei’s Model and Framework (both 2015) represent access to an architectural space, only to reveal that the places, which at first seem real, are in fact simulacra—too turgid or insubstantial to sustain belief.

Li Xiaofei’s ongoing project culminated in a second exhibition this year, entitled “Prototypes, Duplicates and Cast-offs – Assembly Line Project 2” (11/16–12/15). Exhibited at V-Art Center, the project connected a group of artists with workers at the Systence electronic component factory in Jiading, using art as a means of investigating the real, everyday lives of factory workers in China. Xiao Kaiyu’s Poetic Reflections on the Assembly Line (2015) is a funny and touching film depicting contemporary poets reading to such factory workers. The encounters are often awkward and hasty. The workers politely, but uneasily, linger while the poets deliver their words against the cacophony of the factory environment. In Today You Rest (2015), Yu Kai massages the workers as they listen to relaxing music. The video of the gentle encounter is direct, and its artless good humor is reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s note on art from 1908, in which he claims that art ought to be “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Here, the thought is transposed, through an elegant contemporary action, to sooth and calm factory workers.

In another documentary-style video, Liu Guangyun drops 50,000 pearls from a crane onto a factory floor. The artist says the pearls: “fall in a space in front of the workers bouncing up and down, introducing a brisk and splendid rhythm to the typically cold factory environment.” The exhibit succeeds in dealing with the present, showing us what it’s like, and how art can make the cold, hard reality better without tampering with its surface or creating a romantic illusion of its past.

What’s Next for Shanghai?

China at large looks to culture as a pillar of economic growth. The proliferation, scale and professionalism of Shanghai art fairs are a measure of expansion and progression. Affluent Shanghainese are becoming accustomed to patronizing contemporary art arm-in-arm with the incentivizing municipality. Many of the biggest and best galleries are scattered widely across the vast city. Nonetheless, fairs and art clusters such as M50 attempt to focus their cultural resources to offer a magnet to lure in visitors. However, it still remains to be seen if such ambition will be met with credible infrastructure, free trade or the distinctiveness to pave the contemporary art road from the world to Shanghai.

Main hall of Shanghai Exhibition Centre, at the entrance to Art 021. Courtesy Art 021.
Main hall of Shanghai Exhibition Centre, at the entrance to Art 021. Courtesy Art 021.