SHANGHAI ART SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM SHOW
For a long time in the West, the image of Asia has relied on popular, and almost always Western, media imagery. From medieval travel literature to films in today’s time, the tropes of the orient repeat itself with every kung fu movie. At “Shanghai“, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the image of China comes from the subject itself.
Taking a cue from the 30th anniversary of the San Francisco-Shanghai sister-city relationship, “Shanghai” presents a portrait of a city evolving over 160 years. Accompanying the exhibition are year-long festivals, concerts, workshops, film screenings, talks and discussions. The exhibition features more than 130 artworks including China Trade oil paintings, Shanghai deco furniture and rugs, movie clips, revolutionary posters, and video and contemporary art installations.
Mirroring the life pulse of Shanghai over a century and half are its art and art objects. Neatly divided into four time periods, “Beginnings” (1850–1911), “High Times” (1912–1949), “Revolution” (1920–1976), and “Shanghai Today” (1980–present), the exhibition presents a rare glimpse of Shanghai’s visual culture in transition from a modest Chinese port town to a bustling cosmopolitan city.
The success as well as the challenge of this exhibition lies in presenting a complex and multi-layered visual culture within the framework of a linear narrative. Beginning with China Trade paintings from the 1850s, painted in large numbers to document the world of European colonialists, the exhibition moves forward to highlight artists from the Shanghai School who broke away from the traditional mode of landscape painting and created expressive and dramatic works for wealthy Chinese patrons. The later arrival of print technology lead to mass production and there are a number of posters and other graphic art on display, including the infamous large-format colorful government propaganda posters.
“Shanghai Today” presents a rare opportunity to interact with works produced exclusively by artists based in Shanghai. Embracing installation and video art, this section features some important Shanghai artists. A highlight of the show is Shen Fan’s 2007 installation Landscape-Commemorating Huang Binhong-Scroll, an homage to one of China’s great artists of the twentieth century. This installation piece utilizes computer-operated neon lights and music.
The city as a direct subject is very much present in the works of installation artists Zhang Jianjun (b. 1955) and Liu Jianhua (b. 1962). Both artists deal with the contemporary realities of Shanghai and its city space.
Zhang Jianjun’s work Vestiges of a Process: Shanghai Garden is an installation composed of two silicone rubber Taihu rocks, manufactured from molds of real Taihu rocks that are prized in traditional garden culture for providing city dwellers with symbolic access to nature. The rocks are accompanied by a silicone rubber vase and both are arranged on a pavement of gray antique bricks which have been acquired from the demolition of Shanghai houses constructed between 1923 and 1926. Visitors are invited to walk through the installation.
Liu Jianhua’s Can You Tell Me? consists of a series of stainless steel books suspended from a vertical wall. Each book presents two questions about Shanghai’s future, one on each page, that are translated into five languages: Chinese, English, French, German and Japanese. Ever-changing, propelled by its role as an economic powerhouse, the city suggests endless possibilities, some of which Liu asks visitors to contemplate.
For sometime now, the video format has been the preferred medium for many contemporary Shanghai artists and the exhibition closes with contemporary video art, one of the mediums in which Shanghai artists are taking a worldwide lead. Yang Fudong (b. 1971) is a contemporary video artist who features prominently in this section with three video works: City Light (2000), Liu Lan (2003) and Honey (2003). A celebrated photographer, videographer, and film maker, Fudong frequently explores feelings of longing and displacement. His works often focus on the lives of young urbanites who, despite possessing admirable qualities such as education or beauty, may not be well-adjusted to the environment in which they live.
“Shanghai” is on at the Asian Art Museum (San Francisco) until September 2010. It has been co-organized by the Shanghai Museum and the Asian Art Museum, with assistance from the Shanghai International Culture Association.
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