Shanghai: Art hub or terminal? An overview of the city’s contemporary art scene

Hong Kong and Singapore are often touted as competitors for the crown of Asia’s contemporary art hub, but there is a third city making a play for the title: Shanghai.

Where is the visual arts hub of the Asia Pacific region? Shanghai, a city whose internationalism has deep roots in its trading past, is making a compelling claim to be the region’s art centre, as the seeds of pioneering art activity and curatorial work penetrate critical zones that until recently belonged only to the dominant transatlantic dialogues of the previous millennium.

JI Wenyu and ZHU Weibing, 'There Live Wild Animals', 2012, installation mixed media, 200 x 200 x 22cm. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing, ‘There Live Wild Animals’, 2012, installation mixed media, 200 x 200 x 22 cm. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

There is huge cultural diversity across the Asia Pacific region, and this multicultural audience needs more than one point of critical access to contemporary art. Southeast Asian city-state Singapore and international entrepot Hong Kong, often seen as art hub competitors, are both increasing efforts and investment in building art infrastructure. Shanghai is also setting itself up as an art centre, but does it have what it takes to flourish?

Economic signs for the city are good. On 26 September 2013 in Shanghai, Christie’s presented the first international auction in mainland China. The house promoted the sale as a moment of historic significance, concurrent with the inauguration of the China Pilot Free Trade Zone in Shanghai. The atmosphere in the saleroom was buoyant, and the prices, although satisfactory, were not inflated. Only a small Giorgio Morandi still life remained unsold. Other lots, even those from living artists, were named as secure investments by commentators.

However, to sustain long-term cultural investments by supporting emerging art, Shanghai needs audiences to animate its confident new art museums, not just drop-in buyers. A hub for the visual arts cannot only be a good trading place, it has to be a place where great new art experiences happen, where art is seen, produced and discussed.

So what is happening in Shanghai now and what does that tell us about the city’s art potential?

Yang Zhenzhong, 'Pleasant Sensation Passing Through Flesh 1- 2', 2012, installation view dimensions variable. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Yang Zhenzhong, ‘Pleasant Sensation Passing Through Flesh 1- 2’, 2012, installation view. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

The announcement on 31 October 2013 of Kwan Sheung Chi as the winner of the inaugural Hugo Boss Asia Art Award for Emerging Chinese Artists highlighted the commitment from independent arts professionals to supporting art practices that reference the recent canonical context. In the competition exhibition at Rockbund Art Museum (13 September  – 8 December 2013), many of Kwan’s works engage with previous discourses, often pinpointed in his choice of media and presentation strategy.

Kwan’s nearly black video Dark Night (2013), displayed on a large cathode monitor, closely relates to Tamara Krikorian’s video art classic from 1976, Disintegrating Forms. Both artists turn their cameras to the sky in their respective digital and analogue media. With similar nostalgia, Doing it with Chi (2013) reworks Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). In One Million (2012) Kwan counts out one million Chinese Yuan; contrasting the crimson RMB100 notes with the ubiquitous US dollar bill or ‘greenback’. Kwan reflects the economic context of contemporary China in a tradition stretching back to Andy Warhol’s multiple dollar bill paintings of 1962. The complex work is also reminiscent of Christian Marclay’s celebrated Clock (2011), a film montage which won the Golden Lion at Venice Biennale 2011. In Kwan’s film the crisp sound made by the folding notes as they are counted is clocklike too, suggesting time slipping past as well as accumulation and exchange.

Xu Zhen, 'Divinities', 2011, polystyrene, 205 x 130 x 450cm. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Xu Zhen, ‘Divinities’, 2011, polystyrene, 205 x 130 x 450 cm. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

The artists in the Hugo Boss exhibition work outside the studio. They do not employ painting or static figurative images. They tell stories but make their point by withholding information, so the stories do not conclude tidily. A case in point is Li Liao’s 45 day long sojourn working for Foxconn in Shenzhen, to earn sufficient money to purchase a desirable new piece of consumer electronics. The work produced news stories. The sparse objects presented in the Museum, standing for the sequence of actions that constitute the work, do not provide any clues to flesh out the news with a human interest angle. This evidence of the durational work thwarts communication and makes no concession to glib comprehension.

Art from an accessible era

The Power Station exhibit “Portrait of the Times” (18 August – 10 November 2013) featured a work from the socialist realist era – Chen Danqing’s Tears Flooding the Autumnal Fields (1976). In the painting, set on 9 September 1976, a mixed group stands in the open around a portable radio and hears of Mao’s death. It is not hard to understand the image even if you cannot read the title.

The socialist realist period from the 1960s to the 1980s was designed to be comprehensible to a non-art public. Representational painting was the primary medium. However, innovation in art education in Shanghai has not kept pace with the building of new museums and galleries. Although the Shanghai World Financial Centre promoted an Art Talk platform alongside its anniversary show “Filter the Public” (25 October – 11 November 2013), the talk was directed at an informed audience, not towards the average viewer.

Different areas of the Financial Centre showed work from several of the city’s leading galleries and curators but made it apparent that, compared to New York, London, Berlin or Paris, the Shanghai art world is still an intimate place, its interests usually domestic or corporate. Works such as Zheng Lu’s Almost Zen (2012), a cluster of steel fabricated boulders, or Xu Zhen’s Divinities (2011), monumental polystyrene figures, command awe but do not address institutional issues or notions of public space.

Shanghai_Zheng Lu_Almost Zen

Zheng Lu, ‘Almost Zen’, 2012 (below) and Shao Yinong and Mu Chen, ‘Spring and Autumn’, 2013-2014 (above). “Filter the Public” installation view at SWFC. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

“Time-art” and urban living in Shanghai

The West Bund Biennial of Architecture and Contemporary Art (20 October – 19 December 2013) uses a raw development zone as the stage for massive propositions about urban living. Stretching from the site of the West Bund Exhibition Centre in the north to the unfinished Pavilion of Six Views in the south, the site highlights nine new civic projects. Sadly, or enticingly, these are mainly still under construction. The circular main area includes Fabrica, a cycle of architectural practices hosted in small booths, and Reflecta, a Review of Contemporary Art. The Biennale proposes that architecture is, ‘time art’, situation rather than site.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen, 'Pavilion of Six Views'  West Bund Biennial of Architecture and Contemporary Art 2013. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen, ‘Pavilion of Six Views’ , under construction at West Bund Biennial of Architecture and Contemporary Art 2013. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

The sound of revolution

“Revolutions per Minute: Sound Art China”, the biennial’s parallel show set in four oil storage tanks adjacent to the central arena, is the first survey of Chinese sound art in the world, and makes for an ambitious and uncompromising experience. Dajuin Yao’s A Study on the Kinetics of Mandarin Tones (1997) demands mental interaction to evoke shared and communicative sonic space. A quarter of the show is occupied by Samson Young’s Chamber Music (2013), in which the artist brings about a gentle whimsical silence, holding its own against the hubbub of other exhibits.

Samson Young, ‘Chamber Music’, 2013, sound installation, mixed media, dimensions and materials variable. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Samson Young, ‘Chamber Music’, 2013, installation view, mixed media, dimensions and materials variable. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

In Yang Zhenzhong’s Pleasant Sensation Passing Through Flesh 1- 3 (2012), part of the solo exhibition “Trespassing” at OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (8 August to 17 November 2013), the artist strips the covers from three luxury massage chairs, exposing their mechanisms. Yang mounts them on the wall to make new kinetic works. Fish Bowl (1996) references Nam June Paik’s iconic TV Fish (1975–88): in the work Yang immerses three monitors in tanks of water and shows a submerged persona, mistaken for a fish, relentlessly protesting his humanity. Yang also presented work at ShanghART’s recent show “Clutch” (6 September – 8 November 2013).

Also included in “Clutch” was JI Wenyu and Zhu Weibing’s There Live Wild Animals (2012), a circular brown domestic mat on which the artists have made an appliqué representation of a derelict basketball court. A herd of wild horses, also made of fabric, stampedes in an arc. The work suggests a post-apocalyptic scenario.

Yang Zhenzhong, 'Fish Bowl', 1996, video installation, mixed media. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Yang Zhenzhong, ‘Fish Bowl’, 1996, video installation, mixed media. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Raqs Media Collective, installation view at Chronus Art Centre, showing left to right, 'The Vigil', 2013, 'The Imminet departure of Anybody, Everybody, Somebody, Nobody, Antibody, Busybody and others', 2013, 'Re-Run', 2013. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Raqs Media Collective, installation view at Chronus Art Centre, showing left to right, ‘The Vigil’, 2013, ‘The Imminet departure of Anybody, Everybody, Somebody, Nobody, Antibody, Busybody and others’, 2013, ‘Re-Run’, 2013. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Raqs Media Collective presents “Extra Time”, a suite of multifaceted works, next door at Chronus Art Center. In Clam Down, Madam (or, A Brief History of Capitol), 2013, the India-based group refer to the Shanghai Expo of 2010. The notes on the work state that

The Expo site, its vistas and architectural embellishments become a mise-en-scene for the staging of a kind of stretched out snap-shot of capital’s allure and repulsion.

The 2010 Expo, a world’s fair-style event on which the Chinese government spent more than on the Beijing Olympics, was a promotion of China’s soft power potential, and Shanghai’s status as international cultural centre. Raqs Media Collective’s focus on this event, their recent residency in Shanghai as well as their collaboration with Westheavens, a cross-cultural  programme between China and India, suggests Shanghai’s growing art internationalism and the city’s potential to become a locus for creativity rather than a simple free trade zone.

Andrew Stooke

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Related Topics: Chinese art and artists, events in Shanghai, biennials, gallery shows, mixed media, installations, new media, overviews, sound art, art and architecture

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