Raising the standard: New museums and exhibitions in Shanghai

Shanghai is developing into a locus where art can be seen and discussed.

In November 2013, Art Radar published an article entitled “Shanghai: Art hub or terminal?”, highlighting the city’s contemporary art scene. Nearly eight months and several new museums later, what has changed in Shanghai?

Long Museum gallery view. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

Long Museum gallery view. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

If ever there was any disquiet – expressed in articles such as “Mad about museums: China is building thousands of new museums, but how will it fill them?” (The Economist, 21 December 2013), or “A Building Boom as Chinese Art Rises in Stature” (The New York Times, 20 March 2013) – that China’s proliferating new museum buildings lack the ambitious collections to fill them, Shanghai tells a different story.

In 1985, art dealer and collector Charles Saatchi opened a gallery in a disused paint factory in Boundary Road, North London. Visiting the gallery involved a long walk from the nearest Underground station. The walk led to a grey painted steel gate, unmarked but for the street number, which opened onto a courtyard and a final processional approach to the massive private gallery. The first exhibitions exposed the British public to contemporary works of unprecedented confidence and scale. The influence of this work on the succeeding generation of artists and gallerists was equally without precedent: from Rachel Whiteread’s house-sized casts to Jay Joplin’s museum-like spaces – ultimately leading to the culture industry’s near ten percent contribution to the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product.

A similar effect, down to the access to stunning exhibition halls through several preliminary spaces, is available at the new Shanghai Yuz Contemporary Art Museum (YCAM).

Yuz Museum view with Yong Ping Huang, 'Tower Snake', 2009, installation. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

Yuz Museum view with Yong Ping Huang, ‘Tower Snake’, 2009, installation. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

The Yuz Museum

While many eyes were turned towards Art Basel Hong Kong 2014, the Yuz Contemporary Art Museum opened in Sou Fujimoto’s building in mid-May 2014. The inaugural show, “Myth/History”, plays on the theatricality of the site’s former use as an airplane factory by deploying weightless suspended works such as Do Ho Suh’s gossamer Gate (2005); repeated references to airplane rib structures, often in the form of skeletons, such as Yong Ping Huang’s monumental Tower Snake (2009); Adel Abdessemed’s triple intertwined airplane fuselages Telle mère tel fils (2008); or Yang Zhenzhong’s ejector seat-like Massage Chairs (2003).

The most extravagant experience at the YCAM, one that alternately fascinates and menaces the visitor, is Sun Yuan and Peng Yu‘s Freedom (2009). Viewed through portholes, a huge tank of rust brown fluid houses a device, activated at intervals, gushing water from an untethered fire hose. The flow launches the hose into convulsive spasms, scarcely contained by the chamber. A narrow gap at the back allows a glimpse of the formidable pumping apparatus that charges the spectacle.

Smaller spaces within the Museum show succinct self-assured paintings and photographic works, selected and arranged with precision. These open other new possibilities for the location though aluminium grey monochrome, such as Luo Yongjin’s night montages of Shanghai’s towers, Night Watch (2004–08), and the larger context, through Li Songsong’s Decameron (2004), a Gerhard Richter-like representation of the National Peoples’ Congress.

Long Museum gallery view. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

Long Museum gallery view. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Competition on the West Bund

For just 49 days before YCAM opened, the Long Museum Xuhui Riverside was the newest museum in town. Here, too, the authority of Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian’s collection overrides the architecture, even though Liu Yichun’s elegant building cleverly unites the industrial residue of the river-bank with vaulted contemporary space. In the inaugural show, “Re-view” curator Wang Huangsheng has poised works so that household names, such as Xu Beihong, resonate in dialogue with paintings inflected by transatlantic modernism. The arrangements and juxtapositions draw a welcome comparison between subjects and modes of representation bridging traditions. In the upper galleries, the concrete walls allow other major works ample quiet and space.

These two openings represent a quantum leap for Shanghai. They allow visitors to the city to understand what all the fuss is about in today’s Asian art, while deepening the conversation between artists, collectors, curators and commentators who can now experience and reference works to compare and contrast.

"15 Years of the Chinese Contemporary Art Award" exhibition view. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

“15 Years of the Chinese Contemporary Art Award” exhibition view. Photo by Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Dulwich College Shanghai.

Other players in Shanghai

Elsewhere in the city, a coordinated approach to art experiences is gaining momentum. The Power Station, the primary museum of new art, manages more than one discrete show simultaneously. The retrospective “15 Years of The Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA)” from 26 April to 20 July 2014, in a similar gesture to the YCAM, defines a panoply of monumental activities. These suggest the emergence of tendencies and styles since 1998, separate from the trajectories of the iconic image-makers such as Chen Ke or Zhang Xiaogang, who tend to be more visible.

Against these expensive images, burned into the mind, other media have proliferated – such as Yan Xing’s photography or Cai Guoqiang’s animal specimens. The Power Station exhibition shows a well-chosen selection of representative work from each award-winning artist. As the exhibition material comments, “active on a production level, Chinese contemporary art lacks a mature development infrastructure.”

The consolidation of initiatives across institutions will help to build resilience, at least for Shanghai. Two high-profile Christie’s pop-up sales, the first coinciding with the launch of the Pilot Free Trade Zone, and the second with these recent private museum openings, add to the sense of the city as a locus where art can be seen and discussed.

"Decorum" exhibition view at The Power Station. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

“Decorum” exhibition view at The Power Station. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

From carpets to video: New exhibitions

The Power Station’s other recent exhibition “Decorum: Carpets and Tapestries By Artists”, which  takes place from 26 April to 13 July 2014 captured the international development of a growing intimacy between the concerns of artists, designers and carpet makers. This is a museum show with a sweeping and monumental perspective that seeks to examine the principles behind its subject as much as to display a survey of beautiful objects. The thematic sections are ambitious in scope and imaginative in finding examples that challenge a complacent reading, such as Ryan Gander’s playful If I could see but a day of it (Multiverse) (2007), based on playing cards tucked in alongside a group of Art Deco designers working in geometric abstraction.

“Advance Through Retreat” at Rockbund Art Museum running from 10 May to 3 August 2014 also presents a multifaceted exhibition that eschews sensational effects in favour of the thought provoking convergence of works that might otherwise seem to address different issues in different ways. This approach to exhibition-making requires a critical or poetic interpretation and sets the agenda for another important characteristic of the city’s development as a place where contemporary art making is taken seriously.

Shanghai International Film Festival (21 to 29 June 2014) suggested other opportunities for galleries to celebrate the convergence of visual art and media. Three shows in the 50 Moganshan Road art zone extended the possibilities of auditorium cinema with complex multi-screen works. In New Women, Yang Fudong deploys a suite of sharp monochrome screens, transforming Shangart’s H-Space into a film set from 9 May to 16 June 2014. The audience are the unseen witnesses to moving pictures tinged with seductive eroticism, but any real decadence is thwarted as the space explored by several naked women in the work is discontinuous with the space occupied by the audience.

Hu Jieming, 'Tai Chi' (detail), 2014, installation view, dimensions variable. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

Hu Jieming, ‘Tai Chi’ (detail), 2014, installation view, dimensions variable. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

At Chronus Art Centre, Jeffrey Shaw and Hu Jieming also address the physical presence of the screen image (9 May to 28 November 2014). In Jieming’s Tai Chi (2014), multiple appropriated historical images, both static and in looped motion, are accessed in a cavernous dark space. In this area, holes have been hacked into the wall and the illuminated images flicker with life in a space surrounding the viewer. The audience sees the work as an immanent occurrence outside the gallery. In Shaw’s Advanced Visualization and Interaction Environment (launched in 2000), experienced in 3D with glasses, the audience is enveloped by moving images in a cylindrical room. An interface allows the audience to select works from a virtual wall of animated thumbnails, which hover in space as they play out before collapsing back into a luminous zone of sensory overload.

Li Ming also explores the surface of the screen in three works that make up the exhibition “Mediation” (Antena Space, 31 May to 10 July 2014). Movements, projected across two walls and across eight screens, shows the artist running and hitching a lift on several madcap forms of transport. The action plays out horizontally, the chronology of the separate screens thwarting a linear interpretation of the sequence’s progress. Despite the apparent need for haste, the end of the sequence shows the artist aimless on the roadside with nowhere else to go.

Li Ming, 'Movements', 2013, installation view, dimensions variable. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

Li Ming, ‘Movements’, 2013, installation view, dimensions variable. Photo by Andrew Stooke.

Contemporary art encounters provide the human interface for the relentless improvements to the built structures of Shanghai. Magnificent new art museums raise the bar against which ambitious artists can match the development of their work. Here is the blueprint for a cultural renaissance alongside radical improvement in living standards and life opportunities.

Andrew Stooke

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Related Topics: Chinese art and artists, overviews, events in Shanghai

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