Despite a rocky start, contemporary Chinese artist and curator Qiu Zhijie is optimistic that the 2012 Shanghai Biennale has laid the foundations for a truly world-class event going ahead.

The ninth edition of the Shanghai Biennale, curated by famed Chinese artist curator Qiu Zhijie, opened on 1 October 2012. While the exhibition’s new city pavilion concept attracted a lot of attention, it was overshadowed by financial and curatorial issues in the run-up to the event.

Logo for the 2012 Shanghai Biennale.

A rocky transition

In 2012, the Shanghai Biennale was moved to the Power Station of Art, formerly the Pavilion of the Future at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, which will now serve as China’s first state-run contemporary art museum. In keeping with the former factory’s new life as a museum, the theme of the 2012 exhibition was “Reactivation”.

Larger not always better

The museum’s grand opening coincided with the beginning of the biennale, a fact that, in itself, was the source of many problems. Construction on the museum, originally set to conclude in July 2012, was not complete until September, giving the curators and their assistants only a month to install the entire biennale. Yan Xiaoxiao, writing for ARTINFO Chinanoted that the dramatic shift to a new, much larger venue was probably more of a double-edged sword than the curators anticipated.

Contrary to expectations [the move to the new space] became a sort of awkward metaphor beneath the extraordinary achievement that drove the exhibition: regardless of whether you look at it from a curatorial perspective or an administrative perspective, in terms of space it was obvious that the grandiose ambitions undeniably caused problem after problem in [the exhibition’s] practical operation.

The Power Station of Art, host to the 2012 Shanghai Biennale.

Presentation criticised

Several Chinese and international media outlets have criticised the biennale for its hectic execution and disorganised exhibition style. In an article originally published in China’s 21st Century Business Herald, journalist Cao Junjie decried the confusing layout of the exhibition, saying,

Although on the surface the Shanghai Biennale seems bustling with excitement, in terms of content it still lacks practical meaning. I’d rather walk outside this new building of old architecture and peacefully enjoy the way the afternoon light pierces the glass windows. Compared with the artworks chaotically displayed on the inside, at least they seem incomparably real.

On his blog, East China Normal University Art Department Vice Chair Wang Yuan concurred that the exhibition lacked organisation, saying,

Even though the contemporary art museum has already reached a certain size, the works in the thematic exhibition are all placed together without any separation by category. There’s very little room between pieces, [and they’re] all muddled together. In addition, there’s no small number of large-scale works. Therefore, in attending the biennale there’s a feeling of being crowded, a chaos and a sense of visual exhaustion.

Wang’s essay, which compared the Shanghai and Sydney Biennales, concluded that the Sydney exhibition should be taken as a “revelation” for those involved in the Shanghai event.

Biennale comparisons

Wang was not the only writer to draw comparisons with concurrent biennials. Renowned curator and critic Carol Yinghua Lu, in article for Art Agenda, reviewed both the 2012 Taipei Biennale and the Shanghai Biennale and found the Shanghai show’s organisation comparatively lacking. She describes the Taipei Biennale as a “mesmerizing experience” and says of the Shanghai biennale,

On the opening day, the exhibition appeared barely finished at all. Works were roughly installed, labels were misprinted and, in many places, missing altogether. Wires dangled in the air and videos were still not working. … A couple of the pieces were broken; others were still wet. [Participating artist Simon] Fujiwara commented on the experience as being ‘beyond absurdity’ and made the decision to do nothing but call it c’est la vie….

Coherence, in general, was severely lacking throughout: the works looked like orphans, desperate in the immensity of such a large-scale exhibition….

It’s full of grandiose aspirations, but the means and mentality to make them real are astoundingly lacking. As the curators, organisers, and sponsors celebrated the opening, the artists and the unfinished works were left sadly unattended.

Chief Curator for the 2012 Shanghai Biennale, Qiu Zhijie.

Qiu Zhijie’s call for change

Since the opening of the Shanghai Biennale, chief curator Qiu Zhijie has spoken with many media outlets to respond to criticism of the exhibition.

Brain-dead, kidnapped by money

Talking about his interview with Qiu, 21st Century Business Herald journalist Cao Junjie says that within half an hour Qiu “mentioned ‘kidnapping’ twelve times [and] ‘brain-dead’ eight times; but he brought up ‘money’ thirty-eight times,” ultimately proposing “brain-dead people kidnapped by money” as a sort of emergent theme for the problems the biennial faced. Later in the interview, Qiu went into detail about a couple of these issues, saying,

The venue’s designer was also very brain-dead, totally brain-dead. I’ll publicly say, there are some exhibition halls I thought were perfect, and I gave one to a very famous foreign artist [to use]. In the end, when construction was finished and I went there to inspect it, I discovered that there was an extra fire hydrant in the middle of the wall. Then I sent a letter to [the foreign artist] to explain, and in the end they decided not to participate. No museum in the world uses walls with this sort of iron sheeting.

Moving beyond criticism of individuals, however, Qiu Zhijie also fired off a series of media interviews and blog posts elaborating on the deeply-rooted structural issues that plagued the biennale. Chief among them was the budget. In a blog post entitled “What’s wrong with staying in Hanting?” he writes,

Here today, the government gave us RMB16,000,000 [approx. USD2,560,000]. Just for the thematic exhibition portion this was not enough, meaning that we were completely out of money to pour into the city pavilion project. To do the city pavilions this time, we had to completely rely upon sponsorship. Some of the sponsorships in reality were the result of my donating paintings to bosses. So you can imagine how difficult our financial straits were.

In the blog post, which went online three days before the opening of the exhibition, Qiu praised all of his assistants for their tireless effort and support, for which they are not even sure if they will receive proper compensation. Later on in his post Qiu calls for institutional change in the handling of international exhibitions, saying, “Our work and our investment was to realise the slow transformation of the system. … In the future the Shanghai Biennale will be able to grow into a great biennale, but at this time, she still isn’t. We are still many years away from this goal. We need help.”

Curator lists issues

Not two weeks later, Qiu fired off another blog post with an exhaustive enumeration of all of the problems that frustrated the biennale. In a lengthy post entitled “Where did the problems come from?” Qiu discusses at length the systemic funding and organisational issues that plagued the event, including

  • a severely insufficient budget. While Qiu conceded that the budget for this year’s biennale was several times larger than previous editions, due to the vast increase in scope, the amount was still relatively small.
  • problems with the financial management system. Qiu cites the inability to directly pay foreign artists in foreign currency, restricting transportation and installation contracting to state-owned enterprises and a lengthy pre-approval process for expenditures as major problems that drove up the cost of running the biennale.
  • the unique problems of opening the biennale at the same time as the Power Station of Art. Qiu states that he had to rely upon young students and recent graduates as volunteers for support. As the museum does not yet have a development department, he had to enlist these volunteers (as well as himself) to eke out whatever sponsorship they could once they realised the budget was insufficient.
  • delays in the construction and installation of the exhibition. Construction was set to conclude in July 2012, but it was only in September 2012 that the space was turned over to the curators, leaving them only a month to install the entire exhibition.
  • the failure of the museum’s organisers to allocate any resources for personnel training. Qiu noted that most of the staff working on the biennale had never had the opportunity to attend other biennales outside of China, and indicated that funding to this end would provide crucial training for young art professionals.
  • the late selection of the curator. Qiu was chosen to be the curator of the 2012 Shanghai Biennale on 30 December 2011. According to the curator, many foundations stopped accepting proposals for sponsorship in 2012 on 31 December 2011, so the Biennale was shut out of a lot of funding opportunities.
  • the inability of the biennale to raise extra funds through ticket sales. In 2011, the Chinese government declared that all museums would have free entrance, not including special exhibitions. Qiu actually successfully applied to have the biennale classified as a special exhibition, only to discover that the revenue would be collected by the state and could not be used to further fund the biennale.

Quelling funding misuse rumours

Qiu also used his blog to tackle rumours that had been circulating around the budget for the biennale, with allegations of a possible misuse of funds. While Art Radar could not track down any of the original postings of these rumours, according to Qiu’s rebuttal, some were claiming that organisers had received up to RMB50,000,000 (approx. USD8 million) for the exhibition. To combat these rumours, Qiu dedicated an entire blog post to exhaustively detailing the biennale’s budget, funding sources and expenditures to prove competent management on the curatorial side.

Groundbreaking city pavilion project

Logistical problems aside, the 2012 Shanghai Biennale did draw praise for its new city pavilion model, in which artists were represented by city instead of by nation. The exhibition in total hosted thirty city pavilions, ten in the Power Station of Art and twenty in pavilions around The Bund, with the only Chinese participant being the relatively small city of Diankou.

Addressing globalisation

Co-Curator of the Shanghai Biennale, Johnson Chang. Image courtesy Shanghai Biennale.

The curators felt that city pavilions offered several advantages over the national model. As Shanghai Biennale Co-Curator Johnson Chang Tsong-zung told Time Out Shanghai, “City pavilions are radically different from national pavilions; cities cut across the demography of nations and establish another mapping closer to the way the globalised world operates.”

Mumbai Pavilion curators Diana Campbell and Susan Hapgood, speaking with ARTINFO, noted that organising by city helps to avoid some of the practical issues of national exhibition.

One key feature of the ninth Shanghai Biennale was to create a group of satellite pavilions focusing on individual cities rather than nations, quite intentionally implying that urban environments are more appropriate sites for capturing creative contexts rather than national parameters, which can so easily fall prey to political boosterism and national instrumentalisation of the arts.

City format a point of difference

The new exhibition model’s most significant impact, however, may be in how it could come to define the Shanghai Biennale and allow it to stand out from other Asian biennales. Despite the practical setbacks, many commentators and organisers remained optimistic that the curatorial significance of the 2012 Shanghai Biennale will extend far beyond the exhibition itself.

Yu Yue, writing for China Art Weekly says,

An even more apparent bright spot [in the biennale] is the use of the city pavilion model and the effect this experiment will have on future Shanghai Biennales. This is also an important step in continuing to approach the level of an international biennale. Using Shanghai’s appeal as an international metropolitan brand, [organisers] invited internationally important cities to participate in this plan.

[Editors’ note: Some of the quotations that appear in this article were translated into English from the original Chinese by Art Radar.]


Related Topics: art in Shanghai, biennales, curatorial practiceart museums

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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