Yongwoo Lee reveals the idea behind the upcoming Shanghai Project 2016.

Art Radar spoke to the executive director of Shanghai Himalayas Museum about the ambitious city-wide Shanghai Project 2016.

Yongwoo Lee, President, Shanghai Project. Photo courtesy of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

Yongwoo Lee, President, Shanghai Project. Image courtesy the Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

The Shanghai Project is a pioneering cultural event that will happen across the city of Shanghai for 70 days from September 2016. The vision behind the Project comes from Yongwoo Lee, Executive Director of Shanghai Himalayas Museum. Since 2014, Lee has also been the president of the International Biennale Association. He was the founding director of the Gwangju Biennale, of which he curated the 2004 edition. Under the title “A Grain of Dust A Drop of Water”, the event was a key moment in the development of a participatory approach to public art, which indicates Lee’s passion for getting the audience to share in a creative process – also the key element of the Shanghai Project.

The Shanghai Project is not short on ambition and presents itself with considerable rhetorical force, promising to be, “a hybridised international art festival” and “a cultural forum in which the civil society of Shanghai […] can speak, participate, discuss and relate to one another in the name of culture and art”.

In a city that already has both a Visual Art and an Architecture Biennale, an International Festival of Theatre, a prestigious Film Festival, and recently inaugurated an Art Week connecting the influences of three art fairs, it is not easy to imagine what this new event will look like and how it will differentiate itself from the competition and bring something new to the city’s cultural ecology.

Shanghai Project Venue, Shanghai Himalayas Museum, Exterior View. Photo courtesy of Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Shanghai Project Venue, Shanghai Himalayas Museum, Exterior View. Image courtesy Shanghai Himalayas Museum.

Art Radar sought out Lee at the Himalayas Museum to find out more and discovered that the Project will be launched at the Pudong Library – near the Museum and next to the China Executive Leadership Academy – with the international conference “Nihao, Shanghai!”, taking place on 12 and 13 December 2015. “Nihao, Shanghai!” will be based around four panels: “The City in Myth and History”, “Who is the Audience”, “The Culture State / State of Culture” and “City as Image”. These provide some clues to the interests of the project that seem to continue from themes introduced in the Power Station of Art’s huge design exhibition “Aesthetics City” (3 December 2013 – 30 March 2014).

Of “The Culture State / State of Culture” Lee says:

We seek to gain an understanding of the different actors, forces and alliances – local, national and global – that are shaping the cultural landscape of present day Shanghai, as well as open up new ways of imagining and intervening in its possible futures, to help foster a healthy and creative cultural milieu.

Sue Anne Tay, "Nihao, Shanghai!", Conference Participant. Image courtesy the author.

Sue Anne Tay, “Nihao, Shanghai!”, Conference Participant. Image courtesy the author.

The Project seeks to be inclusive and “Nihao, Shanghai!” establishes this agenda. Lee tells Art Radar:

We have made an effort to invite a broad spectrum of speakers, from visual artists, writers, and architects, to educators, scholars, critics and curators. Sue Anne Tay, writer and documentary photographer behind ShanghaiStreetStories.com will speak on the topic of “The City in Myth and History”, joined by media historian, novelist and professor of Critical Studies, Norman Klein. The British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor and Larys Frogier, Director of Rockbund Art Museum (Shanghai) will both participate in the “Who is the Audience” panel examining the various publics of Shanghai. Karen Smith, Executive Director of OCAT Xi’an (Shanghai) will participate in the panel on “Culture State / State of Culture”, alongside Tsinghua University Professor Wang Hui. And also joining us will be Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes at the Serpentine Gallery (London), and Sophia Al-Maria, Qatari-American artist, writer and filmmaker, to discuss the “City as Image”.

Lee goes on to explain that the discussions generated from the Conference’s four panels will “set the ground for our yearlong investigation of Shanghai in preparation for the opening of the Shanghai Project”. He continues:

Where other contemporary art events in Shanghai have appealed to potential collectors or an academic cognoscenti, “Nihao, Shanghai!” has its eye on developing a general audiences. Participation of ordinary citizens is a main priority for the Shanghai Project. This is in part reflected in our selection of the Pudong Library as our conference venue. We hope to tap into the diverse demographics that frequent the library especially on weekends. The conference is free and open to the public and we want to encourage the participation of diverse audiences in Shanghai, including those who have never set foot in a museum before. As the project continues to develop, there will be increasing opportunities for public participation, such as workshops, open calls for project proposals, online forums, etc.

The large scale international exhibition that emerged in the middle of the 19th century and evolved into the contemporary art biennale has been adopted by many locals seeking urban regeneration linked to the here and now of the host city. Lee asserts that the Shanghai Project “will be an important step in the evolution of biennales and other international art events into new hybrid, inter-disciplinary and reflexive modes of exhibition making […]”.

"Nihao, Shanghai!", Conference Venue, Pudong Library Auditorium. Image courtesy of Pudong Library, Shanghai.

“Nihao, Shanghai!”, Conference Venue, Pudong Library Auditorium. Image courtesy Pudong Library, Shanghai.

The event is intended to sprawl and inaugurate some new places as nodes of engagement that will affect people across the city, as well as strengthen the infrastructure that allows discrete cultural providers to communicate, coordinate and to work together. As cultural activity in Shanghai is often well spaced out, or contained in geographically isolated pockets, Lee’s vision to animate new areas that will allow more people to get involved is welcome. He says:

We are currently in the process of exploring a broad range of prospective venues for the Project across Shanghai, including exhibitions spaces, city parks, urban centers, as well as the Huangpu River and riverfront areas. As with our inaugural conference, audience and viewer participation will be a priority throughout our events. This will of course also be reflected in the diversified makeup of our ‘researcher’ teams. The Shanghai Project will experiment with the actual structure of the biennale, developing not only a new ‘platform’ or ‘laboratory’ but also the rules, guidelines and methodology of this ‘laboratory’. In addition, all participants, from both Shanghai and abroad, will be designated as ‘researchers’ and convened in small groups to develop an expansive conversation. The ideas and methods generated from these teams of researchers, composed of practitioners from various fields – art, architecture, performance, design, literature, history, film, animation, education, etc. – will form the basis for exhibitions, shows, performances and publications. However, these innovations are not intended to be fixed.

The Shanghai Project will play an innovative role in the city’s art scene, says Lee, providing a link between a variety of creative spaces within the city at all levels:

An important goal of the Shanghai Project is to play the role of an innovative type of event and infrastructure linking all different types of creative spaces across the city, from small scale and emerging spaces to large established museums (both private and public), as well as spaces that have not customarily been incorporated into the art and culture scene. In particular, this first edition of the Shanghai Project will be launched in part as a platform to develop the Shanghai network of institutions, independent spaces, collectives and “free agents” (which can also include artists, architects, designers, scientists, historians, critics, etc.). The Shanghai Project can foster increased levels of professionalism for this network by providing administrative support and resources to fledgling cultural projects. Functioning as an inclusive platform for all the museums and art spaces in Shanghai, the Shanghai Project will be able to further expand the ‘Shanghai network’ by making connections and developing projects that were not possible before.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, "Nihao, Shanghai!" Conference Participant. Photo: Youssef Nabil.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Nihao, Shanghai!”, Conference Participant. Photo: Youssef Nabil.

Shanghai’s cultural institutions continue to move at an unbelievable pace. But exhibitions in Shanghai have sometimes tended to import tried and tested, but consequently somewhat tired spectacle, into the city – and charge an entrance fee beyond the pocket of average Shanghai people. Random International’s “Rain Room” from 2012, currently at the Yuz museum, or Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s “Rooms” project (2011) at Long Museum, would be recent examples. It is heartening to learn that, rather than seeking to be another extravagant display, the Shanghai Project will connect creativity at large in Shanghai with new public agency. Lee concludes:

One of the principal goals of the Shanghai Project is to help make new and old ‘Shanghainese’ aware of the artistic and cultural resources that are available and rapidly expanding in their city. We would like to extend the reach (as well as translate the mediums) of current cross-disciplinary dialogues to embrace the multiple publics of Shanghai in ways that are not only accessible to them but can also be taken up by these publics to articulate different outlooks and needs.

Andrew Stooke


Related Topics: conference, festivals, art spaces, interviews, events in Shanghai

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more news from the Asian art scene


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *