LAST WEEK I SPENT THE SHOCKING, watershed days around the dawn of Trump’s America in Shanghai. While the events resonated here, it was less a shake than a quiver. After all, China and its overheating art world are far from the center of that particular storm—even if “Shyna,” as Trump so dismissively puts it, is in his crosshairs.
It wasn’t that long ago that Beijing, with its massive network of artist studios, underground movements, and exhibition spaces, was the center of the Chinese art establishment. But the past seven days confirmed a shift east toward Shanghai, with the business of exhibiting drawing a swarm of art pundits and enthusiasts for two competing fairs, one biennial, and dozens of galleries and museum shows—many, like Edouard Malingue, ShanghART, Aike Dellarco, BANK/Mabsociety, MadeIn, CC Foundation, and Capsule, in brand new spaces.
Last Monday at the Minsheng Museum, I sat at a post-opening dinner for “Everyday Legend,” a serious exhibition of works by eighteen artists, including Liang Shaoji, Shao Yinong, and Sui Jianguo (and not counting Sun Xun’s video, which was shut down by censors), curated by Jiang Jiehong and Nan Nan. “I am here to criticize,” said the critic Zhang Wei, sitting next to me. On trial were exhibition titles—including Venice’s “Viva Arte, Viva,” considered too juvenile by my Shanghainese neighbor. “They might as well use robots to come up with them,” he quipped, a reference to Liu Xiaodong’s exhibition at the Chronus Art Center in Shanghai’s M50 district, where the artist uses three robotic arms to paint on canvases.
The next day, the VIP preview of the third edition of the West Bund Art & Design fair started strong. With sizeable booths and only thirty-one galleries, there was an almost pleasing flow. Newcomers included blue chips like David Zwirner, Timothy Taylor (also showing Alex Katz’s lucent paintings in a pop-up next door), Gladstone Gallery, and Long March, as well as younger venues like Taipei’s TKG+ and the artist-run Canton Gallery.
I ran into patrons Dominique and Sylvain Levy manning a virtual-reality setup that displays their collection of works from the Chinese avant-garde. “You must try it,” said Dominique. “It’s just like the real thing.” Robot art and VR: Maybe it’s time to let the computers take over. From there we set off for the Chi K11 art space, featuring three exhibitions spanning thirty thousand basement-level square feet: media installations by Guan Xiao, sculptures by Neïl Beloufa, and the touring “Hack Space,” a group show curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad that brings together artists such as Cao Fei, Firenze Lai, and Simon Denny. The place was packed. Beloufa pointed out his works to collector Jane Zhao while the Levys greeted artist Liu Wei and K11 founder Adrian Cheng.
Back at the West Bund gala, preprandial mingling included champagne in the Xiàn Chǎng section, which featured solo presentations by Laurent Grasso, Qiu Anxiong, and Haroon Mirza. “Just like Unlimited,” argued a collector, referring to the Art Basel’s massive display (though to be fair, Xiàn Chǎng is a bit humbler). I caught up with collector Lihsin Tsai, who was opening a presentation by Martin Creed with Qiao Zhibing in Qiao Space the next day. “Martin seemed so happy!” she said. Art historian Karen Smith, dealer Natalie Sun, and Waling Boers talked between tables while I greeted artist Gregor Hildebrandt, who had made the trip from Berlin with Alicja Kwade to show with his gallery, Galerie Perrotin.
Slivers of sea cucumber intestines arrived inside ice globes while loud promotional videos were projected on a large screen, “educating” the more than three hundred guests about West Bund and Shanghai. There was a surprising cheer when David Zwirner was asked to come to the stage, followed by a speech by He Juxing, founder of the forthcoming Star Museum, and then a folk song by Ci Kim of Arario Gallery. Dinner concluded with a plate of white chocolate shells flavored with coffee, mushroom, and Sichuan pepper, a confusing mélange—though artist Austin Lee, in town for a solo show at BANK, maintained his nonchalance as he sampled the abalones, Peking duck, and black truffle tofu soup.
Out in the cold, I was relieved when West Bund Art & Design founder Zhou Tiehai fixed me a ride with artist Wang Shang and Magician Space dealer Qu Kejie. We were headed for a party organized—just for the sake of it—by Sishang Museum director Linyao Kiki Liu and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach at the Shelter, a former bunker-cum-nightclub. Dealers Sadie Coles and Nick Simunovic and Ullens Center director Philip Tinari rubbed shoulders with artists Li Ming, Jin Shan, and Alice Wang. “This place has a déjà vu from the ’90s,” said Biesenbach. It certainly had a touch of the sweaty Berlin underground. We partied while not knowing that the next day’s mood would take a drastic turn.
After all, this was before the devastating results of the US elections, in which Hillary Clinton, despite winning the popular vote by some margin, lost the presidency to Donald Trump. “It’s like somebody died,” I was told at the fair. “I’m going home to join the ACLU,” said another. Some American dealers cried in their booths, and even the most cynical merchant couldn’t have helped but notice when Asian and other global markets dipped. (The Dow dropped more than six hundred points, though it and other indexes recovered somewhat by the end of the business day.) The Chinese art world responded with resilience and a poker face. Some mentioned Brexit. Chillingly, a few businessmen cheered. Others turned inward. Most showed support to their American colleagues.
That afternoon we walked gloomily around the openings in the West Bund, sticking to the ground. ShanghART celebrated its twentieth anniversary with the group exhibition “Holzwege,” while Aike Dellarco launched its new space with shows for Wang Yi and Lee Kit. Art Stage directors Lorenzo and Maria-Elena Rudolf worked the crowds as if they were at home. Collector Daisuke Miyatsu had just flown in from Japan and was headed to Art Taipei next. Before dinner, I swung by Leo Xu’s gallery in the former French Concession neighborhood for Nina Canell’s exhibition, and later that evening, Martin Creed performed at Zhibing’s Shanghai Nights—a karaoke event so bling and over the top that people either indulged their inner vocalist or left at once.
On Thursday, another fair was thrown into the already impossible mix. The fourth edition of Art021 featured eighty-four galleries in the Shanghai Exhibition Center, a city landmark built in 1955 to mark the Sino-Soviet friendship. Walking the aisles were cofounder Kelly Ying, collector Chong Zhou, LACMA’s Matthew Thompson, Art Fair Tokyo’s Naohiko Kishi, artist Wang Fujui, and dealer Peggy Lin. And, in case you missed the Shanghai Center of Photography’s building at the West Bund, you could catch select works by China-based photographers from its permanent collection in the not-for-profit section. Leaving the fair, we decided to check out “You Won’t Be Young Forever,” an exhibition of young artists organized single-handedly by Biljana Ciric in a soon to be demolished three-story building. The highlight was the beautiful facade that featured a commissioned painting by Nathan Zhou.
But we were still only midway through the week. The next day was the opening of the eleventh Shanghai Biennale, curated by the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective and titled “Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-Arguments, and Stories.” By the time we arrived for Friday’s opening at the Power Station, the hall was quickly filling up. Curators Sabih Ahmed and Tess Maunder were about to lead a tour. Artists Michael Lin and Charwei Tsai and curator Kit Hammonds watched a performer slowly sweep the floor as part of Lee Mingwei’s work. “She’s a former real-estate broker who hated her job, so she quit, began learning calligraphy, and applied for my open call,” the artist explained. Her gesture was convincing—she was no a robot! Covering three floors, with many video works and lots of natural media (wood, stone, rice), the first impression was of sepia-colored narratives and dark rooms, a carnival of ideas and personal stories and gestures that render geopolitical issues with sobriety and elegance.
Casual petits fours preceded a seated dinner for five hundred on the Power Station’s seventh floor. It was heavy on speeches and videos accolades for Power Station director Gong Yan, Raqs, other curators, the staff, and the artists. Among the many guests were Chinese Contemporary Art Award’s Uli Sigg and Liu Lili; dealers Mathieu Borysevicz and Ann Marie Peña; biennial artists Heidi Voet, Ayesha Jatoi, Taus Makhacheva, Agan Harahap, Müge Yilmaz, Bianca Baldi, Anawana Haloba, Salome Asega, Olu Oguibe, and Bo Zheng; Minsheng Museum’s Lance Liu Jia; Rockbund Museum’s Liu Yingjiu; and Asia Art Archives’s Hammad Nasar—though the list goes on and on and on.
“Did you notice that there was so little information released before the biennial?” asked my seatmate, ShanghART’s Lorenz Helbling. “When you go to Venice, you can always read about the works ahead of time. Here they come as a surprise.” With more than ninety artists in this extravagant show, the surprises take time to digest. If only all surprises were so palatable, or soothing.