Bund Traders

David Velasco at ShContemporary and the Shanghai Biennale


Left: Dealer Pearl Lam. Right: CCA Wattis director Jens Hoffmann. (All photos: David Velasco)

Pearl Lam was having trouble with her staff—or at least she was making a show of it, shouting from the kitchen, slamming doors, appearing occasionally to sulk in the doorway. For Pearl, the magnetic art wallah behind Shanghai’s influential Contrasts galleries, the world is both her stage and her oyster. (The New York Times recently proclaimed her a “Shanghai Auntie Mame,” while the local Tatler made the “Arts Party Lady” the cover model for its September issue.) Known for her large and lively dinners (she hosted one each of my first four nights in China) as much as for her ebullient attitude toward art, she seemed to exemplify—or even, occasionally, constitute—the flash and heat of Shanghai’s often business-minded art scene. “Pearl is sui generis,” remarked Art Basel director Marc Spiegler later that week. “There is no one else like her.”

A group of us were having lunch on the twenty-first floor of the majestic 41 Hengshan Road, a luxury high-rise (built by Pearl’s mother, the developer Koo Siu-ying) that towers above the squat and verdant French Concession district. The bunch of us had been invited to stay in Pearl’s building, arriving the Sunday before last to take in Shanghai’s biennial and ShContemporary fair along with an exhausting list of openings and other activities (visits to see Yinka Shonibare at James Cohan, Michael Lin at the Shanghai Gallery or Art, and the gallery complex at Moganshan Road included). It would have been a real treat to stay in the penthouse, but Pearl’s astrologist, Linda Joyce, was already crashing there.

Left: Artist Wang Tiande. Right: Long March's Lu Jie and David Tung.

The itinerary was in a bit of disarray due to the postponement of the scheduled Iranian-art show (the work was held up in customs), so I ventured forth to explore other venues, including curator Biljana Ciric’s intriguing “Strategies from Within: An Exhibition of Vietnamese and Cambodian Contemporary Art Practices.” (How one longs, though, for a laconic title.) Afterward was dinner at Xian Qiang Fang, the elegant Chinese-opera restaurant that features as a setting in Yang Fudong’s famous film cycle Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, followed by an afterparty on the Bund for the Hou Hanru–curated Yang Jiechang retrospective at the Duolun Museum, though I left soon after arriving, still reeling from the fifteen-hour flight.

Wang Tiande’s opening at the main Contrasts space the next day was a media frenzy. Television crews interviewed attendees while Wang leaped from collectors to journalists to politicians (including Shanghai’s former mayor). Fifty tons of coal sat in a pile just beyond the anteroom. I asked Pearl whether the work was a nod to Walter De Maria. “No, no,” Pearl responded tetchily. “He doesn’t know De Maria or Kiefer or any of that Western nonsense. He knows Andy Warhol.”

Standing nearby, Wang perked up: “Ah! Andy Warhol.”

“Yes, Warhol,” Pearl continued. “But he’s really a traditional ink-brush artist trying to make his practice relevant within a contemporary context.” This seems a common theme in Chinese art. (Hanru similarly situates Yang Jiechang in his catalogue essay.) From what I gather, Wang’s arch solution was to reduce things to silhouette, burning pieces of parchment and photographing their ashes so that they look like distant mountain summits reflecting the pile of coal, which in turn resembles the shifting peaks and valleys of the Chinese art market, represented by a large animated graph hung from one wall.

Left: Collectors Don Rubell, Mera Rubell, and Jason Rubell. Right: Artist Yang Jiechang.

Next stop was the biennial. Insipidly titled “Translocalmotion” (at least it’s brief) and vaguely concerned with themes of urbanization, the exhibition’s seventh edition was an unfocused hodgepodge featuring, among other things, a “History Briefing of Shanghai City,” several rooms given over to documentaries and a timeline of this fragmented metropolis. The most compelling work seemed to be in photography, such as Klaus Mettig’s panoramic landscapes from different international “hot spot” cities and Charles Yi Yong Lim’s Becheresque series of lighthouse photos—though even these felt stifled by the exhibition’s bland conceit. Mike Kelley’s “Kandor” installation was impressive at the Carnegie, but Pittsburgh must have gotten all the good stuff, as the works brought here (as part of the “Keynote” section of the exhibition) seemed shopworn and thin. Yue Minjun’s ubiquitous smiley faces continued to pop up everywhere—this time on the bodies of a row of facile, shimmering dinosaur sculptures. “This is what happens when you don’t have a history of modern art to fall back on,” said CCA Wattis director Jens Hoffmann, cynically eying his surroundings. At some point, while wandering between the gift shop and the obligatory Lawrence Weiner installation on the ground floor, I had the discomfiting feeling that I was lost in that Borgesian Chinese encyclopedia Foucault invokes at the beginning of The Order of Things; things just stopped making sense. It was hard to leave with anything but the dimmest view of contemporary art.

Later at lunch at Issimo, an elegant Italian restaurant in the JIA boutique hotel, Hong Kong–based collector Hallam Chow made an argument for the exhibition: “This edition’s great for the Shanghai people. They’ll love Jing Shijian’s train and Yin Xiuzhen’s flying machine. You have to consider who it’s for.” He then pointed out a young artist at the table who had recently made a splash in the local market with a painting sold directly from her studio. All those fussing about Damien Hirst’s lucrative publicity stunt of an auction should take note of China, where it’s not uncommon at all for even artists without galleries to take work directly to the block. Here, perhaps even more than New York and London, the market is king.

Left: Artist Qiu Anxiong. Right: Lehmann Maupin's Courtney Plummer and David Maupin.

“This place is so capitalist!” affirmed dealer David Maupin, manning his booth at Tuesday’s VIP opening of the ShContemporary fair. Now in its second year, the fair actually seemed a more coherent exhibition than the biennial, and the large outdoor projects more ambitious and better installed. (Excepting perhaps a snafu regarding one of Wim Delvoye’s installations, a bevy of tattooed pigs that were deemed unsanitary, or perhaps simply too noxious, by officials.) Some dealers were said to sell out their booths, though with the roughly 35 percent sales tax it seemed that many were simply taking orders and saving the actual deals for home—or for tax-free Hong Kong. Set in the gilded, colonnaded halls of the Shanghai Exhibition Center (née the Palace of Sino-Soviet Friendship), the site is an ostentatious example of Stalinist architecture that, while incongruous to the flimsy white booths installed for the fair, seemed a welcome enough setting for commerce. “At least Stalin did something nice,” joked Long March gallery’s Lu Jie, whose selection of works by Zhan Wang and Lin Tianmiao was one of the standouts at the fair.

Back at Pearl’s for dinner, I spotted Ullens Center director Jérôme Sans, Frieze Art Fair director Matthew Slotover, and the Rubells, who seemed quite taken with their host’s garish-glam apartment. “We see you in all the best places,” Mera Rubell told a guest, before darting off to admire the decor. “This is just fabulous!” I sat next to Maria Elena, the urbane wife of ShContemporary director (and former Art Basel director) Lorenzo Rudolf. We dilated on simple matters, on travel and the difficulties of hosting in foreign countries, on her family in Switzerland and America’s increasingly isolationist policies. Then, for the first time in three days, we spoke of the US presidential election, of McCain and Obama and Palin, of the faltering economy, and I was struck by how far away it all sounded.

Left: Curator Hou Hanru. Right: Artist Michael Lin and Shanghai Gallery of Art director David Chan.

Left: PaceWildenstein's Marc Glimcher and Peter Boris. Right: James Cohan director Arthur Solway.

Left: A view of the Shanghai Biennale. Right: Dealer Jack Tilton.

Left: Eslite Gallery's Emily Chao. Right: Artist Hai Bo and dealer Max Protetch.

Left: Artist Klaus Mettig. Right: Tang Contemporary Art's Zhang Yizhou.

Left: Performa's Defne Ayas (on right). Right: Curator Biljana Ciric.

Left: Performance artists. Right: Designer Shao Fan.

Left: Artist Yu Hua. Right: IBID Projects's Magnus Edensvard and Romilly Eveleigh.