Gloves Off

Julian Junyuan Feng on Shanghai Art Week

UCCA Edge Ball. Photo: UCCA.

BACK IN JULY, after the pandemic in China eased due to draconian border control and contact tracing measures, the Chinese Super League was able to resume matches. People had been joking about how torturous it would be for the rest of the world to have only Chinese soccer games to watch—a running gag here on the mediocrity of the sport in this country. Earlier this month, Shanghai Art Week’s two main offerings, ART021 and West Bund Art & Design, seemed to be the only art fairs opening offline in the world. Unlike football games, they were not televised to the rest of the world.

From November 9 to 15, my waking hours were evenly split between taxiing from venue to venue and discreetly blending into the scenery at openings, where masked interaction made it easy for art-world introverts like myself and acted as a prophylactic against trivial small talk. It was simultaneously a blessing and a curse that the various art happenings in this megacity were scattered all over the place. Art Week participants like me had to traverse the immense cityscape of Shanghai, trying to discern differences between now and the last November. Of course, everything had changed.

On Monday November 9, a new Covid-19 case emerged in Pudong District, months after the last local cases cleared. Most venues tightened their entrance protocols: temperature checks, ID scans, and “green code” health status verification. Several new cases were reported in the following days. Speculations about the path of local transmission became casual chitchat fodder, at the barber shop where I got a quick haircut and at a bustling two-hundred-guest dinner after the opening of artist Liu Wei’s solo show at Long Museum. The mise-en-scène could be a perfect opening shot for some disaster film, except that we were already living in one.

Art historian Fei Dawei and curator/architect Andreas Jacque, Shanghai Biennale opening talks. All photos, unless noted: Julian Junyuan Feng.

On November 10, the Thirteenth Shanghai Biennale, titled “Bodies of Water,” had its soft opening (or, officially, its “Wet-run Rehearsal,” in keeping with the aqueous theme) at the Power Station of Art, the famous coal-plant-turned-kunsthalle on the left bank of the Huangpu River. The proceedings constituted mostly lectures and panel discussions—the Zoomy business we are all too familiar with these days. The speakers’—among them Fei Dawei, Andrés Jacque, You Mi.—living rooms and home offices were projected at humongous scale in the main hall of PSA, its resounding echo rendering the amplified voices somewhat indistinct. For the next eight months, we were told, the Biennale will operate as a flow of online and offline events, building “in crescendo”—to borrow their own wording—until the physical exhibition opens—with luck—in April, 2021. The awkward scene was emblematic of the endeavor to rebuild art’s “public sphere” at a time when the very idea bears the gnarly undertone of contagion.

The two fairs featured visibly fewer foreign galleries, even as transnational megadealers like Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth had no problem hiring local representatives. The West Bund Art Center, a retrofitted airplane factory around which a dozen brick-and-mortar galleries used to aggregate, was undergoing a tech-friendly redevelopment, and the dealers either resettled or went nomadic, like Edouard Malingue. ART021 was hosted in the business-as-usual Shanghai Exhibition Center: a 1950s Stalinist Baroque copycat that has withstood the test of history.

Gallerist Simon Wang and curator Alvin Li.

Despite the encouraging news about brisk sales at both fairs—the first day of West Bund Art Fair scored transactions of 60 million RMB, or 9 million USD—there was a disconcerting lack of voices from independent spaces, which could have taken the chance to hitchhike Art Week’s capital-fueled agenda and do something fun. After all, it’s hardly news that alternative spaces are dying out in this city.

Tank Shanghai, HOW Art Museum, and the trendsetting Antenna Space all presented shows featuring mostly artists from abroad. Antenna’s group show “Breathing Through Skin,” curated by Alvin Li, presented the “monstrous” of works by artists like Mire Lee and Pedro Neves Marques, and extended the Art Week’s otherwise family-friendly thematic palette. Artists meticulously packing and sending their works across land and sea, without ever setting foot on Chinese soil . . . it somehow reminded me of those millions of mail-in ballots that became the unwitting protagonists of the prolongated US election unfolding alongside Shanghai’s Art Week. On November 7, expressions of relief flooded my social media feeds, drowning out chatter over the recent unveiling of China’s fourteenth Five Year Plan. (Remember when the West Bund art district was announced during the twelfth?) The new economic slogan for the coming half-decade is “double circulation,” emphasizing expanding domestic demand in the PRC. Will Biden’s presidency amend all that’s broken and bring back the “Chimerica” globalization honeymoon? I doubt it, but I still think it would be infinitely better if artists could attend their own openings.

The underground boxing game. Photo: Sensend.

On Saturday, the art crowd flocked to an underground boxing game in the city’s outskirts, where a number of Shanghai-based artists have their studios. Artists, gallerists, and collectors candidly punched each other in the face. I saw a nosebleed in one of the photos. As with Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and its namesake film, I didn’t know if I should understand this spontaneous eruption of violence as critique, cathartic group psychotherapy, or an orgy of masculinist alienation and nihilism. Whatever it was, it was more fun to watch than Chinese soccer.