Fly by Night

Mathieu Borysevicz on Yoko Ono's Shanghai debut


Left: Gunnar B. Kvaran, director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Yoko Ono, and Biljana Ciric, curator of the Ke Center for the Contemporary Arts. Right: The crowd outside the museum. (All photos: Mathieu Borysevicz)

IN RECENT MONTHS, beginning with the ShContemporary fair and the Shanghai Biennial in September, a veritable swarm of international art cognoscenti has passed through the city. In October, the eArts Festival brought Christian Marclay and musician Elliott Sharp to Shanghai, while the opening of ShanghArt gallery’s “Involved” drew the likes of Luc Tuymans and Knut Åsdam. Just last week, James Cohan’s Shanghai outpost presented its third exhibition, giving the space over to Folkert de Jong’s jolly, Styrofoam-sculpted simians. But perhaps no one was more anticipated than Yoko Ono, whose first solo exhibition in China, a retrospective of her instructional works titled simply “FLY,” opened last Saturday at the Ke Center for the Contemporary Arts.

“We’ve been discussing this exhibition almost since we opened the space, nearly two years ago,” Biljana Ciric, the curator of the privately run nonprofit, noted at the opening. The exhibition was co-organized by Gunnar Kvaran, director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, where “FLY” originated, but it was Ono who conceived and curated the show. Describing her arrival in the city’s hypermodern Pudong airport, Ono exclaimed, “I felt like Marco Polo must have felt when he first came to China.” Not only was this Ono’s first solo exhibition in the country, it was also her first time visiting Mainland China. Ono, like many Japanese, was educated in the Chinese classics, and she admitted that she learned her life strategies from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. She closed the press conference by painting her Chinese name not on the paper prepared for it but on a nearby window curtain.

Left: Artist Zhang Huan. Right: Artist Rutherford Chang with David Chan, director of the Shanghai Gallery of Art.

The following day, a twenty-person viewing limit left hundreds of would-be admirers stranded outside the museum, stampeding the artist’s Ex It, a series of wooden caskets, which had been installed in front of the entrance. Overhead, a promotional video blasted John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” A drizzle steadily grew. At the rear of the crowd, ShanghArt director Lorenz Helbling and artist Zhou Tiehai shook their heads at the hopeless, rain-soaked queue and opted to head off early for the dinner. As the shower gave way to a downpour, the museum’s doors swung open and the wet masses funneled into the already overcrowded exhibition. “A typical Shanghai scene,” needled one local standing above the hordes on a platform built into the gallery.

While hundreds participated in the artist’s famous Conceptual-art tutorials, which included works such as the 1966 Blue Room Event and the more recent Wish Tree, Ono herself was performing upstairs in the museum’s lounge area, “bringing new meaning to the term ‘disco dancing,’” as artist Rutherford Chang observed. Around 9 PM, her dance for the masses gave way to a more exclusive dinner at the recently opened Kee Club, a Hong Kong nightlife classic recently transplanted to Shanghai’s Dunhill mansions complex, a spectacular courtyard in the center of the city.

The comparatively sober dinner was attended by Helbling and Zhou, the photography duo known as Birdhead, artist Zhang Huan, Shanghai Gallery of Art director David Chan, dealer Meg Maggio, and Ono’s attentive staff. After dessert, Ono descended to the postdinner cocktail party for a final photo op before heading back to her hotel to sleep off the jet lag, leaving the dwindling crowd to soak up her blessings of universal love, and the pouring rain.

Left: Dunhill's Yann Debelle de Montby, ShanghART's Lorenz Helbling, and Maxim Berko of the Shanghai Fine Jewelry and Art Fair. Right: Participants with Yoko Ono's Wish Tree.

Left: Artists Bai Yiluo and Liang Shaoji. Right: DDM Warehouse's Chris Hong and Zheng Weimin.

Left: Birdhead's Song Tao and Ji Weiyu. Right: Contrasts Gallery director Harriet Onslow and artist Jin Shan.