Power Trip

Philip Tinari around the ShContemporary art fair


Left: ShContemporary organizers Pierre Huber and Zhou Tiehai. Right: Shanghai Art Museum director Li Lei and Guangdong Museum of Art director Wang Huangsheng. (All photos: Philip Tinari)

About halfway into a night of gallery openings last week, on the eve of the ShContemporary art fair’s vernissage, a power failure throughout 50 Moganshan Road left VIPs fresh from Pudong airport and Shanghai scenesters alike to commingle in the late summer drizzle. It was one of those moments that seems to manifest an unspoken collective angst percolating just below the surface of daily goings-on. Is it possible, one implicitly wondered, that the whole shimmering Chinese art scene could go dark without warning or apology?

Of course, the lights came right back on in the warehouses along the banks of the Suzhou Creek, and everyone returned to looking at mediocre works like Ji Wenyu’s sculptures of men in suits holding giant flowers (at Shanghart) and Shu Yong’s sculptures of tiny women held aloft by their giant breasts (at Eastlink). After an espresso with the Art Basel selection committee (my charges for the week in my capacity as that fair’s China adviser), I rode with collectors Tim and Ellen van Housen to the home of gallerist Pearl Lam, where a modest cocktail hour in honor of Sam Keller had morphed into one of her legendary dinners around the sixty-six-seat dining room table.

The buzz was deafening, as everyone wondered aloud: Would this be something to remember? Or would it live up, or down, to its Chinese nickname, shang dang—the first characters of the words “Shanghai” and “contemporary—which also happens to mean “to be deceived”? Dealers anticipated heavy trading, but collectors seemed shocked by the number of available rooms at the Portman Ritz-Carlton, the five-star hotel just across Nanjing Road from the fair.

Left: Artists Xu Zhen and Shi Qing. Right: Collector Zhang Rui and architect Wang Hui.

The game of choice, in Pearl’s design-heavy parlor, involved heated speculation over the number of “real Chinese collectors,” as opposed to auction-prone speculators, with estimates ranging from ten to one hundred. Rumors of censors overruling dealers like Urs Meile, who had planned to present a new cycle of paintings by Wang Xingwei (one of which depicted a Chinese Hitler), flew across the table, above the white porcelain hand sculptures that held up the plates and place cards. Perhaps the biggest shock of the evening was that Lam, infamous for seating a dinner during last year’s Shanghai Biennale three hours late, was actually sticking to schedule. After finishing my third course, I headed out to catch the end of the party for Pierre Huber’s new student prize at the Glamour Bar, the Bund standby. From there, having opted out of the next leg with Keller and sex-and-drugs novelist Mian Mian, I went home curious what the fair itself would bring.

The following evening, our minibus pulled up to the Shanghai Exhibition Center, a 1955 Russian-neoclassical monument to Sino-Soviet friendship, just in time for the VIP preview. Gucci banners hung from the piers to the left and right of the central, steeple-topped entrance, and red carpets wound their way down the staircases and along the colonnades toward Yan’an Road. The requisite armies of flower-bearing, cheongsam-clad women tried not to look bored as the Italian organizers and Chinese officials made speeches to a grand piazza half-full of reporters. Inside, the initial reaction was one of pleasant surprise—the fair simply didn’t look as bad as fairs in China usually do. Gallerist Claes Nordenhake concluded graciously that “nice walls really count for a lot.” The halls even contained a few good pieces, like Rirkrit Tiravanija’s installation Free, in which fairgoers could claim a snappy tote bag emblazoned with the word FREE as long as they dumped some rice into it from a giant vitrine.

Left: Collectors Griet Dupont and Pamela Kramlich. Right: Dealer Huang Liaoyuan and collector Zhu Haibin.

I spotted Nick Simunovic, Gagosian’s newly arrived man in Shanghai, chatting up the son of the late Shanghai realist painter Chen Yifei. Organizers Pierre Huber and Zhou Tiehai greeted the throngs in front of a Phillips de Pury booth that made questionable history by showing highlights from its upcoming Frieze Art Fair–pegged sale of Howard Farber’s “China Avant-Garde” collection. Anything goes in China, some gallerists remarked, even an auction preview at an art fair.

Although ShContemporary was less of a failure than expected, visitors still contended with certain feelings of sickness—at times literally, given the nasty stomach virus floating around, though a fair share could be attributed to aesthetics and politics. Those Gucci banners, it turned out, were not the result of a savvy sponsorship agreement, but simply left over from an earlier exhibition. Deals were happening, and decent works were on view, but the sense of excitement at having arrived at yet another level of international seriousness—a feeling that has marked nearly every major Chinese art world gathering on this scale since 2000—was eerily absent. One particularly eerie absence involved this magazine, boxes of which had been sealed and stacked in the corner of the Artforum booth by censors from Shanghai Customs, who deemed a reproduction of Ai Weiwei’s photograph A Study in Perspective—Tiananmen, 1995–2003—which shows the artist unceremoniously giving the middle finger to the Tiananmen rostrum, and which appeared in my article on the artist in the summer issue—unfit for popular consumption.

Left: Dealer Zheng Lin and artist Jiang Zhi. Right: Artist Jin Feng and Shanghart Gallery's Lu Leiping.

Back in Beijing on Sunday night, a few hundred ShContemporary attendees reconvened for a party at the new home of Zhang Rui, a telecom giant and the backer of the Beijing Art Now Gallery, which was founded by rock-'n'-roll impresario–turned-dealer Huang Liaoyuan. The Chinese collectors—“real” and speculative alike—were out in full force: Yang Bin, the automotive magnate whose new climate-controlled warehouse features ten sets of moving track-mounted walls operated by remote control, stood on the veranda trading pleasantries and auction gossip with the Three Sisters Liu, a trio of collectors living between Beijing and Paris. Artists crouched in corners eating Chinese-fusion hors d’oeuvres from Le Quai, the restaurant attached to Zhang and Huang’s gallery.

At 7 PM, the doors swung open and everyone flooded the spiraling pseudo-Guggenheim foyer hung with Fang Lijun paintings, Damien Hirst prints, and a whole roster of works by younger artists, still unknown, who will surely grace the domestic auction catalogues and magazine covers of the season just begun. Pierre Huber and his roving bus of foreign collectors arrived just as darkness fell. Wired founder Ian Charles Stewart compared the whole mise-en-scène to Silicon Valley ca. 1996, when the first crew of techies, perplexed by all the new arrivals, realized that powerful forces beyond their control were underway. “And that,” he concluded, “is when the real money arrived.” At some point, while chatting with collectors Pamela Kramlich and Griet Dupont, I was struck by the absurdity of standing in the center of a Frank Lloyd Wright simulacrum in a McMansion development to the side of the Badaling Great Wall Expressway. I found myself strangely hoping that the power would fail again, for good, even, though all circuits appeared intact.

Left: Long March's Lu Jie and artist Chen Shaoxiong. Right: Artists Lei Benben and Li Bo.