Opening Salvo

Philip Tinari at ShContemporary and openings in Shanghai


Left: Mori Art Museum chief curator Mami Kataoka, ShContemporary director Colin Chinnery, and artist Wang Jianwei. Right: Artists Shen Fan and Wu Shanzhuan. (All photos: Ren Lan)

ONE OF THE GREAT HISTORICAL CLICHÉS of roaring Shanghai has to do with the Japanese intrusion of the 1930s, when, as the story goes, the dance halls and jazz clubs of the Bund remained open even as the gunships launched rounds from the river into the city beyond. It’s less a story of decadence than of rote persistence, and one that seemed to resonate with last week’s string of art events centered, at least theoretically, on the third edition of ShContemporary, a fair born of the bubble and committed to hanging on for another year. Last Sunday morning, I soldiered down from Beijing to Shanghai on the 8 AM flight and checked into a Motel 168—the name is the rate, in RMB—where the out-of-towners among the younger generation of artists and critics were holed up for what we knew would be a long week.

That evening began on familiar-enough turf, with gallery openings at 50 Moganshan Road. Having functioned briefly as absolute center of the Shanghai art world, “M50” has evolved into a logical place to start. Xu Zhen announced his (perhaps ill-conceived) rebirth as “MadeIn,” some sort of joke about the artist as production company, with a “group show of works by Middle Eastern artists” at ShanghArt “curated” by said company. (Or rather, all conceived and executed by Xu Zhen himself. New Yorkers can catch a glimpse of MadeIn this month at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea.) Spread over ShanghArt’s two spaces, the assemblage of sculptures drawing on the most obvious symbols of the Middle Eastern situation—think an oil rig made from razor wire—announced the stakes for the week: Chinese artists can exoticize the other, too.

Artists Wang Xingwei, Zhou Xiaohu, Xu Zhen, and Yuan Yuan.

Zhou Xiaohu’s poignant installation “Military Exercises Camp” at BizArt took a similar line. For this piece, the artist invited eight Chinese actors and eight Congolese students to play out the scene of last year’s kidnapping of an oil worker by Sudanese militants. New paintings by up-and-comer Yuan Yuan at Shopping Gallery and a cheeky show by new collective Shuangfei (the name is a riposte to the Chinese name for BizArt; the group itself consists of seven recent graduates of the Hangzhou academy who wear bathrobes and make videos) completed the picture.

The Beijingers took the largest of twenty tables at the joint opening dinner and proceeded to scare the civilized Shanghainese service staff with a succession of toasts involving beer glasses banged vehemently on the lazy Susan. Retiring to the Motel 168 lobby to drink convenience-store beers, we quickly realized, as we watched half a dozen couples awkwardly meet and board the elevator, why every cab driver seemed to know the place.

Monday centered on an old Russian neighborhood far north of the Bund, where the Duolun Museum was hosting a documentary survey of the ’80s drawn from the archives of reclusive critic Wen Pulin. A quick stroll away was Jiang Zhi’s exhibition “Attitude” at Osage, a multibranch Asian gallery empire owned by a Hong Kong garment corporation that sources for Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. A lot was riding on this show for Jiang, a contemporary of Yang Fudong and Liu Wei's who everyone worries has been left behind. He delivered with a three-floor installation that began with a hundred coy photographic portraits of twenty-somethings who hang out on a beauty-tip website and ended with a “Screen Test”–esque video in which Gillian Chung—of the great Edison Chan sex-picture scandal of early 2008—forces herself to cry. A buoyant dinner followed, at perhaps the only table in Shanghai longer than Pearl Lam’s. (In another sign of the times, that hostess was notably absent from the week’s proceedings.)

Left: Artists Liu Jianhua and Song Dong. Right: Artists Yang Fudong and Wu Shanzhuan.

Tuesday was given over mainly to Wu Shanzhuan, whose show at the Shanghai Gallery of Art turned out to be mostly a recap of his 2008 exhibition at the Guangdong Museum. Curated by Gao Shiming, it was followed by dinner upstairs at Jean Georges, although the menu—asparagus to chicken breast and straight to chocolate cake—seemed to drive home the point that the party was over. ShContemporary fair director Colin Chinnery sat center stage, flanked by his curatorial advisers, Mami Kataoka and Wang Jianwei. The early arrivals among the e-flux lecture-series crew appeared one by one—Jan Verwoert somewhat bewildered to find himself on the other side of the world; Boris Groys previewing his talk, confident that he knew what the Chinese wanted of him; and Martha Rosler, very jet-lagged.

Come Wednesday, it was time for the fair itself. A modest line formed at the VIP entrance just before the 5 PM preview, as collectors poured in to glimpse the seventy-some galleries that made up the fair’s third, chastened installment. Halfway through the “Best of Galleries” section, one BolognaFiere executive, in an unusually candid moment, told me, “You have no idea how much money we’ve lost this year. But we don’t say ‘lost.’ We say ‘invested.’” That feeling of hanging on seemed to prevail, as dealers made more sales than they might have anticipated. In 2009, the mythical Chinese collector is less a beast to be stalked than a guy to be chatted up, and the galleries seemed to know their audience.

I left the fair early to check out a thirty-year retrospective of Shanghai art history curated by Biljana Ciric in a renovated warehouse in the south of town. Four sprawling galleries told a convincing tale of movements resurgent and names forgotten, with a smattering of new work by artists including Yang Zhenzhong and Ding Yi. I zipped through the galleries with MoMA’s Barbara London and then rushed on to a dinner hosted by Hong Kong collector Hallam Chow. In a blink, it was 2 AM and we were still in Xintiandi, far from the official ShContemporary after party at Bund 18. Somehow, this seemed just fine.

Left: Artist Liu Wei. Right: Artist Feng Mengbo with artist and Minsheng Art Museum director Zhou Tiehai.

By Thursday, most were ready for the week to end, but not before one of the major highlights, “Bourgeoisified Proletariat,” a transitory group show organized by the BizArt crowd in a former factory ninety minutes outside the city, across the street—appropriately given the title—from an IKEA depot. Most of the works fell somewhere on the race/class/gender matrix, like Hu Xiangqian’s standout video in which he suns himself into passable blackness over six months in 2008, or Wang Xingwei’s painting in which two leisurely figures float in a boat shaped like a public toilet. The self-selected crowd convened on the lawn below for some bourgeois relaxation and proletarian steamed buns before heading back into town to catch a joint Boers-Li/Long March reception atop the Lan Club, a venue that caters rather to the Aristocratized Peasantry.

I did what Tyler Brûlé calls an STP—straight to plane—and got into the northern city of Dalian just in time for a panel with curator Pi Li and Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones at the World Economic Forum on Friday morning. The quick dip into “Dalian Davos” (conceptually identical to “Miami Basel,” I realized) was refreshing. But the Shanghai adventure was still not over, and on Saturday morning Peyton-Jones and I boarded a plane back to Shanghai for one last day of excitement. We joined up with Hans Ulrich Obrist, launched a book of his interviews with Chinese artists, and then ran around to see every show one more time. By 11 PM, the recurring characters of the week had all reconvened at the Kee Club—MadeIn, Zhou Xiaohu, the e-flux crowd, and, most appropriately, the bathrobe boys. We stayed and talked for a while, as if shells were flying overhead.

Left: Artist Kan Xuan with BizArt's Vigy Jin. Right: Artist Liu Jianhua, Art News's Wu Hua, and Pace Beijing president Leng Lin.

Left: Shanghai MoCA director Samuel Kung, administrative director Sun Wenqian, and Osage's Agnes Lin. Right: Collector Joen Bonnier.

Left: Artist Jun Yang, MoMA curator Barbara London, and Vitamin Creative Space's Zhang Wei. Right: Dealer Grace Li and Hanart TZ's Johnson Tsung-zong Chang.

Three on the Bund managing director Diana Kuan, curator Gao Shiming, and artists Inga Svala Thórsdóttir and Wu Shanzhuan.

Left: Artists Heman Chong and Jun Yang. Right: Artists Jin Feng, Cang Xin, and Li Woze.