Shanghaila Shanghailorum

Philip Tinari on a Yang Fudong opening at Zendai MoMA


Left: Artists Liu Wei and Yang Fudong. Right: Artist Qiu Zhijie (right).

PERHAPS BECAUSE DANIEL BIRNBAUM’S VENICE looms just around the corner, the pithy first sentence (borrowed from Borges) of his Chronology tended to linger over a weekend of openings in Shanghai: “I tend to return—eternally—to the Eternal Return.” For a chastened but ever-secure Chinese art scene in late spring, an opening of new (if somehow already familiar) work by Yang Fudong at Zendai MoMA seemed like a pretty good excuse for a get-together. The Post-Sense Sensibility gang flew down from Beijing; recent graduates and young faculty of Yang’s alma mater, the China Academy of Art, trained it in from Hangzhou; a few stragglers who had stuck around Hong Kong postfair, myself included, flocked north from the Pearl River Delta to the Yangtze River Delta. There was nothing new about any of these movements or any of the interactions that ensued, and that was precisely the point.

The rounds began on Saturday evening with the opening of “Blackboard” at ShanghART. Hangzhou artist Chen Xiaoyun (whose career has mirrored Yang’s in odd ways, from their shared off-campus student digs in Hangzhou to the locations of their New York galleries, Christian Haye’s The Project and Marian Goodman, on opposite sides of Fifty-seventh Street) had organized one of those heartening attempts at all-together-now solidarity that would be laughed out of London but still works in Shanghai, distributing identical blackboards to a slate of thirty-odd artists along with a ¥300 materials fee. The concept may have been juvenile, but for longtime followers of the Post-Sense generation (which of course also includes Yang), this year celebrating a decade since their original basement show, it was a chance to see the old crowd and its newer acolytes at their best and worst selves.

Chen Wenbo, who strayed from meaty installations to airbrushed paintings of CDs and car keys sometime after Hu Jintao came to power, carved on his the phrase YI DAN SHENGYI (“strictly business,” roughly) in gold-foil traditional characters, and curator Fu Xiaodong hung it high above an arch like a plaque wishing prosperity to some kitschy Chinatown restaurant. Liu Wei predictably cut from his a maquette cluster that looked more or less like his dog-chew cities, having first packed it between layers of foam in a wooden crate. Chu Yun, feeling conceptual, threw his away and bought a slightly smaller one to replace it. And Qiu Zhijie, ever the pedagogue, let his be used for a week at a time by two markets, a sports school, and a police station, posting photos of the resulting accidental manifestos on the reclaimed board, along with a written explanation for anyone unable to figure out the already didactic display. Perhaps it was Lu Chunsheng’s that best set the stage for the next day’s events with a single, mistily chalked sentence: “Why is it that every kid who’s just started studying art feels like nothing is quite real?”

Left: Artist Chen Xiaoyun. Right: Artists Shi Yong and Wu Shanzhuan.

I got through quarantine and to the hotel by midnight and shuffled to meet the regular crowd at an all-night snack and beer joint on a street of stinky tofu. The Hangzhou kids had gone elsewhere, leaving Lu Jie and Shi Yong to comb beer suds from Conceptualist godfather Wu Shanzhuan’s beard as the bumbling master argued for the umpteenth time why the academy in Hangzhou (alma mater of most everyone in the room) was the best in China. Local strongman Xu Zhen, who always pays, just laughed and gave his standard I-never-went-to-a-real-art-school retort. I left shortly after arriving, passing a toqued chef lounging on a motorbike, playing with his girlfriend’s hair, and otherwise looking like he’d stepped out of a Yang Fudong film.

The following afternoon, I hopped a cab out to Big Thumb Plaza in deepest Pudong, where the Zendai MoMA sits on the second floor of a strip mall, nestled between a Papa John’s and a Catholic church. (Banker expats call the area “Pu-Jersey.”) Inside the galleries, these surroundings faded as viewers bore witness to a show that instantly announced itself as Significant. Nine screens showed short, arrestingly beautiful black-and-white films of two or three minutes each, exactly as we have come to expect from their maker: an inexplicable fight scene in a colonial mansion; a man leading a woman to a tryst in a sunflower patch; a vintage car hurriedly unloaded.

But Yang Fudong had taken his recital of Yang Fudong–ness a step further, stringing together the nine or ten takes that went into each of these scenes, so that what looked like a loop was in reality a sequence of all-but-identical variations. And then of course it was also still a loop. Split among the nine projections, there were 180 minutes of footage—more than enough for the feature film everyone has been urging him to make all these years. Curators Yuko Hasegawa and Zhang Yaxuan were heard at the conference earlier that day waxing over the power of nine 35-mm projectors clicking away simultaneously, but to corrupt the title of one of the manifesto essays of the Post-Sense Sensibility generation, “the important thing was not the scene.” This was about something else—time creatively subverted, style hardened into routine, then sublimated into sensibility.

Left: Critic Wang Nanming (left) and artist Zhou Tiehai (right). Right: Pace Beijing's Charlie Spalding and Boers-Li Gallery's Waling Boers.

Downstairs on the terrace overlooking the strip mall, speeches were made, babies were coddled, awkward conversations were averted with the eternal and, for once, irrefutable excuse, “I just want to have a look at the show first.” The inside crowd grabbed their catalogues and meal tickets, headed first to the museum owner’s clubhouse for a buffet, then to a rooftop in the French Concession for a drink, then back to the same snack street they’d visited the night before. As it was a few years ago, is now, and probably will be for some time to come.

Left: Ling Yun with film critic Zhang Yaxuan. Right: 140sqm Gallery's Liu Yingmei, collector Qiao Zhibin, ShanghART's Laura Zhou, and artist Liu Jianhua.

Left: Artist Xu Zhen with Long March Gallery's Lu Jie. Right: Curator Li Zhenhua, Qiu Zhijie, Yang Fudong, artist Liu Jiajing, a guest, and Shanghai Zendai MoMA director Shen Qibin.