Play Safe

Artist Oscar Murillo, Ute Meta Bauer, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Photo: Robin Peckham. All other photos: Alvin Li.

THE WARDROBE OF SMALL TALK must be continually refreshed; this year, during Shanghai’s unofficial art week, the once voguish ice-breaker of comparing Shanghai to Beijing proved suddenly démodé. China’s capital came up only once, during a dinner with artists Margaret Lee and Allison Katz: Margaret had just returned from a trip there, while Allison was anticipating her first visit. Symbolically, Beijing-based Philip Tinari didn’t come to Shanghai. Despite his sensible reasoning (“to attend the opening of the China show at SFMOMA and the David Diao catalogue launch in New York,” he told me two weeks ago at a wedding in Koh Samui, Thailand), I couldn’t resist reading the UCCA director’s nonattendance as a deliberate retreat from Shanghai’s increasingly spectacularized art scene.

While absence can be chic, it certainly felt like an anomaly. This year’s art week, which included the opening of the Fifth West Bund Art & Design fair, the Sixth Art021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair, the Shanghai Biennale, and dozens of shows around town, was like the ultimate Black Friday sale for the art world. But there was one ghost from Beijing that haunted this year’s edition: president Xi. In town for the inaugural International Import Expo, which took place at the National Exhibition and Convention Center Shanghai in Pudong, he cast a silencio spell across the Huangpu River onto the west side of town.

David Zwirner senior partner Angela Choon with David Zwirner Hong Kong director Leo Xu.

The effects of the spell ranged from a clearer sky (due to the temporary shut-down of factories) and cleaner streets (some even repaved weeks ahead) to an unspoken nightlife curfew of 2 AM. But in walled, brightly lit spaces with free, flowing champagne, things were progressing as usual. Katharina Grosse’s opening at K11 Art Foundation, which took place on Monday, was packed with familiar faces. I couldn’t tell what was more stunning: Grosse’s perfect pink suit, her bedazzling painting installations, or Klaus Biesenbach, who, when I dived into the show, was doing his signature spin through the space while death-staring through his phone into the abyss of Instagram.

Dozens of exhibitions opened on or before Tuesday, the highlight of which included Samson Young’s “The Highway Is like a Lion’s Mouth” at Edouard Malingue and Wang Haiyang’s solo at Capsule. These were just appetizers. We were served the first of the three main courses—the VIP preview of West Bund—the following evening. This year’s West Bund grew from 70 galleries to 115. Racing to accommodate the newcomers, the organizers erected a new building consisting of three pavilions connected by two courtyards in a mere one hundred days, an emblem of contemporary China’s great acceleration. “Beautiful, and quite pleasant,” observed curator Tan Xue from the Hong Kong nonprofit Tai Kwun, which opened its doors earlier this summer, as she took in the new glass-walled space.

Curator Hera Chan, artist Samson Young, and writer Francesca Tarocco.

People weren’t there to admire the architecture. When I passed by Peres Projects’ booth (showing Beth Letain, Blair Thurman, and Brent Wadden), gallery partner Nick Koenigsknecht couldn’t wait to show me a fan that a collector gifted to him. “The calligraphy says, ‘Earn all the money.’” Among all the foreign gallerists eyeing China, I genuinely admire Nick for investing equally in China’s cultural capital and sales. He comes here almost every summer to take language lessons; last year, we almost started a reading group dedicated to scholar Petrus Liu’s research on queer China. But I had to tell him a hard truth: He had read the fan’s calligraphy incorrectly. The characters actually meant “Well-being is more important than money.” He shoved the fan back into his tote bag after artist Li Shuang confirmed.

If West Bund felt slick, maybe even a tad quiet, Art021’s preview on Thursday was a carnival. “It felt like they handed out VIP cards on the streets,” a friend visiting from London commented. I’ve always felt there was something inexplicably gauche about the combination of contemporary art (for instance, Vittorio Brodmann’s fabulous new painting, Party, 2018, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise’s booth, which made its Shanghai debut at Art021) and the ornamental marble floor and stern neoclassical architecture of Shanghai Exhibition Center, which houses the fair. But apparently, it augments connoisseurship just fine—the collectors love it.

12th Shanghai Biennial curator Cuauhtémoc Medina.

The next day, just a ten-minute drive from West Bund, an entirely different audience convened at the opening of the Twelfth Shanghai Biennial, “Proregress: Art in an Age of Historical Ambivalence,” at Power Station of Art, to peruse a much more subdued strand of art. “It’s crazy how different they are,” observed Blum & Poe’s Felicia Chen, making a comparison between Suki Seokyeong Kang’s quietly evocative video installation Black Mat Oriole, 2016–17, next to us, and all the flashy art-fair art. It also made me think of how absurdly easily we shift our evaluative perspective.

While the show proposed a timely curatorial thesis and was not short of individual highlights, the feedback after the opening was mixed. Many thought the selection of works felt flat, or “lackluster,” as a curator friend wrote in text message, which, according to rumor, had to do with censorship. In the curatorial statement, the biennial’s chief curator Cuauhtémoc Medina frames art as a “creative coming and going of ideas, desires, and concepts.” In reality, however, the show evidenced a too-pronounced focus on addressing social, political, and environmental issues, such that the art became, in the case of several works on view, auxiliary. “But I must say I really enjoyed working with the biennial team this year,” remarked artist Lu Yang, who impressed us with her new maximalist, arcade-like installation, Material World Knight. “It was much messier four years ago.”

Artist Li Ran, Cui Jie, gallerist Simon Wang, and artist Chen Zhou.

I was sipping on a glass of absurdly sweet moscato when Antenna Space’s Simon Wang grabbed me and screamed, “OH MY GOD, ART WORLD WILL END, TOO!” For a second, I thought my drink was spiked. Turned out he was talking about the Chinese-language art magazine Art World, run by Power Station of Art director Gong Yan. This would have triggered depression about the status of art publishing in China, but I was already stricken with something else: hunger. The two-hour biennial gala dinner was decidedly vegetarian-unfriendly. I looked around the room: the other starving vegetarians, including gallerist Kamel Mennour, were playing diplomatic. So, I sat through the opening speeches as elegantly as I could (which lasted almost as long as the dinner) before calling it a night.

Saturday afternoon, I went to Ming Contemporary Art Museum for the open preview of Thomas Hirschhorn’s solo show “Re-Sculpt,” set to open two weeks later, on November 24. Though the exhibition may have elicited eye rolls, being as it was yet another prominent display of a Western artist in China, Hirschhorn’s full-fledged reconstruction plan felt more sincere than the rest of the private museum shows around town. In my taxi back from Ming, it struck me that the one thing shared by the fairs, the biennial, and most of the shows outside was a kind of safeness, whether due to China’s flailing economy, rumored government pressure, a lack of institutional experience, and a problematic vision, or a mix of all those things. Then my phone buzzed. It was a flyer sent from Robin Peckham: “Ming Wong, Amalia Ulman, Cody Allen and Robin Peckham invite you to HOURS AFTER ART. (not an art party).” The curfew had been lifted. That’s it! I have been looking at things too cynically, all because of the lack of dance-floor activities. This was exactly the nonart party I needed.

Curator Robin Peckham and artist Chen Tianzhuo.

We (Carlos Ishikawa’s Vanessa Carlos and some other friends) hit Le Baron at 2 AM sharp. It took us five minutes to get to the front of the line, and another ten to elbow our way inside. The club was so jam-packed I could hardly breathe. As Robin greeted us with champagne, I looked around. There was Linyao Kiki Liu from Beijing’s Si Shang Art Museum and K11’s Venus Lau. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore’s Ute Meta Bauer had already gone home (I knew they were there because of a widely shared snap of them on WeChat); I guess the big players don’t have much time after art. Stealthily, I snuck out. Simon’s spooky remark hit me again. The night may be over, but the art world will never end.

Art 021 founder David Chau.

Fosun Foundation president Jenny Wang.

Dealer Chantal Crousel.

Artist Alfredo Jaar.

Artist Wang Jianwei and gallerist Lu Jie.

Editor Daniel Ho and artist Lee Kit.

Gallerist Nick Koenigsknecht and artist Li Shuang.

Artist Hu Xiangqian, curator Xue Tan and artist Joao Vasco Paiva.

Artist Alice Wang and dealer Enrico Polato.

West Bund founder Zhou Tiehai.

Hou Hanru.

Yuko Hasegawa.

West Bund VIP relations Winnie Hu and Gladstone director Paula Tsai.

Artist Kim Laughton and Wang Newone.