PRINT December 2007

Mathieu Borysevicz

MOGANSHAN, where I am writing this piece, is a mountain resort four hours’ drive from Shanghai, where Westerners and wealthy Chinese capitalists built stone villas in the 1920s to escape the summer heat. Somewhat ironically, these bamboo-covered mountains share their name with a complex of formerly industrial buildings in Shanghai that now constitutes the city’s premier gallery district: 50 Moganshan Road, colloquially known as M50. Both this group of galleries and the mansions dotting this landscape are revealing of the combination of influences from East and West that has defined Shanghai for centuries, an understanding of which is essential for any overview of the city and its contemporary art scene.

This confluence of genealogies was especially apparent one evening this past March when a jovial international art-world crowd gathered in M50, at ShanghART’s newly opened H-Space, to celebrate the first-ever solo show in China by globally renowned artist Yang Fudong. The work on view, No Snow on the Broken Bridge, 2006, is a dazzling eight-channel, 35-mm-film-to-video-transfer piece that depicts beautiful androgynous youths in turn-of-the-last-century dress (a sexy mix of traditional East and debonair West) wandering aimlessly around stunning landscapes, sometimes arm in arm, sometimes rowing boats, and occasionally tending goats. The work is very hypnotic—though perhaps, as the artist confessed to me at the opening, “too sweet”—as it unfolds like a scroll across eight panels some 108 feet long.

Yet the situation was somewhat odd in that this handsome piece of nostalgia had already been shown at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, as well as at the Parasol Unit in London almost a year earlier. Why did it end, rather than begin, its world tour at home? And why is it that this global art star—one of just two living Chinese artists picked by Robert Storr for the 2007 Venice Biennale—only this year had his first solo exhibition in the city he has called home for more than ten years? The answer lies in Shanghai’s age-old configuration of the outside reaching in and the inside reaching out.

Shanghai is above all a commercial center with a rich history of international exchange. From the end of the First Opium War in 1842, which opened the city for trade with the West, to the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, Shanghai was a hub of global commerce. The glitz, glamour, and other superficial displays of hypermodernity that have helped make this so-called Paris of the East the “world capital of the twenty-first century” are all a consequence of this legacy. The arts inevitably reflect this, too—Shanghai has a handful of private museums, numerous commercial galleries, and, now, the ShContemporary art fair, which took place for the first time this year. Nevertheless, for a city of nearly twenty million, the cultural scene, as Shanghai-based choreographer Jin Xing says, is “disgusting, really disgusting.” Victoria Lu—creative director of eArts, a digital-arts festival that took place in the city this past October—attributes this to Shanghai’s high cost of living: “Shanghai can only develop into a commercial center rather than a production place like Beijing.” But perhaps this is exactly what makes Shanghai attractive to some constituencies of the art world to begin with. The city offers a clean slate with major potential; furthermore, it is, after all, China’s wealthiest city.

Compared with Beijing (and the two are constantly compared), Shanghai does not have the number of artists, or the venues, or the grassroots initiative necessary for a strong cultural scene. Indeed, whether bolstered by the government, foreign gallerists, or (as is often the case in China) real estate developers, the visual arts scene in Shanghai is built from the top down, not from the artists up. (Now that the 2010 World Expo is approaching, the city government in particular is showing an increased enthusiasm for the arts.) The artists that do practice here tend to emerge only for openings—and sometimes only for opening dinners. But this is how they like it. “The artists,” Yang Fudong says, “are able to stay independent.” Even if they are complacent about developing a local scene, however, Shanghai’s artists remain entrenched in a courtship with the international art world; and, like most of China’s economy, their art continues to be an export business. Once again it is part of the city’s dynamic. Rather than concerning itself merely with its status with regard to other Chinese cities, Shanghai aspires to top the global charts.

The Shanghai Gallery of Art (SGA) epitomizes the city’s ambitious relationship with the rest of the world. Situated on the Bund, Shanghai’s famous riverfront row of international bank buildings that aptly evokes Wall Street, the gallery (owned by the proprietors of Three on the Bund—the building itself) seems to have endless financial support for its vigorous program of large-scale installation works. This year alone, curator Cao Weijun mounted three ambitious solo exhibitions with budgets of about $80,000 each. In the opening show of 2007, Zeng Hao, renowned as a painter of expansive canvases dotted with small everyday objects, presented his first exhibition as an installation artist at the gallery. The work—which included fourteen projections, a massive sculpture, and roughly ten tons of landscaping (dirt, sod, trees, plants, and park benches)—was arranged like a labyrinth, with an inverted urban oasis at the core. The New York Times mentioned the exhibition, albeit not for its astounding scale and caliber but for the afterparty, at which about 150 guests, including the artist’s buddies from Beijing (all flown in and put up at five-star hotels for the occasion), wined and dined at Shanghai’s prestigious Jean Georges restaurant.

Soirees aside, the SGA continues to impress. Its combination of sharp curating and robust budgets has resulted in a succession of museum-quality shows. In September, artist Liu Jianhua playfully addressed both the status of contemporary Chinese art and the global garbage trade by packaging ten tons of imported waste in Plexiglas for reexportation as art. Other exhibitions at the SGA this year seemed like similarly canny reflections on the city’s commercial priorities—Yan Lei’s installation involved enlarging the columns in the gallery space with mud dredged out of the Huangpu River; Gu Dexin furnished the gallery’s interior with standard-issue concrete sidewalk tiles and street gutters.

While the principal polarity of the Shanghai art scene is between the SGA on the one hand and a plethora of commercial galleries selling the gamut of commercially oriented Chinese contemporary art objects on the other, there are a few alternative spaces on the periphery. For seven years, DDM Warehouse has run a program of exhibitions and performances in its cavernous building, financed with the profits of an associated design company. BizArt in M50 likewise supports itself with art production and design services and various other businesses. While many of the artists associated with this multifunctional space have made waves (and lots of cash) in the outside world, BizArt maintains an air of undergrad sloppiness. In June, Zhou Xiaohu, famous for his twisted Claymation films based on current affairs, staged an exhibition at the gallery in which he furthered his play on media spectacle, presenting Renown, 2007, a lifesize installation that mocks the press conference and the idea of the celebrity artist. From afar, it looks as if Zhou is surrounded by microphone-toting, video-camera-carrying Western journalists captivated by his speech. But as one gets closer, Zhou’s head turns out to be a video of him speaking, projected onto a faceless life-size model of the artist. The cameramen and journalists are also fake—although everything from their clothes to their eyebrows is rendered in lifelike detail. Meanwhile, Zhou’s head utters some self-promotional rhetoric about his background as an artist, what the exhibition is intended to accomplish, and so on.

If Renown was (according to BizArt’s press release) about “seeking for the possibilities residing in the crevice between social and artistic events,” the ShContemporary art fair that took place this past September was, more simply, about seeking the widest margin of profit in a flourishing art market. However, not unlike Zhou and his flummery, the fair’s director, Lorenzo Rudolf, pontificated at the opening press conference about the merits of the event as if he were reading a utopian manifesto—albeit one in which the word market appears in almost every sentence. “The West is eagerly looking at how this huge potential market is reacting to the event, and the East is proud to finally have its own important international contemporary art fair,” he said, again reflecting the binary thinking that positions Shanghai as the gateway between two worlds. One hundred and thirty galleries from around the globe convened at the fair for a weekend of good parties, intense networking, nicely dressed security guards, and an eclectic mix of art from various continents. But it was Zhou Tiehai—a Shanghai native whose career as an artist is built on negotiating the West’s exploitation of Chinese art—who truly helped set the tone for the fair’s ambitions. Acting as ShContemporary’s local organizer, Zhou transformed himself from an art businessman into an art-fair businessman, in effect embodying Warhol’s precept that good business is the best art.

In a city with such a rich tradition of commerce, it is unsurprising that the year’s largest art event was a sales convention. Thankfully, there was one piece at the fair that stood in defiance of the celebratory air of the surrounding market frenzy. Under the arched dome of what was formerly called the Hall of Sino-Soviet Friendship, visitors helped themselves to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s mountain of jasmine rice—which, as it diminished, slowly revealed a canvas on the wall behind it that read RICH BASTARDS BEWARE.

Mathieu Borysevicz is a writer based in Shanghai.