Shen Fan, Landscape: A Tribute to Huang Binhong, 2006. Installation view, Shanghai Art Museum.

Shen Fan, Landscape: A Tribute to Huang Binhong, 2006. Installation view, Shanghai Art Museum.

the 6th Shanghai Biennale

Shanghai Art Museum | 上海美术馆

SINCE ITS EVOLUTION in 2000 from a local museum show to a self-consciously international exposition, the Shanghai Biennale has functioned as an index of the contemporary art scene in China and the institutional system that has come to undergird it. That year marked the third biennial, the first with any foreign content, as Matthew Barney appeared alongside a slew of local ink painters to demonstrate Shanghai’s, and China’s, emergence onto the world stage. It is no secret that most of the international biennials and triennials founded in the 1990s flurry are ridden with chamber-of-commerce localism, a disposition made more obvious in China, where hometown interests cannot but wear a cloak of party rhetoric. And so the Shanghai Art Museum, which organizes the biennial, has over the years given us a string of titles that serve more as barometers of municipal political discourse (which is only sometimes consistent with the national one) than as purely artistic statements. In 2000, the theme was “Spirit of Shanghai,” a celebration of the city’s unique ability to blend East and West and a veiled apologia for its disproportionate economic development. Two years later, “Urban Creation” hinted at the technocratic dreams behind all those new skyscrapers and argued obliquely that tearing down the old buildings might not be so bad. This year’s theme of “Hyper Design” (divided into the subsets “Design and Imagination,” “Practice of Everyday Life,” and the overtly political “Future Constructions of History”) carries on this conflation of art and ideology. It speaks to the state’s current and overwhelming emphasis on the “creative industry”—a vague term, originally popularized by Tony Blair, that suggests how design and art can ground commercial growth—as the path to overcoming China’s status as the workshop of the world and thereby to climbing the value chain.

Climb it has, at least judging by the museum’s evolving self-presentation. This year’s catalogue lacks the entertaining spelling errors of years past, and at the exhibition’s opening, a giant white mechanical backdrop outfitted with JumboTrons rolled aside in sync with confetti fireworks to welcome visitors into the museum, which is housed in the former British jockey club. Shanghai being Shanghai, those invitation-bearing visitors included people like the MoMA Junior Associates and the Israeli consul general, while major local artists such as Yang Fudong and Xu Zhen (not to mention countless other relevant Chinese scenesters) were left invitationless outside the iron gates, prompting in one case a fistfight with the security guards.

Inside, the exhibition, though nicely installed, cannot shake the impression of having been curated by committee. This is hardly surprising, given that the team comprised six curators—Shu-Min Lin, Gianfranco Maraniello, Huang Du, Wonil Rhee, Jonathan Watkins, and Zhang Qing—whose sensibilities were not always mixed to good effect. Pride of place in the main entrance hall is given to a grouping of wooden models of Suzhou temples by a team of midcentury artisans, a presumably subversive gesture asserting the relevance of PRC tradition to the contemporary art system. This curatorial agenda of resolving a perceived contradiction between tradition and modernity, between East and West, seems to underlie most of the Chinese contributions (selected mainly by Zhang and Huang), such as Shen Fan’s neon-and-zither-music homage to the landscape painter Huang Binhong (1865–1955); Shi Jinsong’s stainless steel Harley Davidson–cum–peasant tractor, Halong-Kellong No. 1, 2006; and Zhan Wang’s temple of tiny plastic Buddhas filled with Chinese and Western drugs. Such works hardly represent the dynamism of the current batch of young artists at work here, and the selection of Chinese painting—by artists such as Xia Xiaowan and the especially overvalued Zhong Biao—does not go much further toward showcasing the talent that now abounds.

The hometown star of this year’s biennial is Qiu Anxiong, a trained landscape painter whose three-channel animated video epic The New Book of Mountains and Seas, 2006, reinterprets the canonical mythological text Book of Mountains and Seas by tracing the evolution of a (Chinese) civilization from agriculture through petro-war with a cast of creatures hovering somewhere between animal and machine. Another standout is Wang Xingwei, who offers a witty take on the theme of “Hyper Design,” displaying three stylized replicas of worker latrines in the museum’s backyard.

As for the international artists on display, interesting large-scale installations abound, notably Hans Op de Beeck’s dim prototype of a theoretical supermarket in T-Mart, 2004–2005, and the Taiwanese Tu Wei-Cheng’s museum of the imaginary Bu Num civilization. Particularly strong videos include Annika Larsson’s theatrical Hockey, 2004, and Oh Yong-Seok’s Drama, 2003, a two-screen opus pieced together from thousands of still photographs and film clips. Local museumgoers seemed to prefer less serious pieces grounded more in design than in art, such as Shilpa Gupta’s interactive video installation, in which a projection of a monkey swoops down on viewers’ shadows, and Naoto Fukasawa’s cutely animated exit sign. Some traces of the 2000 biennial’s spirit of curating by name-dropping seem to persist, with works by Julian Opie, Yoshitomo Nara, and Thomas Demand inserted cursorily into the flow of the exhibition in seeming affirmation of the museum’s power to attract marquee artists.

All of the half-dozen satellite shows that complement the biennial—ranging from modest surveys of young artists at the semiofficial Duolun and Zhu Qizhen museums to a major series of urban interventions in the Zhang Jiang High-Tech Park, staged with the cooperation of the Pudong district government—were mounted with considerable institutional and commercial support. Gone are the artist-organized warehouse shows of years past—underground exhibitions like Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi’s 2000 “Fuck Off,” its title aimed directly at the biennial and its organizers—signaling the arrival of a moment in which contemporary art in China has achieved the “legitimization” that certain of its practition-ers and purveyors earnestly sought throughout the 1990s. And yet, as domestic tolerance and an international appetite for Chinese art expand and converge in a mutually reinforcing market-driven cycle predicated no longer on political opposition but on the image of an increasingly powerful and sophisticated nation, the show prompts the question: Whose “designs” are being served?

The Shanghai Biennale remains on view through Nov. 5.

Philip Tinari is a Beijing-based writer and curator.