Here is my IHT/NYT story on the Shanghai art scene. It's a pity that the photos used in the print edition aren't posted online, and that the URLs aren't imbedded. I may put them in tonight after work.
There's another art article I wrote recently, too, on Picassos in Hong Kong that I will upload soon. It's been crazy busy and I've fallen behind on my blog!
December 10, 2010
By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU
The elegant older couple with the European accents and fine black coats were stuck in the back of the taxi, trying in vain to make the cabdriver understand that they wanted to go to the Peninsula, a hotel so new in Shanghai that it had not made it onto their tourist map.
They were visiting No. 50 Moganshan Road, or M50, yet another post-industrial area outside a Chinese city that has turned into an art district.
Every other autumn, at around the time of the Shanghai Biennale, visitors flock to this city for a glimpse of the booming Chinese contemporary art scene, forging out to ever more remote areas to gape at the giant, strange installations that are so in vogue.
A young Chinese woman also waiting for a taxi rolled her eyes. “It’s not the art I’m impressed with here,” she said. “It’s the people who come to see the art.”
The scene began with the state-run biennale in 1996, now practically ancient history by Shanghai standards, and grew with an explosion of private museums, galleries, studios and now an art fair. Both the MOCA Shanghai and the Zendai MOMA opened in 2005, followed by the city’s main art fair, ShContemporary, in 2007.
This year, two more private museums opened in Shanghai. In April, the Minsheng Art Museum held its first official show, a retrospective of 30 years of modern and contemporary Chinese art. A month later the Rockbund Art Museum opened its doors. It is housed in a 19th-century building along Suzhou Creek, in a stretch of quaint historic structures just off the northern end of the Bund district.
In October, the ShanghART gallery opened what it called a “warehouse-style museum” in a 3,000-square-meter, or 32,000-square-foot, space in Taopu, northwest of Shanghai. It is not technically a museum — everything is for sale — but its size and scope give it the feel of one.
ShanghART was founded by Lorenz Helbling, a Swiss national who moved to Shanghai in 1995 and opened his first gallery here at around the time of the inaugural biennale in 1996. His first space was at the Shanghai Centre, a complex run by the Portman Ritz-Carlton that, at the time, was one of the few places with any sign of expatriate life.
“In 1996, when we opened, anything more than a painting in a hotel gift shop was considered exotic,” Mr. Helbling said. “There was only one art museum, and only one art show every few months.”
“It was a totally different world. It was a totally different city. The ring road had just opened and Pudong didn’t exist,” he continued, referring to a major expressway and the financial district. “It was only in the ’90s that Shanghai really started building highways and skyscrapers.”
ShanghART closed its downtown branch and moved on to rougher, larger spaces in Moganshan and Taopu, areas that were barely part of the city a decade ago.
The Taopu opening party was one of many shows timed to coincide with the biennale, which is a nucleus for many satellite events, both official and unofficial.
One of the more interesting is West Heavens, a rare Chinese-Indian joint effort between two Asian superpowers that have had little collaboration in the field of contemporary art.
The series of exhibitions and seminars, which runs until Dec. 20, was the brainchild of Johnson Chang, a curator and professor who has been a force in contemporary Chinese art since the 1980s.
“I hope it will make the Chinese public see India with a fresh eye,” said Mr. Chang, who has run Hong Kong’s influential Hanart TZ Gallery since the early ’80s. “The intention of the project, I hope, is to reshape Chinese imagination about India.”
One of the exhibits was held in the quickly gentrifying waterfront Rockbund area. Paradoxically — given that the collaboration is between India, a former British colony, and Shanghai, a city once dominated by foreign concessions — the two venues here were distinctly European. Both were once part of the British consul’s residence, a space that Mr. Chang called the “heart of colonial ideological machinery.”
These long-neglected 19th-century buildings, which are owned by the local government, were recently leased to the Peninsula, which opened a hotel nearby this year. The hotel then lent the spaces to West Heavens, and it is expected that more cultural events will follow next year.
The 14 scrolls that make up “Over Land,” by the Indian artist Nilima Sheikh, were placed perfectly as the only work in the former consul’s spired Anglican chapel. The artist had painted and stenciled images onto long, flowing paper-and-silk strips that hung from the high ceiling. Softly lighted in the otherwise dim and empty church, it had the feel of a sacred work. To see the intricate renderings of dragons, flowers and poems, inspired by a portion of the Silk Road, viewers must stand directly below the work and look up toward the heavens.
The venue next door has a very different vibe. Visitors stomp their way up a five-story former dormitory for missionaries, a building so dark, dusty and rickety that some people clutch the splintery railing, lest they tumble down the stairs. The opening was held during a nighttime rainstorm, and the whole thing felt like a Halloween haunted house.
“Railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu” by Qiu Zhijie touches on many of West Heavens’ recurrent themes: faith, colonialism and the crossing of national boundaries. Mr. Qiu, who usually works with electronic media like photo or video, commissioned traditional artisans who make thangka, a type of Tibetan embroidered painting that is often used for religious purposes, particularly by Buddhist monks. These modern thangkas, hanging in that eerie old dorm, tell the tale of Nain Singh Rawat, an Indian spy hired by a British captain to travel to Lhasa disguised as a lama, in order to map the area. The installation was accompanied by an ankle shackle bolted to the floor.
The airy new Rockbund Art Museum is around the corner from some of the West Heavens venues. It also had an opening timed with the biennale, for “By Day by Night: or Some (Special) Things a Museum Can Do,” which is on until January. This is more of a mini-festival than an art show, and includes workshops, seminars and performances.
The art show portion was organized by Hou Hanru, who was the curator behind the 2000 Shanghai Biennale. .
“The creation of a museum like this is part of the urbanization process,” he said. “We’re not opening a museum just to show fancy, blue-chip artists.”