In the 1980’s, the collective spirit created an exciting and experimental art scene in Shanghai. The artists took control of setting the art scene by planning exhibitions and taking an active role in forming community. Today contemporary Chinese art has reached its pinnacle of success in the international market, but now these artists are defined by their strong individualism. It could be said that the Shanghai art scene is currently experiencing a lack of innovation in new forms and practices. Instead of Shanghai’s avant-garde and experimental spirit, art production today is often geared towards the business of the art market. Perhaps today a collective approach can help garner the spirit that once made Shanghai’s artists so unique. Instead of focusing on individual success, artists working in a collective spirit can create a dialogue with each other that will help the Shanghai art scene evolve into its own again.
The collective working method is rare but still viable in China. Shanghai’s “Birdhead”, a collaboration of Ji Weiyu and Song Tao, use photography to capture the rhythms of the city. They depict their everyday reality and have come to define a particular kind of youth subculture of Shanghai today. Both artists knew each other in school but did not begin collaborating until 2004. They spent two weeks in Shanghai taking photographs and two weeks to develop them. In no time they had edited their first album entitled “The Beginning of Summer”, focusing on their lives and their surroundings. They describe their work as a spiritual endeavor that allows them to assert their own existence. They use different modes of exhibition, from formal photo books to an exhibition that asks the audience to select photos of themselves and past them on the wall. They represent the young Shanghaineese culture. They were both born and raised in Shanghai, and their audience is mainly people their age. They explain that their photographs are not just photos of Shanghai. They become Birdhead’s photos and part of Birdhead’s world.
Polit Sheer Form Office Collective
Polit Sheer Form Office Collective is unknown to the international art scene, but the solo work of their members-- Hong Hao, Song Dong, Xiao Yu, Liu Jianhua, and Beijing Commune Gallery owner Leg Lin—are internationally recognized. Their collective method is described as simply “being together”. In their statement they explain:
“ ‘I’ and ‘we’ become more and more intertwined, but not within the context of some religion or ideology, but in eating, drinking, and playing. When ‘I’ started to realize that ‘we’ is part of ‘I’, and that the connection between ‘we’ and ‘I’ can in fact liberate ‘I’, it is clear that this is not the generally supposed relationship in which ‘we’ stifles “I’ “.
The renewal of the collective spirit in Shanghai has the potential of unpredictable possibilities, where the unknown becomes a way of contributing to the creation of a more diverse art scene. Birdhead and Polit Sheer Form Office Collective represent two instances where the collective spirit still appears, and could shape the future of contemporary Shanghaineese art. Some would say that the prominence of the individual artist caters to the western sensibility towards art making. A collective spirit may just be what the Shanghai art scene needs to once again create a message with specifically Shanghaineese characteristics.