Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Art Scenes of Beijing and Shanghai - A Comparison by Doreen Ho

Chinese contemporary art in Shanghai has developed a persistent momentum in the past few decades and continues to develop with the encouragement of creative clusters, namely creative spaces such as 50 Moganshan Road and Tianzifang. Yet, Shanghai, as an international, leading economic metropolis, has not yet seen the magnitude of commercialism and renown as Beijing’s 798 Dashanzi Art District has experienced in the past ten years. Why hasn’t Shanghai’s art scene been able to attain the international recognition and success of Beijing’s art scene? In what direction is Shanghai’s art scene heading?
In order to understand this divide, it is important to understand Shanghai’s unique history and development within the past few decades. Following the Opium Wars in the 19th century, foreign concessions were established in Shanghai, most prominent of which were of British and French influence. Thus, early on, Shanghai was exposed to the influence of the Western world. Today, Shanghai has become an international metropolis, the city that represents modern China and the possibilities for the future. Beijing hosts a different city dynamic, however. Politically central, Beijing protects the ancient traditional Chinese architectural constructs such as the Forbidden City and is the home base for the government. Artists from all provinces have convened in the nation’s capital, all striving to produce their works. Perhaps the city allows an identity that conditions artwork produced in the nation’s capitol to be deemed authentic Chinese contemporary art, as a strong nationalist pride in Beijing reckons it the cultural center of China. Additionally, Beijing hosts the famous academic art academies in the nation, including the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA).
Contrastingly, Shanghai, the global metropolis of business and the economic hub of China, has established itself as the quintessential modern international city of the world that developed from a history steeped in international identity. Additionally, the art scene in Shanghai has grown from a grassroots movement, under the artists’ advisement, that has been less commercial than Beijing’s 798. The battle to represent contemporary Chinese art continues to oscillate between the two cities.
Shanghai’s art scene has developed out of a distinguished history. Shanghai’s art development has been continually interrupted since the 1930s, during which works were lost, burned, and damaged during the Sino-Japanese war and during the period of civil war unrest that ensued. By 1949, art was solely used as a political mechanism, controlled by the Communist Party as a means to carry out massive, sweeping political campaigns, such as the Cultural Revolution. Only in the early 1980s, after the initiation of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and the opening of China’s doors to the world, did art begin to develop for art’s sake and experimentation become a new way of expression. In retrospect, the Chinese contemporary art scene is actually quite young. Throughout the 1980s, artists explored and learned from Western art books, catching up on over 150 years of the progression of modern Western art. China had been isolated for nearly 30 years following the inception of Communism, so it was only beginning in the 1980s that artists could gain exposure and exchange with the Western art world. It was beginning in the 1980s that artists had the new opportunity to experiment and explore art for themselves and for art’s sake, and not for the people or to push wide spread government policy. It was also not until the year 2000, when the Shanghai Biennale was the first time the government officially allowed multimedia projects to be exhibited to the public.
The concept for an art community like 50 Moganshan has been somewhat successful, as these creative spaces have become commercialized, attractive and accessible to tourists and foreigners. Whereas, the concept for a creative cluster such as 50 Moganshan and Beijing’s 798 is a strategic means of connecting with the local environment, these creative spaces have also emphasized the great contrast between Chinese contemporary art as it is viewed domestically and internationally. While innovative in theory, Shanghai’s 50 Moganshan attracts foreign art collectors and tourists, which begs to question whether or not more local faces can become a greater demographic of whom the Chinese contemporary art world can effectively reach. At a recent studio visit, artist Xu Zhen remarked on the importance of capturing a wider audience and forging connections with Chinese citizens. He noted that the art scene might develop stronger if there is attention for Chinese art beyond the art community. Art must reach out to the people-- and maybe this could develop better in Shanghai if M50 had more of a user-friendly atmosphere, including more cafes and shopping in the area, similar to 798. Moreover, it is crucial that local Chinese citizens are given the opportunity to engage within the development of art culture in Shanghai and in the nation. This kind of local grassroots approach is essential to establishing a strong art scene in Shanghai and within China.
Notably, the “A Starting Point: Intrude Art & Life 366” exhibition at ZendaiMOMA gallery was a forward step towards addressing this issue. The exhibition brought creative art, performance art, and new media art directly in contact with Chinese citizens. The local Chinese held a leading role in the art created for the year long project. Furthermore, “A Starting Point” explored many contemporary social issues that China faces today. From the right to privacy and youth identity, to consumerism, prison reform, women’s rights, and how to live in a harmonious society as the nation with the world’s largest population, the exhibition provided a looking glass into China’s new struggles and the challenges that face the nation’s stability and identity as it strives towards rapid development and change initiated by the government and pressure from the international realm. There exists an underlying tension, internal and external forces that are pulling China in different directions, in a paradigm of pressures and expectations. Is China ready to live up to its title as an economic power and its consequential implications, socially and politically? In recent years, China has been the center focus as a rapidly developing nation, an economic powerhouse, with the potential to expand its military might. It seems that everyone wants a piece of the development—China is developing ties with all nations, with dense pressures from the global economy and especially with the onset of the recent global financial crisis. Chinese contemporary art struggles with international pressures as well, and more and more often, it must reconcile external perceptions with domestic perceptions, or rather, a readiness attitude, that come from within the nation; this is the foundation for development that spans multiple disciplines, including the Chinese economy and art world. Are the people ready to change, to move, to develop? Inevitably, infrastructure may change and develop at a fast pace, but the Chinese people must also be ready for that change as well. Otherwise, Shanghai and China will be built with infrastructure but no real foundation to maintain and encourage future growth.
Chinese contemporary art is realizing this identity struggle that involves the complex interweaving of Chinese contemporary art being its own art, and not a mere imitation of Western modern art. Moreover, the international art market, and the international realm in general, all have their eyes on China. They see rapid change and potential. However, China must change on its own from within its nation. More importantly, Chinese contemporary art should be allowed and accepted to stand on its own. Herein lies another divide: the concept of East and West is still quite foreign to today’s newly emerging globalization and interconnected world. Until the word “foreign” can be diluted to mean less of what it means, certain divided notions of what Chinese contemporary art should be compared to what Western contemporary art has already established will still exist.
The development of identity spans across disciplines; music and art are in the midst of developing a strong identity that is solely Modern Chinese. Arts culture may also be dependent on the economic well-being of Chinese citizens. As more and more local Chinese reap the rewards of the market economy, perhaps the income disparity gap will seem less apparent and art will be accessible to both the foreigners/expat world and local world alike.
Another significant factor that influences the momentum for development of art in Shanghai is invariably the issue of censorship. Censorship continues to impede on the free expression and possibilities for experimentation in the art world. The Fuckoff Exhibition in 2000 was a striking example of the gravity and sensitivity of government censorship in art exhibitions. The exhibition, featuring 46 avant-garde artists’ works, was closed by Shanghai police due to controversial works, most notably, the performance art installation of “Eating People” by Zhu Yu. Censorship continues to be a sensitive topic in the development of experimentation in Chinese contemporary art.
Additionally, a generation gap has formed among different aged artists in China. This ultimately has affected the different experimentations and artistic works produced in the past thirty years. For example, artists such as Yu Youhan have produced works that touch upon Maoist era content, while artists such as Shi Yong and Xu Zhen have focused on more of China’s contemporary social issues. Qiu Zhijie’s recent exhibition, “Breaking Through The Ice”, at the UCCA in Beijing’s 798 District explores the idea of “total art”. Total art refers to the social and cultural research of Qiu’s work and his presentation of the historical significance of the Nanjing Bridge against today’s social backdrop; his installation combines his research and emanates social awareness. Qiu’s installation work creates a model for artistic experimentation via pushing the limits of what one can and cannot do within the constraints of government censorship. More and more experimental conceptual and performance art have been created in the past ten years and continues to push the limits of censorship today.
For some artists, such a Shi Yong, Chinese contemporary art is trying to find expression in new forms; for Shi, he found this new expression in installation art. He was looking for a new form of expression that built upon the abstract art thru the 1980’s and the political pop he felt was “too kitsch”. He wanted to build a new language, a new style, a new identity to Chinese contemporary art. However, in forming his own artistic language, he realized the challenge of trying to balance his own artistic ideas while being careful of not losing his audience. Therein lies a tension: how far can one push the limits in art experimentation? However, this point must also coincide within the same plane as the artists’ vision and the government’s censorship. With artists being arrested and exhibits being closed down on the day they open, it is difficult to measure how much experimental artistic action an artist can take. There is a constant fear of the Propaganda Department that creates a censorship dilemma, a dilemma that emanates in the back of everyone’s mind.
The artists’ initiative in organizing large-scale art productions is a testament to strength in numbers and continues to be a grassroots movement that allows discussion and experimentation and engagement with local Chinese. Social constructs have helped build a social art community, in which artists live in artist villages and exchange ideas and opinions, and even come together to work on special exhibitions and large-scale creative projects, such as the Long March Project and the Twelve Artists’ exhibition held in Shanghai, which was the first exhibition organized by the artists themselves.
I’d like to see art develop within the country first— it takes time and also, developing a domestic audience. It is important to learn from the examples of artists in the West; however, it is also important to let Chinese art grow from its own soil. A deeper exchange between the East and West will facilitate growth of contemporary art in China. Also, art may be more effective if it is fed deeper into daily life for locals to access arts culture information via media and in education. The art world must continue to draw an ever-widening audience; it must open up, reach out and relate to the Chinese people.
With a long history of international expats and foreigners mixed with local Chinese, Shanghai has begun to intertwine these demographics along economic lines. As the economy continues to raise the quality of life in China, new Chinese wealth will help Shanghai facilitate a flourishing art scene as new collectors and help develop a higher appreciation for arts culture in China. This gradual opening up and exposure to the art scene will allow exploration and continued experimentation in the art world. Furthermore, the booming of internet users and thriving netizen bloggers in China have aggregated efficient and widespread resources to information. The internet is now making censorship more and more costly for the government, as it is becoming harder and harder to stop the free flow of information, internationally and domestically. Censorship may gradually dissipate or at least become less apparent as time goes on. It is crucial that experimental art continues to push the limits further and further, challenging censorship and building a foundation for contemporary art in China. It is only a matter of time before Shanghai’s art scene will flourish and open up economically, socially, and politically from its present stance.

No comments: