Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Shanghai’s Contemporary Art Scene: Looking Inward and Outward

Stephanie Hsu
Contemporary Art and New Media in China
Midterm paper

Shanghai's Contemporary Art Scene: Looking Inward and Outward

Widely argued to be China's most global and cosmopolitan city, Shanghai has become an important international platform for Chinese contemporary art. Shanghai is a young city with a multi-layered history, having within the past century served as a major international port, economic center, and political refuge. Due to its vast influx of foreigners and rapid urban development over the past hundred-plus years, the city lends itself as a case study of globalization and modernization. Much of Shanghai's modern history can be observed through its rich visual culture—from the Western-influenced film advertisements and commercial posters of the 1920s and 1930s, to the Communist propaganda posters and Yang Ban Xi of the Maoist period. Emerging from this image-saturated history, the contemporary art scene in Shanghai grew out of artists' responses to the changing dynamics of commercialism, consumerism, and politics in their world. While Beijing, as the cultural capital of China, remains the most prominent center for Chinese contemporary art, Shanghai has also progressively proven itself to be a distinct and valuable site for the development of Chinese contemporary art.
After the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai provided fertile ground for artistic experimentation, giving rise to the development of Chinese avant-garde art. As Shanghai was once the most industrial city in China, populated with a large working class "sprinkled with political radicals" and a workforce that "ignited the sparks of revolutionary struggle across the city," it also transitioned into China's period of economic reform in the same bold and progressive spirit of the Shanghainese. The city became the site of various exhibitions, such as The Twelve-Man Painting Exhibition and the Grass Painting Society's Painting Exhibition for the '80s, which showcased Chinese artists' rendering of Cubism, Expressionism, and other Western avant-garde influences.  Shanghai-based artist Li Shan organized several performance pieces that earned him notoriety within the art circle as well as in the immediate audience of Shanghai. In 1989, when he participated in the "China/Avant Garde" exhibition in Beijing, he was already forty-five years old—fifteen years older than the majority of exhibiting artists.  Still, his work was characteristic of a local trend initiated by artists of the New Art Movement, who were inclined towards performance. Li Shan's performance pieces included his 1988 work Last Supper, in which he collaborated with other artists and art critics within the art community in Shanghai to stage a performance inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's famous mural of Jesus and his disciples. In her book Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, Karen Smith describes Li Shan's artistic inclination during that time to explain the sense of urgency surrounding China's move towards the avant-garde: "[A]s China began to advance and open up, everyone was scrambling to make up for lost time…The ranks of recent graduates felt that being avant-garde, by its very nature, demanded the rebellious energy of youth."  
Following the 1989 events at Tiananmen Square, China's contemporary art began to develop an identity more independent of its Western influences, as artists probed the changing textures of China's new political and economic landscape. Shanghai became the center of abstract art in China , with artists including Ding Yi and Shen Fan producing colorful works in oils and other non-ink mediums.1 Li Shan, and other Shanghai-based artists including Wang Ziwei and Yu Youhan pioneered the Political Pop movement, which relied on irony and playfulness to critique issues of state ideology and consumer culture. As Smith describes in her book, "Basking in the style and the glamour of a history of internationalism that the rest of China admired from its cloth shoes up, the Shanghainese looked to the world where all other Mainland citizens looked to Beijing". The opening of China in the 1980s rekindled the inclinations towards foreign influences and social freedoms that had characterized Shanghai's cosmopolitan past. In recounting the experiences of Shanghai-based artist Li Shan, Smith reveals the distinctive character of the contemporary art scene in Shanghai:
The city's social ambience played a part in permitting Li Shan to become the artist he desired. It would have been impossible to realize many of the works for which he recognized today in the capital: Beijing remains both more brut and less tolerant, while nationwide, the cultural enlightenment of lesser urban sprawls lag several decades behind.
Smith describes Li Shan's conflicting feelings for Shanghai; while he complains that the cultural life in Shanghai cannot compare to that of Beijing, he agrees that Shanghai is not without allure,  having rarely left the city during his career.  Although the art groups and exhibitions in Shanghai indeed did not receive as much attention as those in Beijing during China's period of liberalization, the complex character of Shanghai still made the city an important site for the bold, experimental development of Chinese contemporary art.  
Today, much of Shanghai's contemporary art continues to engage with issues facing China and its growing art world, all the while employing the perspective of a city shaped by the interactions between East and West, local and global, old and new. Shanghai is home to a variety of strong commercial galleries, including ShanghART H-Space at the creative cluster 50 Moganshan Road; pioneering non-profit art spaces, including, BizArt, also at 50 Moganshan Road; and private museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai. Furthermore, Shanghai currently hosts two art fairs— Shanghai Art Fair and ShContemporary.  The 2010 ShContemporary at the Shanghai Exhibition Center in September introduced fresh, new work to Shanghai's developing art market. DISCOVERIES: Re-Value, one part of the show curated by Colin Chinnery, presented artworks that explored the intersection between artistic value and consumer value. Among these works was Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries' satirical installation piece—a slideshow of intimate and provocative text-based messages being projected onto two opposing walls.  As Alexandra Munroe, Ph.D, a senior curator on Asian Art at the Guggenheim described, "There is a lot of comparing this fair to the Hong Kong fair … but this fair strikes me as different. It feels messier, edgier, younger, and more experimental." Chinnery described the progressive yet laidback atmosphere of Shanghai's art scene:
The art scene is smaller, less competitive, and there are less politics. In Shanghai artists can just relax and have conversations about art, and just be artists…Shanghai could be the most attractive place for art in Asia, maybe even the world, because it represents the future more than any other city. (1)  
Shanghai provides a space for artists to evade the political and competitive atmosphere of Beijing, yet engages them in the heat of the issues facing the globalized world. While the contemporary art scene in Shanghai was born out of the outward-looking mentality of the city— from artists' desire to reach out to the Western world—much of the work produced and exhibited in Shanghai at present reveal that artists are applying their knowledge of the outside world to the issues of the local and everyday experience.  
Perhaps the city's most prominent showcase of contemporary art is the Shanghai Biennale, which has been held once every two years beginning in 1996 at venues including the Shanghai Art Museum. The Biennale consists of a series of exhibitions and lectures, each time engaging in a specific theme. In Shanghai: Art of the City, Dany Chan and Michael Knight state that "from the beginning the plan was to use the biennial as a means to achieve equal footing in the international art realm: Shanghai would 'open the gate for China's modern art to make its way into the world arena'."  While the first two Biennales welcomed only Chinese artists and showcased works limited to the traditional techniques of oil, ink, and watercolor painting, the Biennale in 2000 began to open the exhibition to international artists and curators.  With support from the city's municipal government, the Shanghai Biennale has secured the funding and endorsement that has allowed it to become a truly international event.
The Shanghai Biennale in 2000 was curated by Alana Heiss, director of New York's P.S.1, and Toshio Shimizu, a prominent Japanese curator, both of whom organized the exhibition in such a way that allowed it to portray the movement and vitality of China's contemporary art scene. The curators selected a number of Chinese artists who were known internationally but who were not yet familiar to the Chinese general public. One such artist was Zhang Peili, who was concerned with engaging Chinese society in dialogue with outside countries about art, foreign knowledge, and the issues surrounding China's growing global presence. As Smith describes in Nine Lives, "The Shanghai Biennale offered a powerful platform for comparing and contrasting the dominant characteristics of the divergent cultures of individual nations worldwide in a work he titled simply News."   Zhang Peili's News consisted of twenty-seven recordings, each documenting the news broadcast of a different country's national television network on the evening of December 31, 1999. For viewers, News did not translate into the powerful visual experience that Zhang Peili had hoped, as the simultaneity of broadcasts—all in different languages—made the work seem confusing and overwhelming.   Despite the failure of its presentation, the work reveals the artist's desire to help situate China in the reality of its global context, and the potential of the Shanghai Biennale to give such a work valuable international exposure. The efforts of Heiss and Shimizu resulted in the ultimate success of the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, which "put Shanghai on the global art map, and established Shanghai Biennale as a must-see event on the international cultural calendar."  
The 2010 Shanghai Biennale continues the young legacy of the biennial exhibition, through its showcase of the work of Chinese and international artists who have found innovative ways to wrestle with issues of the contemporary world. Curated by Fan Di'an, Li Lei, Hua Yi, and Gao Shiming, the 2010 Biennale focuses on the theme of "Rehearsal," claiming to serve as a "form of art production that is experimental and open." The introductory wall panel at the exhibition further explains this theme of "Rehearsal":
Rehearsal is open and fluid. It focuses on the planning and process of the exhibition, on the creation of the exhibition and a consciousness of the process of production. In a rehearsal, the exhibition is not merely an array of artworks; it is a sensory arena that is productive, changing and continually experimenting.
With this opening introduction, the Biennale sets the stage for the exhibition as being only Act III of a five-act "touring rehearsal" that began in June earlier this year and ends in January 2011. Claiming Act III to be a reflection of time and experience, the exhibition presents itself as an open, interactive space in which viewers are expected to engage in ongoing dialogue with the artworks.
Ho Chi Minh Trail, launched in collaboration with Long March Project—a collective of artists, writers, curators, and scholars that was founded by Lu Jie in 2002—is one of the major projects of the Biennale that speaks directly to the exhibition's theme of "Rehearsal." Ho Chi Minh Trail consists of a series of travels, research projects, critical events, and artworks, which explore the intersection between lived experiences, individual memories, and collective imagination in various locales throughout China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Large wall panels displaying text in English and Chinese over blurred images of people and trails were placed throughout the first floor of the museum. They described Ho Chi Minh Trail as a project with the goal of inspiring artists to engage in continual contemplation and self-criticism, and to approach the process of creation as an end in itself. One of these panels read, "We have yet to thoroughly examine the essence of action"—a commentary not only on war and violence—the obvious subtexts of the project—but also on capitalism and globalization as causes of continual production, mindless consumption, and intellectual passivity.
The theme of "Rehearsal" was also reflected in Wang Xiaoshuai's "Await," an installation displaying several films that each document a single shot for eight minutes. One of these films included a shot of a man on the back of a train, the scenery behind him seeming to change ever so slightly despite the viewer's knowledge that the film documented the train's travel across almost ten minutes of distance. Beyond the challenge it poses to the conventions of film and storytelling, Wang Xiaoshuai's "anti-film" draws attention to the modern world's growing inclination towards speed, sensation, and thrill. "Await" delivers a visual experience to its viewers that is blatantly anticlimactic, arguing that perhaps true unthinking occurs when individuals lose synch with the rhythm of their environment. Another work that addressed immediate issues of the globalized world was Mou Bouyan's "Fat Series," a sculptural installation depicting naked, corpulent bald men who resemble infants, splashing about in waves of milk. A dramatic and humorous display set amid several photography installations, the piece garners attention to the harsher realities of consumerism and mass consumption.
Liu Xiaodong's oil paintings and JR's "Wrinkles of the City" are two of many works in the Biennale that deal explicitly with local settings. Liu Xiaodong's "Getting Out of Beichuan" and "Entering Tai Lake" convey a sense of disillusionment with China's rapid urbanization, depicting Chinese youth in the midst of collapsing, deteriorating environments. "Getting Out of Beichuan" is a painting of a group of young women, dressed in the styles of urban youth but posing solemnly amid the ruins of Beichuan, a county severely hit by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In "Entering Tai Lake," Liu Xiaodong portrays a group of young men sitting in a boat on the murky, polluted waters of Tai Lake. The environmental impact of industrialization and urbanization are apparent, as the young men appear stranded, yet impassive to the conditions around them. In "Wrinkles of the City," JR also brings an inward-looking perspective to the Biennale with his large black-and-white photographs of the faces of elderly Shanghainese individuals, which cover several walls of the exhibition. The wrinkles, pores, and patchy texture of the faces evoke a sense of intimacy, familiarity, and nostalgia that directly addresses the local character of Shanghai.  
As the Chinese contemporary art scene in Shanghai continues to expand and reach new levels of international recognition, many artists and curators have taken the role of leaders in addressing the social and urban changes around them. The 2010 Shanghai Biennale's theme of "Rehearsal" serves as an example that many artists and curators in Shanghai understand the position of the city's contemporary art scene in relation to both the local environment and the international art world. Since the emergence of Shanghai's contemporary art scene, many local artists have attempted to shatter people's indifference to local and global trends. Active participation in the city's contemporary art scene entails ongoing discussions and debates about the social and political structures that both restrain and give substance to artistic expression.  As Shanghai continues to shape its international identity, it seems that the city's contemporary art scene will take on an increasingly significant role in exposing the myriad issues surrounding Shanghai's growth to both local and global audiences.

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