Keep Changing: Mapping Out ShangHai’s Art Scene
Behind the façade of contemporary art’s prosperousness, its development is actually just beginning.
“There are no Shanghainese in Shanghai” was what I was told by friends familiar with the city. It was my first time in Shanghai, and I made five appointments with people: none of whom are Shanghainese. But all of them had in some way or other, mostly for business or career, made Shanghai their city of choice.
“I want to see art” was my only request when asking for recommendations, and a few museums would always make the list, although it seems these opinions were as subjective as they were fickle. I’ve heard the cluster of galleries known as M50 described as an important must-see, and also as “basically dead”. Pick up any “art map” (and there are several), and one will unfold a long list of shows happening just in April alone. I was told to download the app 在艺 and on that day alone there were more than 200 art events listed in Shanghai. I still tried to take notes when people told me their recommendations at the beginning of this trip in hopes of compiling a “must-see” list, but by the second day I had given up and decided to just go where the wind blows, and I’m rather glad for it.
Always “Complex”, Never Return to “Simple”
I meet Chang Jinchao who’d spent a decade in Singapore obtaining his BA(Hons) and MA in Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts. Jinchao spoke of the saturated art market and how it’s difficult as artists to cut through the noise. “The art scene is always changing and the changes themselves are going to be more complex, and will never return to being simple, which is a result of progressions in the art market and its contents. Is it possible to be an artist in the multi-culture of an ever changing city?” He currently maintains his artistic practice providing creative strategic consultancy at an AI tech firm, as well as writing for art design magazines on the side.
He brought me to a couple of small galleries in the French Concession including BANK (by MABSOCIETY), and Capsule. MABSOCIETY describes itself as a “hybrid organisation that acts as a cultural conduit between China and the rest of the world”. CAPSULE too embodies this hybridity, calling itself “more than a place to show art”. According to its website, it uses a “less conventional gallery formula”, functioning as “a lab [and] experimental space geared to the unique rhythm and fast-changing dynamic of contemporary art in China”. From the visit however, it seemed not more than a conventional gallery with a programme of young, emerging and therefore good-to-collect Chinese artists.
Speaking of Collections
I then meet Ni Youyu who used to teach contemporary art in the Shanghai University but recently chose to leave the system, citing “great restrictions on teachers and student development” as reasons. He thinks that there is a “very serious disconnect and contrast” behind the surface prosperity and reality of Shanghai’s attitude toward contemporary art. There is no “contemporary art” course in the Academy of Fine Arts curriculum, and what exists “still remains in the concepts and standards of the last century”. His private practice however, is more successful than ever. Youyu is preparing for a solo show at Hong Kong’s Galerie Perrotin, soon also to open its first space in Shanghai. Concurrently, he is also in what he calls a “small show” at a private collector’s gallery called 166 Artspace, curated by Singaporean Josef Ng. The collectors are Andrew and Lingling Ruff. Lingling takes us on a private tour around the space and then later to their house across the road. In their home (a 3-storey 1963 traditional Shanghainese 老 房子 , i.e. “old house”, which would normally house 8-10 families), one sees immediately the same “lack of wall space” one noticed in the gallery (works were even hung in 166’s toilet), notably several works by Zeng Fanzhi, not to mention a couple of new acquisitions of works by Erwin Wurm still on their plinths.
For the rest of the day, I try ambitiously to visit the top recommendations on the list, including the Shanghai Power Station of Art (PSA), Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) and Yuz Museum. RAM was, not surprisingly, well curatedandofimpressivestandards, from the room’s use of light and windows to the security guards who doubled up as enthusiastic gallery sitters. The excellent start to the day was all but short-lived as I made my way south, toward what is confusingly known as the West Bund. The Yuz Museum is founded by and houses the collection of Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur Budi Tek. I initially thought the PSA would be more interesting because it is the first and I believe only state- run contemporary art museum in China. Sadly, both trips were, in my opinion, wasted ones as the museums were either in a state of preparing for upcoming exhibitions or had only small offerings at the moment.
Beyond the Bund: What’s Out There
Luckily, I didn’t spend all my days on either side of the Bund. I met Liu Zhen (or George), who’d also received his education at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore, and is now running the self-funded UNTITLED SPACE, which has its own Artist In Residency (AIR) programme. “I believe this area will soon become the new art district in Shanghai.” Located in an ancient water town with a history that dates more than 1,300 years, UNTITLED is a 20-minute drive from the last station on the new Shanghai Metro Line 17: ‘Oriental Land’. A former arsenal built in the 60s has been converted into a gated community of lofty “warehouses” of which we see the beginnings of what aims to be a cultural and artistic community (we are told Ai Wei Wei’s team is set to move in soon.) It’s an ambitious space, boasting a studio of 300sqm, and newly renovated rooms. Since
its inauguration in 2015, it’s already seen a host of Singapore artists such as Yen Phang and Justin Lee, along with artists from around the world.
From the outside, Shanghai seems to be a city like any other, with lots of traffic, LED screens, and 7-11s. There were moments I actually forgot I was in China, although one remembers when coming across signs in malls for the “World Renowned Brands” department. What seemed to be true all round was this desperate need and desire to, on one hand, appeal to and be recognised by the global market and on the other be rooted in ‘Chinese-ness’. Everything in Shanghai seemed to espouse that perfect balance carefully.
Despite the struggles posed by rising costs of living, it’s still the right place for Jin Chao. “When Austin Lee was in Shanghai last year for his first solo show in China, I realised
that Shanghai is turning into a very global art scene. This means that it is possible for the people who live in Shanghai to see what the hottest media artist is showing at New York. Shanghai’s art scene is getting more and more globalised, and this is why I am here.”
Youyu, however, notes that while “the focus of Chinese contemporary art is gradually moving from Beijing to Shanghai…the development of Shanghai’s contemporary art is still far from mature. Industry norms, talent pool available and exhibition standards are different from the best art cities in the world, such as New York and London. The Chinese government’s attitude toward contemporary art is still not stable enough. Support and suppression are present at different levels. Behind the façade of contemporary art’s prosperousness, its development is actually just beginning.”