Better City, Better Art?
Like the Olympics before it, the World Expo offered a chance for a big city to preen its feathers and really show the world what she is capable of. For the art scene in Shanghai, the World Expo also offered many opportunities to flex its cultural muscle. Local galleries and museums put on blockbuster shows and various consulates, knowing the value of cultural diplomacy, supported exhibitions that highlighted their country's agendas.
Kicking off this onslaught of events was the World Expo's official public exhibition, Art for the World, organized by JGM Galerie and curated by Ami Barak. Situated at the Expo Boulevard, a covered walking area next to the massive China Pavilion, the exhibition featured twenty artists that were chosen out of hundreds of submissions, a process that started in 2008. It is an impressive group of artists – it is unlikely that American icon Dan Graham will be shown alongside a Chinese superstar like Zhang Huan again–but it is mostly a squandered opportunity. Chinese sculptor Xiang Jing's Infinite Polar is a bronze totem-like structure depicting ten female acrobats stacked on top of each other, showing none of the insight into the female psyche that her previous works have. In a similar vein, Chen Changwei's Pillar of the Twelve Symbolic Animals depicts twelve stacked animal heads in painted stainless steel that is nothing more than a decorative reference to supposed Chinese mythology. Neither of these works takes into account the surrounding environment nor do they illuminate anything about its subject matter. The most perplexing piece is a large pair of stainless steel pandas by Zhang Huan. Hehe, Xiexie (which translates to 'great peace, great harmony') were commissioned by the Tomson Group, a Taiwanese real estate development company, and sits between the China and Taiwan pavilions. There are many issues at play here, not just Taiwan straits relations but also the use of a potent Chinese mascot in soft diplomacy and the hidden agendas in these seemingly innocuous animals. But most viewers walk away wondering where did the Zhang Huan that they had become familiar with go? Gone are any traces of thoughtful reflection that characterizes his ash paintings or the innovative command of materials like his cowhide series. The artist has finally completed the transformation from groundbreaking avant-garde artist to ordinary manufacturer.
Viewers fared better with Expo related exhibitions. The Dutch Pavilion opened the Dutch Cultural Center, a separate cultural center temporarily occupying a newly renovated warehouse complex. It was host to exhibitions, events, and performances throughout the duration of the Expo. Most notable was Double Infinity, a show organized by the Van Abbemuseum and Shanghai's Arthub Asia. In addition to showing the museum's collection in China for the first time, artists living and working in China were also asked to provide their own interpretation of works from the collection. "The original idea was to have a cultural exchange of some sort with a Chinese museum," explains ArtHub co-director Defne Ayas, "but Van Abbe could not find a suitable host." They instead decided on a more abstract approach to this idea, with an exchange of ideas and practices occurring between the artists themselves. "Artists in China choose what they liked in the collection and responded accordingly." This cross cultural dialogue extends beyond the works to the space, which is designed by a Chinese architect, bucking the current trend of hiring big name international designers. Wang Zhenfei's design for the show is roughly based on the infinity symbol, connecting the artworks in grand loops. Unfortunately, the swirling exhibition space is the strongest work of the show. While the concept for the show is intriguing, it is unclear what role some of the works included play. In particular, Belgian duo Speedism's animated video, a meditation on the 21st century cities with Shanghai as the focal point, is a crowd pleasing visual feast, a hip techno inspired piece of work. But the overall effect is like cotton candy, spun beautifully but melts immediately upon hitting the tongue. Young Chinese artist Liu Gang fares better with his photos from his Paper Dream series (2008), in which he documented real estate advertisements that are now ubiquitous throughout urban areas in China. Included in the show are his images of Dutchtown, in the Pudong area of Shanghai, highlighting the cultural misunderstandings inherent in these developments that sell an ideal version of life outside China. Dutchtown attempts to replicate a typical Dutch city but it really exposes what Chinese culture is, and what Chinese people desire and covet. It is a potent antidote to the Expo's theme of Better City, Better Life.
Opening at the same time as Art for the World and the World Expo was the new Rockbund Art Museum's debut exhibition. Peasant da Vincis, a show curated by gunpowder and firework artist Cai Guo-qiang, featured mechanical and robotic creations of impoverished people from rural China. Cai, after reading of one such inventor in a Chinese newspaper in 2004, began collecting creations by other peasants; he admits that he only entertained the idea of exhibiting these pieces after the 2005 Venice Biennale, when the art duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu displayed a UFO created by peasant inventor Du Wenda (said UFO makes an appearance at this show as well).
Cai intends the show to be an homage to a group of inventors who have no thought to the practical uses of these creations, comparing their passion and dedication to artists like himself. It is a pleasure to see these often haphazard creations and marvel at the ingenuity of a group of people who often lacked access to fancy equipment, materials and money that an artist like Cai has. There are robots and flying machines of all kinds, including several UFOs. More than anything, Cai hopes to highlight the discrepancy of an event like the Expo that touts "Better City, Better Life" but fails to honor the very people who helped build this better, namely migrant workers from rural areas. An honorable notion, to be sure, but one wonders if their inventions are given proper treatment. By placing these objects in a museum setting, it allows viewers to awe at them as they would awe at the Mona Lisa. But in a museum, they become static, hung on wires, thus losing the dynamism that such machines innately possess. Airplanes, helicopters, submarines and boats are hung on wires, floating in mid-air but begging to be used, no matter if they are properly built or not. Small projections on the second floor showing the machines in use fail to fully show each object's potential. A room devoted to a family of robot makers fares better, where viewers can see the creations in action. One robot, commissioned by Cai and designed to paint, playfully makes copy after copy of Damien Hirst dot paintings. Robot mice scurry along the floor and robot cars move along walls. If only other creations were allowed to show off like these ones. The exhibition does raise the question of what defines an artist. Cai wants to widen the perceptions of artists, as his own gunpowder and fireworks pieces have done, but it's not clear whether the inventors themselves share in this dialogue.
The Rockbund followed one blockbuster show with another, giving Zeng Fanzhi his first solo show in the city since 2003. While conceptually not as profound as Peasant da Vincis, Zeng Fanzhi seals his reputation as one of the most significant contemporary painters in China. There is nary a reference to his Mask Series, save for the opening painting that greets viewers on the ground floor; here, a slaughtered bull flayed and butchered is composed on a bare linen canvas, hinting at similarly composed past works. Elsewhere, landscape paintings feature thickets of branches in sombre colour palettes. Most notable are a pair of ten metre paintings of landscapes aflame, his largest works to date, where the vibrant movement of his brush strokes perfectly replicate the violent flicker of flames. In addition to these monumental paintings, the exhibition features sculptural works, the first time the artist is working in this medium. These pieces have a religious tone that makes allusions to traditions in Western art history and its relationship to the Church that local audiences may not entirely catch. Covered Lamb, which depicts a headless lamb placed on an altar and covered with a sheet, brings to mind biblical themes of sacrifice, redemption and Christ. But knowledge of Western religion is not required to admire Mammoth's Tusks. Originally conceived to be a true to life reproduction of the extinct animal itself, the artist opted instead to focus on the creature's most distinguished feature, here scaled larger than the actual tusk. The immense teeth, pointed directly at the viewer upon entering the gallery, both intimidates and awes, with the addition of a religious symphony added to the reverential tone. It is an impressive contrast to his paintings and is a step in the right direction for an artist hoping to expand his practice. A stained glass installation of his paintings in a disused church further emphasizes the connection between religion and art, and art as religion.
Another museum had its official opening at the same time. The Minsheng Art Museum was not entirely new to the scene, having had a "practice" exhibition in the fall of 2009, but it saved the big guns for the premier show, a retrospective of Chinese contemporary painting. Thirty Years of Chinese Contemporary Art: Painting is the first in a series of retrospectives that the museum has planned (photography and new media are to follow in 2011 and 2012). It starts in the late seventies, when the art academies re-opened in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution, and goes through the present day. It was the first time that such a diverse group of painters were assembled together, and gave young viewers their first look at the early works of Zhou Chunya and Zhang Xiaogang. A definite highlight of the exhibition, and the strongest section of the show, was the room dedicated to artists of the 1980s. Here, early pioneers such as Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi are given a spotlight. Zhang and Geng in particular occupied a large wall, allowing viewers to see the connection between their "rational" paintings and the later works of such artists like Zhang Xiaogang. The show, however, fizzled once it reached the 2000s. The inclusion of Zheng Guogu and Liu Wei are welcome but perhaps to make it a more complete survey of Chinese painting, works like Feng Zhengjie's frighteningly gaudy pop paintings and Chen Ke's insipid portraits of alienated female subjects are also exhibited. This says more about the current state of Chinese paintings compared to the halcyon days of the 1980s than it does about the [tastes] of the curatorial team. Still, the exhibition was a rare treat for art lovers in the city and piqued audience's curiosity about their future retrospectives.
Museums were not the only ones with big name attractions. The Shanghai Gallery of Art, which seemed to lose a little focus after the departure of their director David Chan, hit back this year with a strong program of major shows. First up was an exhibition of new works from Yue Minjun, who showed a completely different side of himself with The Spirit Scenes from Time Past, which featured paintings from his 'Landscapes with no one' series. The artist copied iconic paintings and removed any traces of human life. The works were a welcome change for an artist who can't seem to escape his own bright pink visage but these landscapes devoid of subject matter are not impactful enough to help audiences forget his maniacal smile. Next up was a show curated by Toshio Shimizu, who last came to Shanghai to co-curate the groundbreaking 2000 Biennale. INBETWEEN featured British superstar Anish Kapoor, designer Shiro Kuramata, and architect Kengo Kuma, three artists is distinctly different disciplines meditating on an artist's relation to space. This show found the gallery returning, briefly and successfully, to their old tradition of integrating the unique gallery space into the artworks. In particular, the late Kuramata's Bon Appetit glass and aluminum kitchen prototype placed in the gallery atrium nicely alludes to the restaurants above the gallery. A new installation show by new media artist Feng Mengbo this fall shows the gallery shows the gallery trying their hand at institutional programming while maintaining a commercial model.
Shanghai's gallery linchpin ShanghArt chose this year to grant a solo show for a foreign artist for the first time in its history. In keeping with its tradition of promoting new media artists, it invited British avant-garde filmmaker and video artist Isaac Julien to show Ten Thousand Waves, a multi-channel film installation that was filmed largely in China. It is an ambitious work that attempts to identify and examine the myriad issues facing China today. The film begins compellingly with archival news footage of the drowning of migrant workers from China in Morecambe Bay in Northern England, the panicked voices of rescue teams and grainy documentary footage creating a compelling picture of tragedy, but this poignant scene is replaced by a sentimental and clichéd journey into China; the artist utilizes bird's eye view shots of the country's highways, depictions of hectic urban areas, and nostalgic scenes of mist covered country sides. The artist collaborated with the poet Wang Ping–it is her work that is narrated throughout the film–and called on the talents of actresses Maggie Cheung and Zhao Tao, and Chinese artist Yang Fudong. Yang has the dubious role of the Lover; he looks unsure in his new role in front of the camera. Likewise, viewers are unsure of what to make of the film. Is Julian commenting on stereotypes or perpetuating them? Is Maggie Cheung, as a floating spirit in traditional Chinese costume, parodying her period martial arts films? Brief sequences where the camera is present in the frame, and especially in a scene where the audience is given a glimpse into the filming process, raises intriguing issues concerning film as a staged medium, and the reliability of the medium to convey truths. It is a question that Julian visits often in his work; fictional elaboration is his tool in digging deep into a subject. One senses that Julian is deeply sincere in his intentions but perhaps that is the problem. He has replaced insight with his own reconstruction of the issues through unoriginal means, leaving only a beautiful but empty shell.
In spite of these blockbuster showings, there was still a feeling of languor in the art scene. Like preparations for the World Expo, the art scene was polished and cleaned up but the same issues lurked underneath. One Expo project did manage to capture the essence of what it means for Shanghai to become part of the global community. Kiosk/Xiaomaibu, a project that links a kiosk in Cologne with one in Shanghai, was part of the cultural programming for the German pavilion and organized by Petra Johnson and artist Xu Zhifeng. Weekly live transmissions between the two kiosks included performances from local artists, discussions and lectures, creating a lively dialogue not only between the respective city's art players but also regular community members. Here was a project that captured the heart of what art is, that of a communicator of thoughts and ideas. Kiosk did not provide answers but did the lay the groundwork for a vibrant global art community.
Xhingyu Chen, author of Chinese Artists: New Media 1990 to 2010, Schiffer Publishing (firstname.lastname@example.org )