In 1996, the year that Shanghart Gallery opened, artist Zhou Tiehai spent 100,000 Renminbi to make a ten-minute film. Entitled "Will" (its Chinese name actually means "necessity") the film moves at the stuttering black-and-white hand-cranked speed of an earlier era, each of its nine acts a witty critique on the Chinese art world as then configured. In Act III, for example, a term is coined that remains in use to the present—"kan bing" or "seeing the doctor." Here, a row of bundled-up men holding papers slide one-by-one down a bench and behind a white curtain marked with a red cross. The "doctor" behind the curtain is a foreign curator, the "patients" are Chinese artists, and the charts they hold are portfolios of work for inspection.
But perhaps the best-remembered scene from this film is the first one, a deadpan homage to Red Army propaganda films in which a group of soldiers sit listening to the ravings of their commander, who claims that "Comrades, without our own airport, we will have nothing!" This military airport would "secretly welcome museum directors, critics, and gallery owners." The idea of having one's own base seemed, to Shanghai artists a decade ago, as appealing as it did remote.
And yet that is exactly happened, in a decade-long process that coincides with, and intertwines with, the history of the Shanghart Gallery itself. These ten years in Shanghai unfolded in a way that is quite unimaginable for denizens of the much larger Beijing scene. Where the capital has seen movements come and go, major figures emerge and be purged, Shanghai has plodded a much steadier course. Shanghai in the 1990s was free from the burden of sorting through what had happened in the 1980s. For precisely as the veterans of the '85 New Wave were being turned into the first batch of internationally visible Chinese contemporaries (think Wang Guangyi's paintings hanging in the corner at Venice in 1993), largely through the support of dealers and collectors in Hong Kong and overseas, that Shanghai was giving rise to an entirely different kind of system. Its beginnings were markedly humble—a tiny gallery in a hotel corridor, an attempt by the city museum to put on a Biennale in 1996.
Although Shanghai had a rich history of abstract painting (practiced by artists like Ding Yi and Shen Fan) as well as its own sophisticated variation on the pop-inspired political art of that era, it would take a younger generation of artists, born in the late 1960s and 1970s, to chart out Shanghai's real emergence onto the global contemporary art scene. Yang Zhenzhong, who moved to Shanghai in 1997 to follow his day job at a fashion magazine, is representative of this generation. Like many who would become core Shanghai artists, he had ties to the nearby art center of Hangzhou and its experimental scene. At the design academy there, Yang had been a student of 1980s avant-garde veteran Geng Jianyi, and a participant in China's first exhibition of video art, organized at what was then called the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts by Qiu Zhijie and Wu Meichun in 1996. Within a few months of Yang Zhenzhong's arrival in Shanghai, a group had begun to coalesce, as artists like Xu Zhen,Yang Fudong, and the German expatriate Alexander Brandt joined together.
In May of 1998 they organized their first experimental exhibition in a warren of half-completed apartment buildings, titling the show simply with the building's address, "Jinyuan Lu 310." With nine artists, it was the first artist-organized exhibition on this scale since Geng Jianyi and company organized the "Garage Exhibition" in 1991, which had marked the very beginning of a post-June Fourth renaissance. Three young artists from this group—Yang, Xu Zhen, and Alexander Brandt—had found enough of a basis to work together that they began immediately to prepare "Art for Sale," perhaps the climax of the 1990s avant-garde movement in Shanghai. This exhibition involved direct collaboration with the owners of a supermarket in Shanghai Square, a new shopping plaza in the city center. Thirty artists were invited to show video and installation works in this commercial space, but also commissioned to produce small editions of work that could be sold using supermarket fliers and at supermarket prices. Unlike contemporaneous experimental exhibitions in Beijing (notably "Post-Sense Sensibility"), "Art for Sale" was devoid of a heavy conceptual or ideological manifesto and open to a public that extended far beyond the small crowd of insiders who populated the basement shows of that era.
The year 2000 marks a major turning point in Shanghai's recent art history, driven mainly by the decision to turn the Shanghai Biennale into an international art event. The Biennale had been initiated in 1996 with just a few experimental works including an installation of toilets by Chen Zhen that aroused some suspicion; as a result the 1998 edition was largely devoted to uncontroversial ink painting. But in 2000, the don of the Chinese artistic diaspora Hou Hanru was invited along with Japanese curator Toshio Shimizu to make a statement in the city's official art museum; the resulting show brought works like Huang Yong Ping's iconic "Sand Bank/Bank of Sand," a constantly disintegrating replica of a building on the Bund. Surrounding the official show, another important Shanghai moment was the unofficial exhibition "Fuck Off," organized by Beijing stalwarts Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi and staged in a Suzhou Creek warehouse that preceded the 50 Moganshan Road complex, then housing the Eastlink Gallery, the studio of Ding Yi, and (though it was not used for the exhibition) Shanghart Gallery's storage facility. Earlier that year, an event nearly as important to the long-term development of the scene in China as the re-configuration of the Shanghai Biennale, passed largely unnoticed: Shanghart's entry into Art Basel marked the first presence at that elite fair by a Chinese gallery, with a solo show of works by Zhou Tiehai.
After 2000, the shape of Zhou Tiehai's airport became visible, as the major institutions and players began to establish a system of relations that persists today. The experimental exhibitions of the late 1990s would continue to be produced—often with support, either tacit or explicit, from Shanghart—by Davide Quadrio's alternative center Bizart. The Moganshan compound would flower from a stark factory into the city's bustling gallery and studio district. New, semi-private museums would be established one by one around town. The Shanghai Biennale would grow into a major stop on the global art-world itinerary. The parade of international curators would continue, as slowly the China-themed survey exhibitions began to give way to Shanghai-specific shows, and then to solo shows concerned with artists simply as artists, their nationality secondary to their work. And somehow, through it all, this single gallery would remain central to the story of the re-making of art in a city re-made.