In late July, I accompanied my husband, Don, who had business in Shanghai and Beijing, on my first trip to China. Although my exposure was limited to a few days and venues in each, I found the contemporary art scenes in both cities astounding. What follows here and in the post on Beijing are a few random notes on what I saw and experienced.
In Shanghai, other than the Untour Shanghai Food Tour, which provided a wonderful introduction to Shanghai’s old French Concession neighborhood and its enticing street foods, the Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum, better known as the Power Station Museum of Art, was a standout. Situated in a converted electric plant on the Huangpu River, the museum is China’s first state-run museum devoted to up-to-the-minute work. For its inauguration in September 2012, it served as the venue for the 10th Shanghai Biennale. While the museum was purportedly modeled after the Tate Modern in London, the British institution is comparatively dark and drab. With its extensive outdoor spaces, glass walls and panoramic river views, the Power Station calls to mind Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum building, although the Shanghai museum is almost twice the Whitney’s size (440,00 square feet compared to the Whitney’s 200,000).
Having arrived at the museum before its doors opened, I wandered through the surrounding area, which, in this city of 23 million people, was a veritable ghost town. It featured a host of newly built office buildings, each quite large (although only a few stories high) and featuring a different, distinctive architectural style. A sign informed me that this was an “Urban Best Practices Area,” apparently a district intended to serve as a demonstration model of urban planning.
During my visit to the Power Station, numerous shows were on view. I was happy to see New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio, organized by London’s Royal Academy of the Arts, as I had missed the Hammer’s presentation of Heatherwick Studio work. Another show was devoted to the Paris-based theoretical (visionary) architect Yona Friedman. Yet another was an exhibition devoted to Michael Chow of international Mr. Chow Restaurant fame. Born in Shanghai in 1939, the son of a grand master of the Peking Opera, Chow was sent abroad at the time of the Cultural Revolution, studied art in London, went on to open celebrated restaurants in London, New York, L.A. and Miami and only recently returned to painting. The exhibition consisted of photo documentation of his father (who was persecuted under Mao’s regime), portraits of Michael Chow by Warhol, Basquiat, Ruscha, Schnabel and others and heroically-scaled, “operatic” gestural abstractions by Chow consisting of household paint intermingled with precious metals as well as with eggs and egg shells, plastic wrap, sponges, rubber gloves, money (a $100 bill) and other found objects, most of them seemingly kitchen-related, as is appropriate for a restaurateur. Chow currently lives in L.A. and is on the board of the Broad Foundation. The exhibition, Michael Chow: Voice for My Father, will be presented at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2016.
Unlike the state-run Power Station, most of the contemporary art museums in Shanghai are privately owned and financed (although all face interesting challenges). I visited the Long Museum West Bund, which was opened last year by Shanghai billionaire investor Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei, in yet another newly developing (and largely deserted) area downriver from the Power Station Museum. Known as the West Bund Cultural Corridor, this sector also houses the privately held Yuz Museum and the Shanghai Center of Photography (both recently opened) and is also to be home to theatres, an opera house, film studios (DreamWorks Animation) and more. The Longs have yet another major museum in Shanghai, the Long Museum Pudong. Opened in 2012, it houses the couple’s extensive holdings of Chinese antiquities and Mao-era work.
The Long Museum West Bund, which focuses on contemporary art, is housed in a building designed in a lofty, Brutalist style by the architect Liu Yichun of the Shanghai-based Atelier Deshaus. The exhibition of abstract painting I saw there, Ding Yi: What’s Left to Appear, curated by University of London professor Shane McCausland, was uniquely geared to integrating the art with the architecture (wall labels explained, for example, that works in a particular gallery were hung in descending scale order so as to create an illusory lengthening of the gallery space). I found Ding Yi’s retrospective remarkable, as while seemingly hundreds of paintings employing a grid-based mark-making technique covered thousands-upon-thousands of feet of exhibition space, each work appeared to have been individually hand-painted, layered and composed. I was amused to find, moreover, that most of the buildings under construction in Shanghai were cloaked in skins that recalled Din Yi’s paintings (see photo below).
Although they took some effort to find, I visited two prominent private commercial galleries, both situated in the French Concession. The first was Leo Xu Projects, which occupies a multi-storied modern building. On view was Zheng Bo: Weed Party, an intellectually and visually stimulating exhibition tightly curated by the artist, who had studied art theory with Doug Crimp at New York’s Columbia University. Consisting of work in various media (installation, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, found documentation and more), all of the work dealt with the theme of weeds, the proliferating plants a metaphor for the country people who migrate by the hundreds of millions to China’s industrialized cities.
I then wended my way to the James Cohan Gallery Shanghai, where I was less taken with the exhibition (meditative paintings by Shi Zhiying) than with the art deco building and its spacious, park-like grounds, a veritable oasis belonging to another space and time.
Some Additional Photos