shanghai does contemporary art

Contemporary art in China is really mostly a scene in Beijing around 798 Factory, despite other cities having something going on, but for some reason when people ask me about it, there’s this pervasive meme that Shanghai has a scene that rocks out. I dunno where that came from, because even in the dance scene it’s a distant third behind Guangzhou and Beijing. But there is stuff, mostly the dealer gallery or architecture-as-sculpture museum, and even something like Dashanzi in Moganshan Road, though it’s mostly about the buildings and spaces rather than the art.

The Doulun is a government-funded institution that opened in December 2003 on an officially designated “cultural street” in Shanghai’s northern Hongkou District. The museum is in the shadow of new high-rises, but its six-story vertical box of a building looks startlingly modern on Doulun Road. A favorite haunt of Chinese literary luminaries in the 1930s, it’s now a picturesque pedestrian street, lined with old houses converted into restaurants, galleries, bookstores and antique shops. Next to the museum is the Hong-De Tang Church, a 1928 brick and concrete structure said to be the only Christian church in Shanghai built like a traditional Chinese temple.

The museum has brought edgy art to the historic area, said Gu Zhenqing, chief curator and deputy director. The program is about half international, half Chinese, encompassing a lively mix and quick turnover of exhibitions, performances, experimental films and new music.

— Los Angeles Times

Shanghai’s edge

The city that embodies China’s bold contemporary spirit is crafting a role for itself as a distinctive place to show new art made at home and abroad.

By Suzanne Muchnic, Times Staff Writer

Does anyone go to Shanghai to see contemporary art? It isn’t even mentioned in standard tour books touting the Shanghai Museum’s ancient bronzes, Pudong’s glittering skyline and shopping, shopping, shopping. For most visitors, the quintessential Shanghai experience is sipping a drink at a bar overlooking the frantic traffic along the Bund while watching fireworks frame the Oriental Pearl Tower —the UFO-like spire that symbolizes the city’s ambitions —after seeing a few sights and maxing out a credit card.

But the forces of growth that have filled Shanghai’s sky with construction cranes —China’s national bird, in current parlance —have sparked a profusion of nonprofit exhibition spaces and commercial galleries devoted to avant-garde art. Against the odds, these showcases have popped up in a central park, a historic pedestrian street, a suburban shopping mall, abandoned banks and a derelict industrial complex. Beijing remains the undisputed cultural capital of China, but Shanghai is fashioning a role for itself as a distinctive place to see new art made in China and elsewhere.

Consider the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA Shanghai, which opened in late September with way too many speeches, a retrospective of purposely kitschy portraits by the French duo Pierre et Gilles and a party that rocked well past midnight. It was definitely the place to be for the Shanghai art crowd and a slew of French diplomats and businesspeople.

Bankrolled by Samuel Kung, a Hong Kong-based jewelry designer, the museum is housed in a modern glass structure built as a greenhouse in the People’s Park, smack dab in the middle of town. Because of the building’s original use, the museum is surrounded by trees and a lily pond, in what feels like an oasis of tranquillity. But it’s close to the Shanghai Art Museum, which focuses on traditional Chinese art made in modern times, and within easy walking distance of the Shanghai Grand Theater, a performing arts center, and the Shanghai Museum, a stronghold of historical Chinese art.

“It would be impossible to do this in Hong Kong,” said Kung, whose gentle manner belies his concern with every detail of the improbable project. “We could not find such a place in Hong Kong. There are more opportunities in Shanghai.”

Kung got permission to transform the greenhouse into a museum and operate it for 20 years from officials of Shanghai’s central Huangpu District, who were looking for an alternative use for the building.

“I first thought of making a jewelry museum, but it seemed too limited,” he said. “I know a little about contemporary art, and I’m going to learn more. It’s quite interesting to have a location like this; it will definitely draw attention. I don’t have any experience running a museum, but we have good ideas about showing Chinese and international art and design under one roof. I think we will build a museum with its own character and style.”

In a city often said to be obsessed with appearances and inclined to build something —anything —before planning or providing the infrastructure, MOCA Shanghai has become a reality. Although the glass walls let in far too much light for sensitive artworks, the 13,000-square-foot building has been outfitted with 6,000 square feet of enclosed gallery space approached by a dramatically sweeping ramp. Decks off the third floor, adjacent to a sleekly appointed restaurant, offer views of the park and respite from city noise and traffic.

The first few items on the exhibition schedule feature European art. Pierre et Gilles’ show was staged as the final event of China’s official “Year in France” cultural festival, which also brought artworks from the Louvre to the Shanghai Museum. Coming attractions at MOCA Shanghai include “Swiss Design Now” and “Italy Made in Art.”

But the new museum’s mission statement indicates that Chinese contemporary art will be a major part of the program. Detailed on the museum’s website, the goal boils down to something like this: to promote, collect, research and provide information about Chinese contemporary art; bring high-quality international contemporary art and design to China; inspire creativity; and provide training for museum professionals in China.

It’s an ambitious agenda and, as Kung pointed out, the museum faces plenty of challenges. He has already put $1.25 million into the project, and he can’t continue paying all the bills.

Admission fees and the restaurant will bring in revenue. A small selection of museum-related products might be expanded and marketed. But sponsors must be found for exhibitions —in a country with no tradition of corporate or private support for the arts. And to do that, MOCA Shanghai must form partnerships and build an audience.

“The museum needs an image,” Kung said, “and a lot of help from specialists and friends.”

One of them is Victoria Lu, a stylish dynamo who serves without pay as the museum’s creative director. A native of Taiwan whose family came from Shanghai, she lived in Southern California and ran Stage One Gallery in Orange in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Lu returned to Taiwan to pursue her career, becoming a prominent art historian, curator and critic and a founding board member of the Taipei Contemporary Art Museum. She still teaches in Taipei but established herself in Shanghai two years ago, sensing that China’s most cosmopolitan city was about to have its moment in the field she loves.

“This is a good time for contemporary art in Shanghai,” said Lu, who colors her hair purple and favors clothes designed by Issey Miyake. There’s less government control of the arts than in Beijing, she said, adding that even the government-sponsored Shanghai Biennale, an international contemporary art exhibition, is far more adventurous than its Beijing counterpart.

“This is a powerful place,” she said of the sparkling new showcase. “We need powerful ideas.” Instead of depending on imported exhibitions, the museum needs to distinguish itself with creative curatorial work, placing Chinese contemporary art in an international context and presenting shows that no one is doing, she said.

Young nonprofits

MOCA Shanghai bills itself as “the first nonprofit, independently operated contemporary art institution in Shanghai” but shares the territory with two other young nonprofits, the Doulun Museum of Modern Art (also known as the Doland) and the Zendai Museum of Modern Art. Despite the “modern” designation, they concentrate on recently made art. And like MOCA Shanghai, they mainly function as kunsthalles, with the emphasis on temporary exhibitions of borrowed material rather than permanent collections.

The Doulun is a government-funded institution that opened in December 2003 on an officially designated “cultural street” in Shanghai’s northern Hongkou District. The museum is in the shadow of new high-rises, but its six-story vertical box of a building looks startlingly modern on Doulun Road. A favorite haunt of Chinese literary luminaries in the 1930s, it’s now a picturesque pedestrian street, lined with old houses converted into restaurants, galleries, bookstores and antique shops. Next to the museum is the Hong-De Tang Church, a 1928 brick and concrete structure said to be the only Christian church in Shanghai built like a traditional Chinese temple.

The museum has brought edgy art to the historic area, said Gu Zhenqing, chief curator and deputy director. The program is about half international, half Chinese, encompassing a lively mix and quick turnover of exhibitions, performances, experimental films and new music.

“When we opened, the government wanted us to present 50 exhibitions a year,” he said, rolling his eyes. “We couldn’t do that, but we do 20 exhibitions and 30 other events.”

The Doulun also runs a residency program for artists, who create works in studios on the fifth floor and display them in the galleries. A recent show featured politically charged, figurative sculpture by Vincent Huang, the museum’s first visiting artist from Taiwan.

The third new museum, Zendai, was launched last June in Zendai Thumb Square —a squeaky-clean mall named for Cesar Baldacinni’s “Thumb’s Up” sculpture —in the rapidly growing Pudong District, across the Huangpu River from the older part of Shanghai. With broad walkways and a zigzag tower of billboards, the mall is a place where young couples stroll, kids practice rollerblading and hungry shoppers have their choice of Uncle John’s pizza, French pastries and upscale Chinese food.

Housed in a three-story, glass-front building, the museum opened with “Electroscape,” an international show of new-media art —much of it interactive. One work, by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, invited visitors to stroke the leaves of potted plants and watch them grow in virtual space.

The museum and the mall were funded by the Shanghai Zendai Investment Group, a major real estate development firm chaired by Dai Zhi Kang. Seated at a glass-top table in a conference room at his offices, Dai said that the museum enhances the value of the mall but also has a higher purpose.

“I have no background in art,” he said. “I was trained as an investment banker, and I worked in banks for 10 years before going into property development. Now I want to give something back and regain something that has been lost. We have constructed so much in China, but we have also destroyed the old way of life with its strong cultural traditions. Pudong has so many high-rises, but it is without culture. I want to enrich people’s lives and provide a spiritual home for those who live here.”

With his first museum up and running, Dai is working on a plan for a luxury hotel in Pudong that would include another museum, or at least a large gallery.

After consulting several architects, he settled on Arata Isozaki, who designed Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. They envision a hotel/museum that might also have a theater, shopping mall and office complex. But maintaining a museum is expensive, and the hotel has to make a profit. To realize his dream, Dai said, he would have to get a tax break on the cultural component.

“It’s a crazy idea, but this is Shanghai,” he said. “If we can get a deduction, it will work. The government is waiting to see the plans.”

Dai isn’t the only one pondering government support of the arts in Shanghai. Bund 18 Creative Center, a nonprofit contemporary art space, opened last May in Bund 18, a former bank building that has become the home of a $14-million retail and restaurant development funded by Taiwanese investors. With Victoria Lu as artistic director and a program encompassing fashion, furniture, design and fine arts, the Creative Center has presented a couple of exhibitions, and it’s planning a big one on animation and comics.

But it’s also embroiled in an effort to establish a foundation to cut costs and help with fund-raising. A law passed in July legalized private foundations in China, but arts organizations haven’t learned how to deal with all the rules and regulations, said Sylvia Lee, chief marketing officer for Bund 18.

Commercial galleries

As the new nonprofits jostle for position and funding, commercial galleries are staking out their spots in Shanghai. Among the newest, and by far the classiest, is Shanghai Art Gallery, a huge space that opened in January 2004 in Three on the Bund, another waterfront bank that has been transformed into a high-end retail and entertainment complex.

Several other galleries and many artists’ studios have settled into an old factory complex whose name is the same as its address, 50 Moganshan Road. Art Scene China, East Link and Biz Art are there, along with Shanghart, the city’s oldest contemporary art gallery. Shanghart is run by Swiss expatriate Lorenz Helbling, who has lived in Shanghai for 20 years and operated the gallery in various locations for the past decade. His current show, “Shanghai Living,” is a huge photo essay by Hu Yang documenting the city’s private life, from splendid to squalid.

The Moganshan enclave is much smaller than its Beijing counterpart, known as Factory 798 or the Dashanzi Art District, but —like so many other things in Shanghai —it’s growing. Bamboo scaffolding encases sections under renovation, and the smell of fresh paint is everywhere.

“All the spaces are rented,” said Helbling.