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POSTCARDS FROM SH CONTEMPORARY

Originally published in Artforum China Online, Sep 2009

If the Shanghai clichés weren’t already clear in my mind, reading Lynn Pan’s 2008 book Shanghai Style: Art and Design between the Wars on my Air China flight to Pudong was a good refresher. The obvious: Shanghai’s style has always been “style” itself. (Luckily, Pan focuses instead on the micro-evolution of this stereotype and its realities.) So perhaps it was unavoidable to view most of the events of ShContemporary week through this lens, starting with Duolun Museum’s In the 1980s kicking off the marathon on Monday (September 7th).

Day One:
For those of us who haven’t previously seen many materials from Wen Pulin’s archive of the Chinese avant-garde, the Duolun show was an eye-opening introduction. The museum’s three stories were filled with lovingly preserved photographs, letters, notes, videos, posters, exhibition stills, and other ephemera from this momentous decade of underground art activity in China. The halls reverberate with the weight of history, innocence, and nostalgia—not to mention fantastic haircuts. As the 80s seem to be in a state of permanent revival as a fashion inspiration, the cumulative aesthetic effect of these documents seems the most striking. Several monitors play grainy, fixed-camera VHS Betacam interviews of young artists in their studios, seriously talking and seriously smoking, their oversize glasses and shaggy or close-cropped hair adding to their intensity and unintentional chic. Several walls are dedicated to the 1989 China/Avant-Garde show in Beijing, including an enormous version of the famous Xiao Lu gunshot photo, which suddenly looks more like a cult film still or Nan Goldin portrait. To top it all off, the third floor features a black-and-white video from a 1988 art opening where sneaker-clad hipsters do wildly original dance moves to the strains of a distorted rock band. (In the spirit of punk, I decided to bootleg a |clip|http://www.drop.io/wenpulinvideo| for a wider audience to enjoy – I bet these kids would have approved.) Viewed today, their awkward anti-fashion becomes irrevocably fashionable, and I found myself wishing for a similarly weird oversized windbreaker and tapered pants.

If Wen Pulin’s archives express an accidental style through appealing to authenticity/nostalgia (ever interrelated), the new show at Osage Gallery opening later that day down the block contains a more explicit connection to this theme. Attitude a series of brand-new works by Jiang Zhi, and fits nicely in Osage’s elegant all-white 1920’s building.

In glossy photo and video portraits of individuals, Jiang explores artifice and reality in human expressions and identity. The first floor contains the sprawling Maiden, All Too Maiden!, 100 photos of women in varying poses of “coyness” from the playbook of femininity; the second floor’s 7-channel video Tremble captures seven nudes vibrating at a high speed, simultaneously comic and disturbing. The top floor features the debut of 0.7% of Salt, a video loop of a beautiful young woman crying. Of course, the fact that the performer is Gillian Chung adds an intriguing layer – the Hong Kong starlet’s career was basically destroyed by the Edison Chen sex scandal in 2008, and Jiang cheekily plays on this backdrop of public disgrace in her performed tears, and our reactions to it. Her weeping feels genuine enough to be uncomfortable, but aestheticized enough to be entirely artificial, all with the slightest hint of a smile playing at her lips in some moments. Jiang Zhi’s Attitude uses the polish of pop media not to criticize the essential “falsehoods” of representation, but rather to suggest that this shiny layer is the only one we can trust.

Related to this, it’s impossible to ignore the Osage gallery space– like so many art venues in Shanghai, Osage takes advantage of a beautiful vintage building to offset the works inside. Drinking wine on the upstairs terrace, or sitting cross-legged on the gallery steps, smoking cigarettes with famous artists in a high-school fashion, it did seem for a moment that, at the very least, style is something to be trusted.

Day Two:
On Tuesday, two other small shows were opening in two other gorgeous, historic buildings. The first was The Shape of Things to Come at 140sqm Gallery, a literally 140 square-meter space on the second floor of a grand old apartment house, currently under noisy renovation. Curated by Beijing-based Beatrice Leanza, the group show of four young artists had a casual low-fi energy, and seemed more about highlighting some cool new stuff than any particularly resonant theme.

The front room prominently featured Liang Shuo’s eye-popping I am fucking beautiful No. 4, an installation of makeshift balustrades (with plenty of fake marble and colored stickers) that evokes the slapdash aesthetic of even the most corporate architecture in Chinese cities. At the other end of the spectrum, Elaine W. Ho’s piece was almost intentionally easy-to-miss; she covered the gallery windows with red and blue film, creating a 3-D glasses effect, and offered a pair of perforated paper spectacles for visitors.

Qiu Xiaofei contributed a Kienholz-y open refrigerator overflowing with fabricated beer bottles; Sun Xun, a corridor hung with ink-painted canvas curtains entitled Ceausescu’s Airship that riffed on weaponry, language, Victorian-era science, etc. As all text was in English and the referents heavily European, the piece wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a steam-punk-oriented indie gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District. This geographic slippage was easily corrected, however, by having a drink on the gallery’s balcony overlooking the afternoon traffic on Fuxing Lu (bonus: some classic Shanghairen pajamas hanging up to dry).

In another part of the French Concession, Art + Shanghai was inaugurating their move to a new location with Wuwei: Being and Nothing, a glossier group show in a glossier restored villa. Making my way up three stories to see the mostly monochromatic and obliquely-“Taoist” works on each floor, it finally dawned on me what makes Shanghai’s art scene truly distinct: stairs. Every exhibition in one of these spaces becomes narrative in an extra dimension.

This journey entailed a pause in the middle to contemplate Shi Zhiying’s black-and-white sea paintings (best quote of the week: “Ni hao, this is beautiful!” from a gesticulating older French gentleman with a heavy accent), and then the surprising revelation of a bedroom on the top floor. Then the trek back downstairs to watch Macau’s Cindy Ng Sio Ieng create one of her spilled-ink works live on video, with ambient sound mixed by Ben Houge. While in an upstairs room, Ieng’s video and Houge’s sound were randomly paired, here each hypnotically fed off of the other, and kept guests sipping their G&T’s and looking on for some while. The only problem was that darn un-turn-off-able data display that seems to plague every video projector in China…

Day Three:
In a circus of a week, by Wednesday it was time for the bigtop. The delicately-Stalinist halls and plazas of the former “Sino-Soviet Friendship Building” made a majestic setting for some pretty predictable content. The vernissage crowds shuffled along through the booths, confronted with many of the same works shown at ArtHK and other fairs this year, but luckily the Discoveries section was a bit more fun.

While featuring many artists that could hardly be called “discoveries” (Who’s that “Marina Abramovic” I’ve been hearing so much about?), the high-arched space gave plenty of room to see works, something art fairs usually lack. Personal highlights included Li Yongbin’s sprawling carpet installation (a painstaking flower-pattern rendered in loose powder, gradually being smudged into nothingness by countless feet), and Liu Wei’s cleverly confusing booth: Designed to look like a trade-show display for a luxury kitchen appliance company, it’s the most convincing I’ve ever seen in an art context, and I assumed it was some bizarre corporate cross-over until spotting the black-and-white photo on the wall of Richard Nixon inspecting a similar model-kitchen. My art vs. commerce radars momentarily scrambled (the proof of an effective ready-made, to me), when I came across the sponsored booth “Hurun Lounge: Nobody Knows China’s Rich Better” upstairs, I was certain it had to be an installation.

Abandoning commerce for academia, many folks next headed across town for History in the Making: Shanghai 1979-2009. Curated by Biljana Ciric, the multi-building exhibition is billed as “the most complete overview of contemporary art practices in Shanghai over the past thirty years,” which is hard to argue. The history lesson traces from rough experiments and emulations of Western-canon classics (ironic takes Kosuth’s chairs by Shi Yong, and Richard Hamilton’s Just What is it collage by Yu Youhan) to new conceptual mischief (Zhou Xiaohu’s excellent “To Chase One’s Tail,” in which he hired 10 different detective agencies to successively follow one another). With a show of such scope, the catalogue seems crucial to filling in the gaps, but sadly the English edition won’t be available for another year. (At least they promised to send a copy to the address on my business card when the time comes.)

Day Four:
Thursday saw most art-fair pilgrims making the hour-long trek to Songjiang for the Bourgeoisified Proletariat exhibition, but for those of us who missed the bus (literally), there was plenty to catch up on at 50 Moganshan Lu. At ShanghArt, Xu Zhen’s new incarnation/company “MadeIn” (short for “Made In China,” get it?) presented Seeing One’s Own Eyes: Middle East Contemporary Art Exhibition. Ostensibly works by Middle Eastern artists “curated” by MadeIn, the heavily symbolic pieces were actually created by Xu Zhen/MadeIn to satirize the expectations of art from this region. Two camels stand in bathtubs, their abnormally-long necks intertwining up to the ceiling; upon closer inspection, they’re revealed to be made from small stuffed animals and packing tape. A set of large styrofoam blocks have been strategically incised with the shapes of Islamic architecture. But the cards of humor, earnestness, offense and politically correct accusation are shuffled so fast that even postcolonial theory-heads are forced to just admire the little palm-lined pond and wish they were allowed to float for a while on the Persian-rug innertube.

Coincidentally, some of these same consciously “problematic” threads continued in BizArt’s solo show by Zhou Xiaohu, Military Exercises Camp – Rescue Plan 10.18. Zhou’s installation design at first glance evokes “Africa” by the same means that Xu Zhen’s Impossible is Nothing show in Beijing earlier this year: copious straw (here in bales suggesting guerrilla bunkers) and a slightly heated, windowless room. But the story is richly complicated by the video re-enactments of a hostage rescue situation (based on the real-life kidnapping of a Chinese oil worker by militants in Sudan), played out by African and Chinese actors in Shanghai, and extended into an interactive video game in the center of the labyrinth (unfortunately malfunctioning the day I visited). The set-up is now revealed to be, in a sense, a stage-set – consciously artificial, yet altogether “real,” as the shattered mobile phones and crumpled military uniforms are the documentary-evidence of an actual performance. In Zhou’s “Camp,” war becomes theater, and moreover, a participatory role-playing game, and viewers need to “exercise” their perspective in locating themselves within it.

After basking in this effective liminal space for a while, it was time to head over to another dislocated locale – the outer-space of Pudong, and the Oriental Pearl Tower. Thursday night saw the inaugural segment of Shanghai eArts festival kick off inside the iconic building; the other main portion would open at Shanghai Moca on Saturday. This section was titled “base target=new”, after a common HTML design tag, but similar to ShContemporary Discoveries, presented more greatest hits (Nam June Paik, Marina again, Bill Viola) than media-art underground. As seems common for new-media art openings, visitors milled around, shyly attempting to interact with works that bleeped and pulsated, never sure what the intended effect was supposed to be. Upstairs on the 78th floor (or the floor that was 78 meters from the ground; it was unclear which), the dark circular hall held works to be experienced more passively (phew), like Joseph Kosuth’s numerical neon, and the digital-glitch videos of Takeshi Murata. But we had to rush a bit, as the diligent Tower staff were eager to herd us back out into the Pudong night. Standing on the street again, it seemed that no new media art project in the show could compare to the space station itself.

Day Five:
On Friday, I finally took my field trip to Bourgeoisified Proletariat, the enormous show inaugurating the new “Songjiang Creative Studio” on the outskirts of Shanghai. In plain terms, it’s another strangely-located steel and glass complex with no discernible future purpose besides this four-day extravaganza of cool new work by over 40 artists. But that’s just fine.

Organized by no fewer than 10 curators (most of whom also appear in the show as artists), Bougeoisified Proletariat deliberately avoids an “overarching thematic” (though the title could be read closely in relation to many pieces) – instead aiming to cut a diverse cross-section through contemporary art production in China as a whole. The five main halls of the show took about two to three hours to get through, and remarkably, I was never once bored.

In the entrance, Yang Zhenzhong’s disturbing Fatality machine continues to spit orange ping-pong balls onto the floor, each printed with something you can die from, such as “Carcinoma of the Anal Canal” and “Cerebral Hemmhorage.” An installation by Shi Qing recalls a frontier church, and stretches his elegant approach to domesticity and emptiness onto a bigger frame. Gleefully juvenile pieces by Liao Guohe and Hangzhou collective Small Productions share space with a surprisingly sober installation of cardboard boxes by neon-sign-stealing He An. Representing for the south were the Yangjiang Group (the collision of calligraphy and soccer), Chu Yun (the ubiquitous lucky-star box), and Borges Libreria (an oversized bicycle equipped with mobile library). And Xu Zhen’s insanely prolific MadeIn (no doubt with the help of many insanely sleepless assistants) had virtually its own wing, presenting four elaborate installations that ranged from a psychedelic styrofoam room to dozens of cigarettes that smoke themselves. My personal favorite was Metal Language, a set of English word-bubbles formed from metal chains on the floor, each illuminated by a tiny flashlight. The phrases were of such pitch-perfect, Twitter-lifted American vernacular (“Hey, those were my college years in Hawaii!”) that I almost expected the piece’s title to be “Art by United States Artists.” Finally, Polit-Sheer-Form Office gave a preview of what may be this structure’s future (and by extension, the tenuous nature of any cultural space vying with industrial forces). On the opening night, they began breaking down one room’s drywall with axes. The axes remain hacked into the plaster for now.

Day Six:
Saturday was a relaxing coda to a seemingly endless week in transit: two afternoon book launches at Three on the Bund’s Glamour Bar. However the pink-tinted lounge featured incredibly comfortable vintage furniture and incredibly strong drinks, which may have made the audience a bit too chill for serious art/culture discourse.

After artist-curator Mathieu Borysevicz premiered Learning from Hangzhou, his lavishly visual study of the urban symbols of the rapidly-developing city, Philip Tinari and Hans Ulrich Obrist took the stage to discuss Hans Ulrich Obrist: The China Interviews. Obrist described the progression of his involvement with Chinese art, tracing back to Cities on the Move and other events that, shocking to remember, took place in the nineties. But “Little Hans” (as his Chinese moniker goes) lives very much in the now, so much so that his default autograph in the books handed to him after the talk all began with a beautifully operatic recording of the day’s date (“On the 12th day, of the 9th month, of the 9th year…”).

Much of the crowd reconvened later at the Shanghai branch of Kee Club, set predictably in an opulent old mansion off Huaihai Lu. It seemed a world away from scruffy Songjiang the day before, but was perhaps just a variation on the same style. Like many Shanghai venues cultural and non, Kee Club is an awkward recreation of the past, while the Songjiang show was a very skillful recreation of the “present.” It was a surprisingly historical week, and a good refresher on the various forms of Shanghai Modern. But after a while, my newly-acquired art books got heavy, and it was time to hop in a taxi back to the only place we can ever really go: the future (aka Pudong).