This year’s Shanghai Biennale takes place amid China’s new money-fueled turn to Western art.
IN 2000, the third Shanghai Biennale marked a turning point in East-West art relations. Fully contemporary and fully international for the first time, the millennial event, overseen by the globe-trotting Hou Hanru, included just enough academic and tradition-based material to placate Chinese officialdom, while placing its major emphasis on experimental work, which is what “contemporary art” means in China. The exhibition thereby signaled the eagerness of many artists, dealers, and curators in the People’s Republic of China to embrace the US-and-Europe-dominated art system, after enduring the strictures of Mao’s Socialist Realism (1949–76) and the bleak struggles of progressive artists in the 1980s and ’90s. This desire was even more evident in the half-dozen satellite shows put on by artist groups and independent curators in alternative venues around town. Curator Feng Boyi and artist Ai Weiwei’s now legendary “Fuck Off” exhibition caught the renegade spirit of those heady days and nights.
Sixteen years and eight global roundups later, the current Shanghai Biennale (on view through March 12) seems, at first blush, to fulfill the welcoming drive of 2000. Encompassing ninety-two individual artists and groups from forty countries, the show looks and sounds like any other serious world survey these days. That is, it features formally diverse, concept-heavy work, some of it socially engaged, thoroughly mediated by the critical rationale of the curators, in this case the Raqs Media Collective from India. Artists, curators, and theorists all, the three-person team (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) offers an up-to-date mix of mediums and themes in which Chinese artists, like those from around the world, are presented as the prime cutting-edge seekers and questioners of our time. In this exhibition, every artistic convention, every social condition, is open to examination, while complacency is explicitly taboo. “Why Not Ask Again?” serves as the Biennale’s title and mantra, tirelessly reiterated in all its print and digital support items.
Roughly concurrent with the exhibition’s November 11 opening, meanwhile, was a welter of activities that would have seemed like a fever dream to the artists who showed in dingy, out-of-the-way spaces sixteen-plus years ago. Shanghai Art Week, distracting and diverse, brought some very impressive resources to bear: exhibitions of international work in many of the city’s galleries and private art museums; the newly opened Fosun Foundation, commissioning work and dispensing art prizes; an interactive installation project sponsored by a company devoted to bringing Western public art to China; the expansion of the West Bund art district; and two simultaneous art fairs, both mixing top-name Western and Asian galleries.
It’s tempting to look at this scene and simply see money, a game of cultural catch-up by the newly liberalized and newly affluent. Certainly Shanghai’s phantasmagoric skyline encourages such thoughts, as do its luxury malls and hotels, its flourishing restaurants and clubs, all reflecting the fact that China’s economy, although no longer boasting the double-digit annual increases of recent decades, is still the world’s second-largest and still posts an annual growth rate of over 6.5 percent, compared to the US’s 1.5 percent in 2016. 1 The Chinese art market, meanwhile, may have declined in sales value by 23 percent and slipped from second place to third (behind the US and Britain), yet it still constitutes 19 percent of the world’s total, surpassing Europe and all other countries combined. 2
Yet the proliferation of Western art in the nation’s museums and galleries today signals something quite new: an unprecedentedly high interest in Western work on the part of Chinese curators, dealers, and collectors. Sixteen years ago—even five years ago—the sight of contemporary Euro-American art in a commercial venue in China was an anomaly. At that time, Chinese collectors were avidly buying Chinese, a proclivity that insulated the country’s artists from the worst effects of the 2008–09 global art market dive. But since then, disillusionment with domestic art speculation and the blatant corruption of the Chinese auction system, coupled with the inability of any more than a handful of Chinese artists to penetrate Western critical consciousness and the Western marketplace, has generated a new mindset. Collectors are increasingly inclined to seek the relative predictability of “brand name” modern and contemporary Western art, while curators see the equal regard for, and frequent commingling of, Western and Chinese works as a means for validating China’s own cultural production.
Thus, after earlier phases of exile (from the mid-1980s to the late ’90s, when some of China’s finest talents went abroad to build careers) and then exportation (from the late ’90s to 2008, when big-name artists lived domestically but sold internationally), we have come to a third phase—that of one-sided integration. Mainland China now fervently practices East-West juxtaposition and synergy—a strategy in which the port city of Shanghai, China’s most cosmopolitan locale, has long-established expertise. Vast private fortunes are now combining with governmental development policies and funds in this process, whose trappings are glitzy and, at times, louche.
On November 7, the Fosun Foundation invited two hundred cultural notables to its new 43,000-square-foot building, designed by Foster + Partners and Heatherwick Studio. The three-story venue, which boasts a “veil” façade and an installation of LED numerals by Japan’s Tatsuo Miyajima, now awaits future commissions by Julian Opie, Leandro Erlich, and Felice Varini. Presenters such as Klaus Biesenbach, director of New York’s MoMA PS1, and Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, distributed achievement awards to seven Chinese artists (Cao Fei, Yang Fudong, Xu Zhen, Liu Wei, and Zheng Guogu, plus “millennial” recipients Zhao Yao and He Xiangyu) and two Beijing galleries (Long March Space and Beijing Commune). More striking than the winners themselves, however, was the manner of their selection. The market-tracking website Artnet gathered data on some two thousand candidate artists, assigned numeric grades to their shows, critical citations, and price performances, then used “social computing” algorithms to determine their overall standing.
Two nights later, the West Bund Art & Design Fair opened at the West Bund Art Center complex, part of a five-mile cultural corridor that the district government has established along the Huangpu River. The fair, directed by 1990s art star Zhou Tiehai, who formerly headed one of China Minsheng Bank’s two contemporary art museums in Shanghai, prides itself on its invitation-only gallery selection, with David Zwirner, Pace, and Sadie Coles among the thirty participants chosen this time.
Across a plaza from the fair, ShanghART, one of the anchors of the funky but long-established M50 (50 Moganshan Road) art district, celebrated its twentieth anniversary by inaugurating a rambling new space (its third concurrent Shanghai locale, in addition to branches in Beijing and Singapore) with a group show called “Holzwege.” The German term, elevated by Heidegger, refers to an overgrown forest path known only to woodsmen—a fair description of the route followed by Swiss-born dealer Lorenz Helbling. Shanghai’s pioneering and still most astute dealer of contemporary Chinese art, he has nurtured figures such as Yang Fudong, Xu Zhen, Ding Yi, and Zhang Ding. In the gallery’s mix that celebratory night were works by German artists Markus Lüpertz and Jörg Immendorff. Nearby in the compound, the solo painting show “Alex Katz: West Broadway and Spring” was presented by London dealer Timothy Taylor. Work by the UK’s Martin Creed was on view at Qiao Space, a showcase recently launched by mega-collector Qiao Zhibing, whose private Tank Shanghai museum (one hundred thousand square feet of exhibition space in five lavishly refurbished former industrial oil storage tanks) subsequently opened in December.
After the West Bund festivities, Qiao threw a massive party at one of his entertainment-business holdings, the four-story club Shanghai Night, decorated with many examples from his ten-year-old collection (Liu Wei, Zeng Fanzhi, and Ai Weiwei, cheek by jowl with Olafur Eliasson, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, and Damien Hirst). There, the mere arrival of Takashi Murakami caused a rock-star commotion and selfie-frenzy. Onstage in the cavernous main room, performances included dancers wearing gasmasks and Martin Creed singing badly with an amped-up acoustic guitar. Partygoers who ventured to other areas of the club encountered deluxe karaoke rooms and a bevy of young hostesses wearing evening gowns and conveniently numbered ID tags.
HOUSED IN the Power Station of Art, a riverside electricity generating plant that was converted in 2012 to the first state-sponsored contemporary art museum in China, the Biennale this time places a heavy emphasis on “curatorial thinking”—something all visitors can supposedly share in—along with a pan-Asian alternative, or supplement, to the Western contemporary art nexus. To promote curatorial equity, Raqs Media Collective brought in seven young auxiliary curators (none European- or American-born), installed works in formal or thematic affinity groups, and set up citywide guided walks and storytelling sessions by local residents in places like an open-market fish stall.
The Power Station, with its roughly ninety-foot-high atrium and 160,000 square feet of exhibition area, virtually demands a certain number of space-devouring installations. Raqs met the challenge with works like Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s So Far (2016), three pairs of enormous ceramic crocks vacuum-sealed together to resist the futile efforts of opposing forklifts to sunder them.[pq]The curators have preserved a sense of adventure—of works and connections made for serious, noncommercial reasons.[/pq]Other examples include the circular LED-lined rooms of Croatian artist Ivana Franke’s Disorientation Station (2016). But for sheer spectacle, nothing could surpass The Great Chain of Being—Planet Trilogy (2016), created by Chinese theater director MouSen and his scenography company MSG. The gargantuan work, which one enters through something resembling a giant aircraft fuselage, draws visitors into a sensory overload journey, rife with passageways, random sounds, works by more than forty artists, and a kind of mirrored moonscape into which a crystalline cylinder has crashed, producing a small crater.
Such extravaganzas are counterbalanced, particularly on the two upper floors of the Power Station, with somewhat more contemplative, mutually consonant works. On the third floor, for instance, the American artist Lisa Tan’s video linking ocean waves, sound dampening “pink noise,” and the formation of human consciousness (Waves, 2015) is matched with Chinese artist Zheng Chongbin’s floor-to-ceiling 3D wave of ink and paper on metal (Wall of Skies, 2016), and a black inflatable ocean raft completely flattened and dismantled on the floor (Plastic Raft of Lampedusa, 2016) by the duo YoHa, composed of British artist Graham Harwood and Japanese artist Matsuko Yokokoji. Some of the Biennale artists address vital social issues in no uncertain terms. For one, Indian artist Vinu V.V. contributes Noon Rest (2014), comprising multiple sickles stuck in a tree trunk, his deft evocation of a strike by low-caste field workers protesting their exclusion from village schools.
To its credit, Raqs has preserved within the Biennale the sense of adventure—and of works and connections being made for serious, noncommercial reasons—that prevailed both inside and outside the official exhibition hall (a quaint colonial structure then housing the Shanghai Art Museum) back in 2000. Now the Power Station is, for the duration of this event anyhow, a sanctuary from the twenty-first-century art marketplace that engulfs it.
This is not to say that the curators can do no wrong. In their press materials, “raqs” is said to be a word in Persian, Arabic, and Urdu that refers to the mental state attained by whirling dervishes (other sources mention Egyptian belly dancing). Accordingly, the group members give short shrift to the standard criteria of art historical or critical validity—evidence and reason, clarity and good sense. “When theory gets to work, it sings,” they proclaim in the show’s handbook—meaning that, for them, thinking about art is a form of creative performance, an expression of subjective states. Predictably, a good deal of verbal silliness then ensues. See, for example, their list of twenty-two key Biennale questions, ranging from the sophomoric (“What happens when worlds collide?”) to the nonsensical (“How chromatic is the fragility of spectres?”).
A more serious problem is the curators’ much reiterated advocacy of an alternative global neighborhood, or network, for non-Western cultural workers. Their systematic identification of artists not by nationality or ethnicity or artistic concerns but by city of residence—Beijing, Delhi, Ramallah, Vilnius, Jakarta, Moscow—makes the return-of-the-repressed nature of this nodal approach evident. Fair warning to the New York–London–Berlin axis. There is a mirror world out there, its increasingly impatient “second tier” denizens interacting with social-media intensity.
This reaction to Western imperviousness is entirely understandable. But, apart from endorsing an old-fashioned cultural regionalism that dare not speak its name, it also comports disturbingly well with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2013 One Belt, One Road initiative, reestablishing old Silk Route land and sea ties between China and all of Eurasia, thereby aiming to create—and lead—a Cold War–style bloc to counterbalance the democratic West. Perhaps a twenty-third question should be added to Raqs’s list: When will critical theorists wake up to reality?
AT THE OPPOSITE pole from the Biennale’s mélange was the Felix Gonzalez-Torres retrospective sensitively and sensibly installed at the private Rockbund Art Museum by director Larys Frogier (who wrote his dissertation on Gonzalez-Torres and previously headed the art center La Criée in Rennes, France) with the Chinese curator Li Qi (a former senior editor at LEAP, a print-and-digital art publication almost unique in China for its critical independence). RAM, which opened in the original Bund district in 2010, occupies an Art Deco building renovated by architect David Chipperfield for the Rockbund Urban Renaissance Project, encompassing seventeen structures.
The show of over forty Gonzalez-Torres pieces was notable both for the tastefulness of its installation and the normalcy of viewer reactions. The artist’s signature themes of love and loss, regeneration and sharing were accepted as wholly valid, Frogier said, his aesthetic strategies fully respected. Censorship was not an issue. (Same-sex relationships and gender change are legal in China these days, although laws against discrimination are lacking.) There were, however, some subtle differences of cultural inflection. In China, licorice is thought of as a medicine, not a confection, so one of the famous take-away piles had a slightly different resonance than it would in the West. The two round clocks mounted side by side and keeping exactly the same time still poignantly bespoke Gonzalez-Torres’s feelings for his dying partner. Yet, for this viewer, they also recalled the fact that all clocks in China are set to Beijing time as a gesture of centralized power and national unity, despite what would otherwise be a range of five time zones. Moreover, China’s timepieces run twelve hours ahead of those in New York, pointing to the same hours and minutes simultaneously, but with a day-and-night difference in meaning.
One of those antipodal contrasts is that in China, as such shows attest, contemporary Western art is either venerated or taken in stride—sometimes with a touch of curiosity or bemusement—while in the West, contemporary Chinese art is still too often greeted with condescension. The talk of the Shanghai art scene last summer was a show of 250 Giacometti works at the Yuz Museum. During the Biennale, the same venue, founded in 2014 by Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek, was given over to both “Andy Warhol: Shadows,” presenting 102 silk-screened canvases hung edge to edge, and “Overpop,” a seventeen-person show that balanced the work of Western artists (e.g., Camille Henrot, Alex Israel) selected by American dealer Jeffrey Deitch with Chinese artists (e.g., He An, Liu Yefu) chosen by Karen Smith, a British-born critic-curator who has lived in China for some twenty-five years. Given the Pop theme, as well as Deitch’s penchant for street-art bravado, and the in-your-face quality of much contemporary Chinese work, one might have expected a fun-house experience. Instead, the show was rather subdued, with works like Samara Golden’s mirrored, perspective-altering room installation The Flat Side of the Knife (2014) setting a semi-formalist tone.
A short stroll away along the Cultural Corridor lies the Long Museum West Bund—one of four private museums founded by the collector couple Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei (best known abroad for their $170.4-million Modigliani purchase in 2015). In the weeks leading up to the Biennale, Wang Wei oversaw “She,” an evenhanded survey of 105 women artists from thirteen countries.
At the ART021 fair in the Stalinist-style Shanghai Exhibition Center, Asian works—like Wang Xin’s interactive installation satirizing the art world at the De Sarthe booth—held their own against contributions by Western artists such as Wim Delvoye (Galerie Perrotin) and Sterling Ruby (Gagosian). Elsewhere in town, Leo Xu Projects offered “Reflexology,” a solo exhibition by Berlin-based Swedish artist Nina Canell. The Chronus Art Center presented technologically oriented works by China’s Liu Xiaodong, Germany’s Carsten Nicolai, and Korea’s Nam June Paik. “Hack Space,” curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad, placed New Zealand–born, Berlin–based Simon Denny among eleven Chinese artists at the Shanghai K11 Art Mall, established by thirty-seven-year-old Hong Kong billionaire Adrian Cheng.
At a moment when we all must guard against xenophobic, jingoistic urges, the Real Fiction Cinema project, consisting of three containerlike structures purpose-built by Switzerland’s LOST Architects, seems particularly à propos. The mini-theaters—complete with black interiors, raked rows of seats, and soundtracks of Chinese and Western film scores—were sited for various periods of time at three Shanghai locations: Houtan Park, the Sinan Mansions (a restored colonial-residence enclave, now an upscale shopping and entertainment complex, in the French Concession), and—before the Biennale—on the roof of the Power Station of Art, with a vista of the busy river and the red inverted ziggurat of the China Art Museum. The viewing end of each theater is a rectangular cutout that creates, in quasi–James Turrell fashion, the illusion of a movie screen. As one sits and watches, the world outside becomes, inexorably, one’s own mentally constructed film—a flowing narrative drawn directly from life, subject to both the steady rhythms of city life and the unpredictable actions of pedestrians, some of whom react to the theater with wonder, greetings, and impromptu performances.
Conceived by Dutch artist Job Koelewijn and facilitated by Swiss curator Klaus Littmann, the project owes its existence to the Shanghai-based ArtsRouge International, a firm founded in New York in 2007 by Sotheby’s Institute of Art graduate Xiaokun Sunny Qiu for the pupose of bringing Western public art to China. The Cinema was previously installed in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, where it garnered some two hundred thousand “moviegoers.” Plans call for a tour of ten Chinese cities in all.
In a sense, this work constitutes a Western perspective on Chinese reality, transformed into an enactment of itself. But that transcultural process is enthusiastically embraced by many Chinese visitors and “actors”—perhaps because they sense in it a mutual willingness to observe, to imaginatively engage, and to learn. The project makes one want to say to major Western cultural institutions, “Where is your window on China today?” It’s an essential question, though one too earnest and concrete for Raqs to ask. After all, the already contentious Xi-Trump era is likely to be a geopolitical turning point (do we move now toward East-West reciprocity or toward divisive nationalism?), not only for the one-fifth of humanity that lives in the PRC but for all of us, everywhere.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW Eleventh Shanghai Biennale, “Why Not Ask Again?: Arguments, Counter-arguments, and Stories,” at the Power Station of Art, through Mar. 12.