Text and images by Dogan Arslanoglu.
Must be a slow summer. Given Shanghai’s relatively short history in the contemporary art scene (1980′s to present time) and its emerging status, I speak not of cynicism but of a peculiar safeness in the works currently being shown.
Today was gallery day. Rushing to finish up my morning routine of coffee and a cigarette on the way to our usual meeting point is always a challenge. You forget one of the two and you might as well hang your head in solemnity for that is the day of defeat. The walk from my apartment to the meeting point is always the shortest, but most interesting walk. You forget it at times. You think you blow the post-communist, human rights abuse thing out of proportion. Because it is nice, once you learn to walk as if you’re a football player with the ball and everyone else is after you with scooters and automobiles. You can’t expect much and you wouldn’t even know what that expectation would be. It’s isolated of course. Your index finger becomes your translator. You hang on to gestures and illustrate them with comical vigor. Every screen in the subway is showing footage of the Chinese astronauts triumphant return. New York Times must have been busy re-adjusting their subscription paywall that day. This is a 2-minute walk and I suppose proportions don’t really relate.
We get to Moganshan 50, which is the art district of Shanghai. While I’m not so sure about calling it the Chelsea of Shanghai, it has the charm of an environment most artists would like. What I don’t seem to understand is the direction some of these galleries take. New self-contained “concepts” in gallery models where in-house artists, curators, writers, and installers all work together leaves no room for honest criticism. It happens in schools sometimes, everyone likes everything. When you add the fact that they’re paid to produce, curate and write about works in the same environment and from the same pay source, it becomes nothing more than a boutique. Alas, I suppose one has to adhere to socialism somehow whether consciously or subconsciously. Walter Hopps, I think you’re needed here. This also brings to mind another observation. I am not sure if this is due to the technology lenient culture here but I think the past 10 years of new media work has shown that the incorporation of digital media practices should be more than a mere fusion of something analog with something digital. I think I’ve seen digital advertisements outside my apartment with more sophistication than what some “galleries” or artists have been producing here in regards to digital and new media.
All is not lost, however. Although it is hard to contextualize the works given I know nothing of Shanghai’s artistic attitude, identity, or philosophy, it seems that there is at least one or two galleries that are supporting artists with something to add to the general discourse and direction of Chinese contemporary art. My knowledge of Chinese contemporary art consists mostly of Zhang Huan, Qui Zihje and Ai Weiwei, all of whom have expressed their individual artist voices in clever, beautiful and interesting ways. I felt the risks that the aforementioned artists took in the past, and still continue to take, seem to be absent from the works I saw today. This isn’t something exclusive to Shanghai but given the cultural and political placement that China has positioned itself in globally, I would have expected at least an honest response. This of course does not allude to political art but to the attitude, voice and most importantly the unique identity that Shanghai, Beijing and the rest of China need to bring to the international contemporary art scene.