There’s something almost cabalistic about walking up Moganshan Lu towards the M50 art complex. For a moment, you forget that you’re mere kilometres away from the commercial temples of Jing’an and Zhongshan Park. You pass dilapidated buildings, children playing with chickens, elderly folk sweeping ice into the gutters... But as the warehouses hove into view along the creek, you notice the graffiti and begin to realise that behind the ramshackle blocks of houses and shops lies something altogether different – the cradle of some sort of revolution.
The story of contemporary art in Shanghai runs alongside the general blossoming of culture over the past couple of decades. The flourishing scene that we enjoy today – with clusters of galleries in Taikang Lu, the Bund, and most recently in Wujiaochang - is the product of a slow burn from the late ’80s onwards.
It all started when a group of local artists began to meet informally during the 1980s to debate the place of contemporary art in Deng Xiaoping’s China, and how they could move on from the old guard of traditional art. The group included Ding Yi, Zhong Jiajun, and Li Shan – all of whom were professors and teachers as well as artists, and leading lights in intellectual circles. The turning point to their discussions came in the wake of the 1989 exhibition ‘No U-Turn/China/Avante-Garde’ at the Beijing National Gallery which showcased the works of 168 artists across a variety of styles and media. The Shanghai art scene responded with a series of smaller exhibitions, taking their cue from the experimentalism of Beijing’s example. This exposure led to many of the artists being offered shows in other Asian cities, followed by tours of Europe and America.
This meant that Chinese modern art finally began to make waves in Berlin, Venice, and Paris, but it wasn’t until Swiss-born Lorenz Helbling arrived in Shanghai that the boom began. Starting with exhibitions at his home, and then at his gallery in Fuxing Park, Helbling (a veteran of the Hong Kong and Zurich art scene) established himself as a leading light. He was the mastermind or inspiration behind at least fifty of the galleries operating in Shanghai today.
He is also partly responsible for the success of Moganshan Lu’s M50. At the start of the 1990s, the space now occupied by galleries was a textile centre called Chunming Slub Mill. When it fell out of use, artists took advantage of the cheap rent to display their work. By the advent of the new millennium, the first official galleries had opened, and the area began to gain recognition as a centre for contemporary art.
As M50 developed, a new group of influentials sprang up which is still active today, based around the Bizart Art Centre. Contributors include Xu Zhen and Yang Zhenzhong. The collective started off with Art For Sale in 1999 – an exhibition staged in a shopping mall on Huaihai Lu, and provided satellite galleries for the 2002 Biennale including the twin spaces Fang Mingzhen and Fang Mingzhu. But the group have rebelled several times against what they view as the stultifying ‘organised’ art scene of biennales and international fairs. In 2000, artist Ai Weiwei joined forces with critic Feng Boyi for an exhibition called ‘F*CK OFF’ to protest against the 2000 Shanghai Biennale; other artists mounted a show in 2006 called ‘Solo Exhibition’ which, despite including the works of 38 artists, was actually 38 solo exhibitions.
The independent art sphere may be on the rise, but what of Shanghai’s state-run galleries? For years, Shanghai Art Museum was the only place to see modern art. It was the brains and power behind the Shanghai Biennial which began in 1996. The Duolun MoMA opened in 2003, and was the first government-funded gallery like this in Shanghai; 2005 saw the opening of the private Zendai MoMA and Shanghai MoCA, which suggests that there is growing acceptance of contemporary art in official circles.
So what lies ahead for contemporary art in Shanghai? More development, it seems. The Wujiaochang 800 Art Space is one of the most recent additions to the scene. Similarly far from the city centre as Beijing’s 798 art district, it is close to Huangxing Park station on Metro line 8. Carefully planned from conception to development unlike M50, 800 consists of 30 galleries spread over six floors of an old warehouse. The Yangpu District government commissioned architect Zhong Song to convert the warehouse into a 21,460 square metre art space. Wujiaochang 800 is the brainchild of Hong Pingtao, the former director of the Taiwan Art Galleries Association, who opened the Caves Art Centre in Taibei. Hong has high hopes for the future of his project. In a recent interview with the arts press he was quoted as saying: “Our goal is to make Wujiaochang 800 the art center in Shanghai”.
However, as the collective belt tightens in the face of the looming economic crisis, it will be interesting to see how galleries bear up against financial recession. Having said that, nothing has managed to keep China’s art scene down – neither war, censorship, nor revolution – so the future will almost certainly be bright.
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