Contemporary Art in Shanghai and Beijing

The Gao Brothers cafe in the 798 Art Zone, Beijing

To visit artist Jin Feng’s studio beyond Beijing’s 5th Ring Road is a little like stepping back through time. The studio is part of a vast predominantly deserted rural estate that was once the home of Wan Li, Communist party apparatchik until he was purged during the Cultural Revolution only to be rehabilitated three years before Mao’s death in 1976. I was on a mission to see contemporary art in Shanghai and Beijing and I had arrived at my first stop.

Wan Li’s House in Shanghai

Wan Li became Vice Premier in 1984 and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in 1988. His exulted position brought with it extreme privileges; one of which was this estate with inside and outside tennis courts and an Olympic-sized swimming pool overlooking a huge lake.

Red Boy by Chen Wenling

On the lake is a small barge made from grubby recycled plastic bottles on which sat a Chen Wenling sculpture from his Red Boy series. It shared the space with several ducks. There are dozens of buildings around the lake with endless corridors and cell-like rooms. Each room seems to have several exit doors that lead through into more rooms where extravagant bloated furniture, a little like inflated Erwin Wurm sculptures, wait to support bodies that today will never come. It is all part of the extravagance afforded to communist leaders.

Now the estate is privately owned by someone who does not seem to have enough money for maintenance. It is rapidly decaying. There was a dream to turn it into an art space, thus Feng’s tenure. But nothing happened. The owner is old and sick and the only other estate tenant apart from Feng is an herbalist brought over from Taiwan and an old horse sheltering in a disintegrating corrugated iron shed. The location is such a secret that taxi drivers do not know it exists. It is all slightly eerie. I am sworn to secrecy. Wan Li lived to be 98 and died in 1993.

I have been visiting China annually for a decade or more mainly Beijing and Shanghai but always with an art- focused agenda, to see contemporary art in Shanghai and  in China in general – and write about artists and their studios – emerging artists as well as those who have become fixtures on the international art stage. I also visit collectors and gallerists. I have trawled through capacious museums in an attempt to understand and demystify the curious activity that is art. I also wanted to better understand Chinese contemporary art in Shanghai. Because I write about art I am privileged and can gain access to artists and their studios when many travellers cannot.

Chinese Art Zones

Even so, there is much to see by way of museums and galleries in both Shanghai and Beijing along with the now Chinese phenomenon of ‘art zones’. For example, 798 Art Zone and Caochangdi in Beijing and M50 in Shanghai – all offer hours of endless pleasure. The more I look at art the more I feel aligned with Anselm Kiefer’s epithet, ‘The beauty art produces will dissolve into ashes when it is brought to the level of speech’.

I am increasingly overwhelmed by the aesthetics of Asian art in all its nuanced sensibilities, from ancient Qing manuscripts and porcelain, calligraphy and ink painting through to the latest and at times outrageous contemporary outpourings by artists who would do better working in another field.

When you read this, I will be seeking out contemporary art in Shanghai, or maybe Hangzhou. One young artist I will visit in Hangzhou is Zhou Yilun, who has a reputation as an enfant terrible, and, I am told, has a ‘special studio space/gallery/bar/tattoo parlour’. The latter alarms me. He is a wild-card and I fear that he might only agree to an interview if I agree to a tattoo …  Nonetheless, we have arranged to meet.

The Arts Scene in Shanghai

By any measure Shanghai is a vibrant cosmopolitan city whose fortunes have been built on financial muscle and an ingrained entrepreneurial spirit with a colourful history predicated on the opium trade and an anything-goes mentality during the early part of the 20th century. Not for nothing was it known as ‘The Whore of the Orient’. It was also known as ‘The Pearl of the Orient’ for its artistic and intellectual community.

Today it is home to 24 million people and the transformation over the last 25 years into an international centre of commerce has been astonishing; old hutongs have been swept aside to make way for dozens of tower blocks and acres of residential towers have now spread rapidly across outer city areas. Fortunately, many heritage buildings remain such as those that line the city’s historic Bund on the western banks of the Huangpu River.

Just back from the Bund is Anfu Road where until recently American expat Mathieu Borysevicz had his MAB Bank Society gallery space in the otherwise empty former Bank Union Building that was established in 1929. MAB has moved to new premises but the decaying, faded and semi-derelict building remains complete with a caretaker who likes nothing more than to stand and chat about the history of the building and to point out the Cultural Revolution signage on the building’s façade that still remains today.

ShangART Gallery

Swiss émigré Lorenz Helbling opened ShanghART Gallery in the city in 1996. It was the first independent gallery for contemporary art in Shanghai. ‘There was a no art here then. Nobody came to Shanghai to see art,’ he told me last year. Today of the 50 or so artists he represents several are top-tier Shanghai based artists including Zhang Enli, Xu Zhen, Ding Yi, Yang Fudong, and Yu Youhan all of whom remain fiercely loyal to ShanghART.

Yang Fudong the wildly successful auteur film maker confided last year how Helbling helped him to make it back in his early days. Recently the gallery celebrated 20 years by relocating from the M50 art district, a complex of converted factories and warehouses off Moganshan Road that is now home to galleries and art studios, to the city’s newest incipient art hub, the West Bund Cultural Corridor a government funded attempt to turn several kilometres of neglected and long derelict industrial water frontage alongside the Huangpu River into a multi-billion dollar cultural centre.

Shanghai Contemporary Art Museums

Since 2014, government money has poured in and private museums have been attracted to the area by sweetheart rental deals. The Long Museum, and the Yuz Museum are private museums now on site with paintwork that is hardly dry. Owned by high-worth collectors but such as Wang Wei and Budi Tek respectively they form the backbone of the visual art development. But springing up close by is Oriental DreamWorks which will include DreamCenter, a $US2.7 billion culture/entertainment complex due to open later this year – all worth seeing when you visit contemporary artists in China.

It is rumoured that Budi Tek, the Indonesian founder of the 9,000 square metre Yuz Museum housed in an aircraft hangar that once served Longhua Airport will not pay ground rent for 30 years. The building was repurposed by renowned Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto and opened in 2014. Tek’s taste in art is contemporary, mainly international and with a predisposition for huge works; Fed Sandback, Adel Abdessemed, Maurizio Cattelan, Zhang Xiaogang who now lives in New York, and of course Ai Weiwei, who last year relocated out of Beijing to the safety of Berlin.

Other Galleries in Shanghai

Several galleries are now also on site including the quixotic Xu Zhen’s MadeIn Gallery and the Edouard Malingue Gallery, the Hong Kong dealer’s first Mainland space. Karaoke king Qiao Zhibing has opened Qiao Space to show his personal contemporary art collection which is currently on show at his extravagant five-storey karaoke bar, Shanghai Night.  For the adventurous traveller, a visit to Shanghai Night is an experience – albeit potentially a very expensive one – but you can see great art by the likes of Yang Fudong, Antony Gormley, and Olafur Eliasson and many others. Shanghai Night is a glamorous if slightly seedy place with squads of attractive young women on hand to help customers to spend their money.

The Art Couple: Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian

The billionaire art collector couple Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian opened their second Long Museum in West Bund – their first was in Pudong in 2012 and both museums are dedicated to their extensive private art collection although West Bund does have curated shows. Wang Wei’s interest is in contemporary Chinese art and Revolutionary Art of which she seems to have cornered the market while her husband is the driving if somewhat mercurial force behind some staggering purchases of Chinese antiquities at auction.

In 2014, he bought the tiny porcelain Meiyintang ‘Chicken Cup’ produced in the Chenhua reign (1465-87) for US$36.3 million and proceeded to celebrate by drinking tea from it. According to Sotheby’s Nicholas Chow, International Head and Chairman of Chinese Works of Art Department, the Chicken Cup is the single most forged item in the history of Chinese art. There are only 19 other originals and  it is believed that Yiqian’s is the only one in private hands.

Yiqian paid using his American Express Centurion Card. But the US$36 million price tag was a mere nothing compared to the US$170.4 million he paid in 2015 for Modigliani’s Reclining Nude. Again, he used his American Express card, but this time he insisted on a 12- month payment plan. At the time his wife, Wang Wei, is reported to have said, ‘Who has that sort of cash lying around?’. Quite so.

One can spend hours in the Long Museum exploring the Revolutionary Art – think ruddy faced peasant girls and stirring portraits of the Great Helmsman – as well as the museum quality antiquities. I toured Pudong with Wang Wei, who proudly demonstrated how in the antiquities gallery the exhibition bays were only illuminated when a visitor walk through after which the lights faded. She then went on to complain about how much the monthly electricity
bill was.

Power Station of Art

North of West Bund is the Power Station of Art (PSA), the country’s first publicly owned contemporary art museum and home to the Shanghai Biennale and another place to see contemporary art in Shanghai. Modelled on London’s Tate Gallery, it is a vast space but with little idea of how best to utilise the space. Plus there is not a lot inside to engage the visitor. So if time is tight then give PSA a miss.

On the other side of the Huangpu River from West Bund is the vast, even by Chinese standards, China Museum of Art. Originally designed as the China Pavilion for the Expo 2010, it has been repurposed as a museum.  Looking very much like an inverted ziggurat it would take even the most ardent visitor a whole day to just scratch the surface of the museum’s 27 exhibition halls, which cover the history of Chinese painting from the year dot to the present day.

The Aurora Museum

For antiquities, the best museum in Shanghai is in Pudong, opposite The Bund. Among the sparkling illuminated skyscrapers is the Aurora Museum – perhaps Shanghai’s best kept secret. Nothing contemporary here apart from the actual building which houses five floors of antiquities; the most exquisite jade, ancient terracotta figurines, blue and white porcelain and Buddhist sculptures present Chinese art in all its nuanced splendour.

There are 72 museums in Shanghai and it would be impossible to see more than just a few of these. But the kaleidoscopic rate of museum building in the city in recent years demonstrates the Shanghai’s quest for cultural supremacy in China.

Beijing is the Epicentre of China’s Art World

However, Beijing is the country’s capital and political powerhouse albeit a dusty, slightly shabby and down-at-heels place but with a charm that is unique. There is nothing in China quite like the Forbidden City and Beijing remains the epicentre of China’s art world and the country’s cultural capital. I have been told several times that there are more artists in Beijing than anywhere else in the country and I believe it. Recently the young artist Zhou Zhou when I interviewed him said that close to his studio beyond the 5th Ring Road there were 10,000 artists.

The Artist Zhou Zhou in Beijing

Zhou Zhou is young and successful and has two studios. One is in Chaochangdi, which at one time was little more than a rural village in the North East of Beijing with open fields and dusty streets. Once superstar artist Ai Weiwei moved there in 1999 and designed and built his own enclave other artists followed along with commercial galleries.

His initial studio design was sketched out on the back of an envelope and built in 60 days, he said and there was no planning permission. Subsequently he went on to design an estate close by of utilitarian but attractive boxy brick studios of various sizes. Weiwei took us on a walking tour that ended up at Galerie Urs Meile, which he also designed.

The Photographer Qing Wangsong

Qing Wangsong , the darkly humorist photographer has a studio in the brick enclave and explained to me that he still uses a special handmade film camera. Acquiring the oversize film was a challenge until he stumbled upon 500 sheets. He bought them all and now stores them in several fridges in the studio. ‘They must be kept at minus 10 degrees Celsius,’ he said. As he only uses two negatives annually, his future projects are assured. It was here in the back streets of Chaochangdi that I tasted my first jianbing (pancake) and went on to enjoy them daily from the street vendor located just outside of the boutique 5-star Yi House hotel, the only hotel in the 798 complex.

798 Art District

The most entertaining art complex in Beijing, perhaps even in China, is the 798 Art District with dozens of galleries, design stores, and restaurants clustered together in a Russian Bauhaus style ex-industrial conglomerate.  The original character of 798 has become much more commercial since the days when local artist Huang Rui established a studio there and fought government attempts to redevelop the site. Commercial galleries and art foundations proliferate; Pace, Beijing Commune and Long March Space and a plethora of top flight galleries have since then nailed up their shingles. The art can at times be patchy but always fun.

Two years ago, luxury brand PR Lin Han, who only started collecting contemporary art as recently as 2013 when he bought at auction a Zeng Fanzhi Mask painting, has opened his own M Woods museum in 798. Originally it was to show his own eclectic collection but more recently has transitioned into exhibitions curated by his new wife Wanwan Lei. She was, at one time, Chinese painter Liu Ye’s, muse.

Li Han has sunk considerable dollars into M Woods and it deserves success but there is something slightly pretentious, even perhaps too extravagant about the place. Recently when I was there Lin Han and Lei, who was wearing a full-length Chinchilla coat, left the gallery and made off through 798 in a Han’s red Ferrari. ‘I like fast cars,’ he said. But this would seem to be the new face of China’s wealthy elite which, having grown up during the country’s recent 30-year transformation from a peasant agrarian society to one of communist capitalism, is now enjoying the goods thing in life.

Just 10 minutes from 798, the Minsheng Bank has opened the sprawling Minsheng Contemporary Art Museum, which exemplifies much that is wrong in the current wave of museum building in China, where the art seems secondary to the actual destination buildings. The exhibition spaces are huge and the art works are few and far between.

National Museum of China

The star art and antiquities attraction in Beijing is the National Museum of China on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square.With over one million items the museum offers a comprehensive overview of Chinese history with curios such as the flag of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that was raised by Chairman Mao at the proclamation of the PRC in 1949 before 300,000 people who crowded into Tiananmen.

If you want more of Chairman Mao he lies in perpetuity in a crystal sarcophagus in a mausoleum in the middle of the square. Be prepared to queue for entry with the thousands of Chinese tourists who are up from the country enjoying a day out in the capital. It is all extremely macabre. But gazing on Mao’s waxen face is hard to resist.

Chinese artist Shen Shaomin whose vast concrete studio cost him a fortune to build outside Beijing knows what gazing at Mao’s dead face is like. In 2006, he spent hours in the mausoleum doing just this. The result was his sculpture The Great Corpse (2006), showing Mao as naked as the day he was born. Rather than displaying The Great Corpse in a coffin similar to the one at Tiananmen Square, Shaomin placed the sculpture on a stainless steel mortuary gurney.

The silicone figure is as life-like as one can imagine a figure to be in death. There is a grey hue to the flesh and the body displays real human hair carefully added one strand at a time. The work was owned by the Swiss collector Uli Sigg, who presented it to Hong Kong’s M+ Museum along with a part sale/part gift of 1,462 other works of contemporary Chinese art. It has never been shown in public and the likelihood of it ever being exhibited remains remote.