The most gripping urban sci-fi center I have visited in recent years would have to be Shanghai. During a recent third jaunt to this hot-tempered, digitally propelled architectural Mecca, I understood that nothing stays the same. Everything rotates and spirals upward through time. Culture in Shanghai is crystalline on the exterior with a dog-driven interior—fraught with text messages, intercom celebrities, and Neo-Pleistocene VIPs galore. Signs of sex meander within a sexless void, offering a high-pitched soliloquy for a Chinese Madonna. Mecca may be the wrong epithet to describe this raucous scenario, this open-aired, moonlit citadel conceived by hyper-systemized entrepreneurs, sparkling and bristling with energy, filled with porous light, matched by a chorus of swift Mongolian stallions. From 1950s romantic cinema to the molecular, speed-driven existence of a “real time” 2010 happenstance, one tends to enjoy the static tension within one’s viscera when observing chaotic legacies from the new world order swirling around a splurge of endemic social fluidity. Every microbe comes replete with extended proteins of architectonic maximalism. On every curb, this gaudy East/West metropolis welcomes you. As the spires rise up along the esplanade, artist moon-riders conjoin in translucent desire to beget the latest reincarnation of Boccaccio!
My invitation to Shanghai—which happened to coincide with the opening of the enormously elaborate World Expo—came through the Z-art Center situated in the Pudong area of the city where a new hi-tech industrial park is gradually taking shape. The occasion was an exhibition opening by the hot young entrepreneurial painter, Zhong Biao. In the second floor space, Zhong had installed two large paintings—“portable murals,” to borrow a phrase from Pollock. The subject matter of the two paintings was nearly diametrically opposite. Whereas “For the Future” followed a certain logic of stylistic progression in which images of various people—mostly young, foreshortened, and flying through space—were taken from various media sources and recontextualized within the painting, the darker “Light Years” portrayed a somber view of the universe revealing planets and stars with two diagonally juxtaposed primary areas of light suggesting metaphors of birth and death. The area of light in the upper left is inchoate, implying that some evidence of the corporeal subject is in the process of evolving, whereas the more defined figuration of an elderly man in the lower right suggests an epiphany before he passes on to another time and space. In either case, a wall of mirrors installed perpendicularly to either side of the painting projects the subject matter to infinity. This was accentuated by video projections of abstract signs on the floor, an elevated, kinetic holographic video on one side of the darkened space, and a small, but exquisite late Qing Dynasty bronze artifact with fiery dragons supporting a pearled globe in an architectural niche to the rear.
What I get from Zhang Biao’s work is the sense that the present is one grand illusion or perhaps a rapidly passing dissolution in which the disappearance of images through instant replay and repetition functions as a sign of degeneration, a type of inevitable virus derived from anxiety over disappearing perceptions of nature and the human race transforming itself into a phantasm on the verge of disappearance. Whether the disappearance is total or partial, viewers have much to contemplate standing in isolation within this exhibition, waiting for the future.
In addition to Zhong Biao, there was a major exhibition of a collaborative work by Cai Guo-Qiang, titled Peasant Da Vincis at the newly opening Rockbund Art Museum in the older section of Shanghai. Although raised in the city, this was Cai’s first major Shanghai exhibition, in many ways superior to the spectacle shown at the Guggenheim in New York a couple years ago. In this case, the artist asked farmers from the countryside to contribute hand-made flying machines and various other assemblage contraptions that possessed innocence, visual charm, and poetic substance. Beneath it all was a subtle political message regarding the growth of the market economy in China—that perhaps it was time to consider the talents of those being left out of this new economic formula and to allow them to assert their vision of the world.
Shanghai is a wondrous, prescient city that offers continual adventure as one passes from one area to another. Galleries are present throughout its streets, but not as plentiful and generally not as prestigious as those found in Beijing. Yet there is a diversity of serious work in Shanghai by both Chinese artists and foreigners, such as the sculptor Barbara Edelstein, wife of the renowned Chinese painter Zhang Jian-Jun. Her installation, titled “Wind·Dream” and constructed with ink on large paper leaves fastened to tree branches, offered a subtle counterpart to the density of the visual noise outside. The work was shown at the Elisabeth de Brabant Art Pavilion at the famous 1933 Building, formerly a contentious rendering plant for the slaughtering of cattle. One of the best galleries in the environs is called ShanghART. Owned and operated by a Swiss gallerist, Lorenz Helbling, the gallery—at the time I was there—was exhibiting a large selection of paintings and works on paper by Liu Weijian. Liu’s work focuses on interior furnishings and architecture, occasionally with people, that hold a mysterious, sometimes harrowing and unsettling aura. Another artist, You Si, works as an abstract painter in a tradition that includes traces of microscopic exploration. These fastidious, yet delicate works, handled by a radical edge gallery called Art Labor, somehow feel at home in Shanghai as they suggest a kind of psychedelic effervescence that matches the city’s exterior exuberance and phantasmagorical appearance.
Finally, I have to point to the curator Gao Minglu’s Maximalism in Contrast exhibition at the Contrasts Gallery, owned by Pearl Lam, where four artists exude a tradition that goes beyond representation toward immaterial reality. The artists include Lei Hong, He Xiangyu, Zhu Jinshi, and Zhang Yu. While the airiness of these mostly-paper works seems a bit crowded, even in the two-floor space, one can sense a vastly different approach to art from the large-scale and bright color that represent the Cynical Realism largely emanating from Beijing. For example, Zhu Jinshi in interested in how time works in relation to the weight of paper as it absorbs ink’s blackness. Zhu’s work impressed me as vital and intellectual, sensorial and reductive, material and immaterial—as full of contrasts as is the city of Shanghai.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.