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|Letter from Shanghai
by Jonathan Napack
|Shanghai's new Pudong International Airport tells you everything about the "new" China -- grandiose, self-assured, yet somewhat hollow and above all inconvenient.
The airport is just one of many massive projects that have changed this city beyond recognition. A soaring steel-and-glass structure designed by Paul Andreu, the chief architect of Aéroports de Paris, the facility boasts construction materials and detailing that are clearly higher quality than usual. You can buy an espresso or an uncensored newspaper -- in English, that is, not Chinese -- yet the place remains eerily empty. Shanghai's air traffic doesn't justify such an enormous airport, which is situated such a long way from the city, that it cannot compete with the moldy but convenient Hongqiao airport still operating just 20 minutes from downtown.
As the grubby Santana taxi rattles towards town, it passes the enormous Pudong New Area (Shanghai's new Special Economic Zone), an expanse of rice paddies gradually being converted into industrial parks. Despite the dubious wisdom of destroying prime agricultural land in an overpopulated country, the design is striking. Pudong's skyscrapers and immense buildings resemble huge versions of Japanese transformer toys.
After almost an hour, the taxi arrives at the Huangpu river, which bifurcates the skyline into the modernist skyscrapers of Pudong ("East of the Huangpu") and the colonial fortresses of the Bund. This landscape reveals a double schizophrenia -- Chinese versus Western, Jazz Age versus Postmodernism -- which is what makes Shanghai's art scene so complex and difficult to pigeonhole.
A prickly individualism keeps Shanghai artists from banding together like those in Beijing, so what "art scene" there is lies on the fringes of a more generalized underground. At the center of that underground is the writer and club promoter Mian Mian, pied piper of China's Generation Y. La, La, La, a collection of her tales of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll made her a cult hero -- the volume was recently banned after Jiang Zemin reportedly singled her out in a Politburo meeting as a "decadent influence" on Chinese youth. Together with the notorious DJ Coco Zhao, one of China's few publicly gay figures, Mian Mian creates nightclub parties promoting the best of new Chinese music and artists.
Another magnet for artists is the Shanghart Gallery, the only one in Shanghai devoted to avant-garde art. It represents most of the local artists, from abstractionists like Ding Yi to Generation X Neo-Conceptualists Shi Yong and Zhou Tiehai. However, director Lorenz Helbling is Swiss and the clientele, drawn by chic hangout Park 97 next door, is mostly foreign.
It's not that the locals don't collect art -- in fact, interest in Western art is mushrooming. It's more about the peculiarly xenophilic Shanghai mentality, and to understand that you have to understand the peculiarity of Shanghai itself, created in its current form from British and French "concessions" (colonies in all but name) besides a small port town (now the "Chinese City").
In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was the artistic center of China. It boasted a class of industrialists willing to spend money on art. Artists and intellectuals also came, not only for Shanghai's wealth but also for its freedom of expression, and the availability of Western and Japanese ideas and styles (not to mention actual foreigners).
The Xu Zhimo contingency argued for an opening to the West, a new kind of syncretic Chinese-ness with an accent on esthetic refinement. Xu's Xinyuehui ("Crescent Moon Society") advocated the modernism of the School of Paris. Another group, of which the novelist Lu Xun is today the best-known advocate, favored engagement with China's deep social problems, its spiritual as well as material poverty. These artists created the so-called "Woodcut School," with its heavily polemical agenda.
After the Japanese invasion in 1937 and subsequent civil war, China became increasingly inhumane. After "liberation" in 1949, the Westernizers were wiped out -- along with the more liberal Woodcut artists -- as the Communist Party sought to impose its authority over culture. Shanghai suffered badly during the Cultural Revolution, being the political base of its fomenters. When non-official art finally reappeared in the 1980s, it was in Beijing or even Hangzhou, not Shanghai.
Just five years ago, the city was a backwater frozen in time, in Paul Theroux's words "a big brown city which looks like Brooklyn." The locals, though, never lost their sense of superiority and, when Deng Xiaoping finally gave the go-ahead to open up, they did so with a vengeance.
Basically, the Shanghainese want to recreate the cosmopolitan Shanghai that the Communists destroyed. Ask any Shanghainese and they'll fill your mind with visions of the city's prosperous future.
The dream of resurrecting an imagined cosmopolitan past has had a debilitating effect on local culture. Shanghainese are more interested in assimilating international yuppie culture than anything quirky or local. No Beijing-style marathon discussions please, they're too busy shopping at Ikea.
Peculiar contradictions are unavoidable in this effort to create a vibrant society via Maoist command-and-control -- which, don't fool yourself, is how Shanghai works. Smart enough to understand that a "cosmopolitan city" needs world-class amenities, Mayor Xu Kuangdi has poured hundreds of millions into venues like the Shanghai Museum, with its world-class galleries of Chinese antiquities, the magnificent new Shanghai Opera, and now the Shanghai Art Museum, a gallery for 20th-century art in the renovated former home of the Shanghai Museum.
The old building is lovely, though the Chinese tendency to over-renovate is unfortunately also present. The collection is an assortment of unreconstructed Socialist-Realist kitsch, with the occasional painting by a relatively "safe" contemporary artist. More progressive is this November's Shanghai Biennial, for which the museum has brought in Shimizu Toshio of Japan and Chinese exile Hou Hanru as curators. In return for their participation, the pair demanded and got a promise of no censorship -- a promise, which Shanghai cannot really honor should higher powers intervene.
Artists occasionally organize unofficial shows, though much less often than in Beijing. Last April's avant-garde "Art for Sale" received perhaps the most attention, stealthily using shops on busy Huaihai Road as exhibition venues. Perhaps the most interesting remained unrealized -- Mian Mian was to print one of her novels on rolls of toilet paper -- because of the show's early closure. "Art for Sale" shut down after only three days because the artists had failed to apply for the necessary permissions.
Commerce and advertising are often subjects of commentary for the younger local artists: Shi Yong's "Image Advertising" comprised a series of fake ad campaigns soliciting the public to vote on Shi's hair style; Zhou Tiehai claims to be listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange (interestingly, as a "B" share, i.e. available to foreigners) and altered Art in America covers so that they featured Joe Camel.
A number of new galleries have opened, although most sell oil paintings of flowers, etc., and don't have a program in the sense that Shanghart does. Longrun Gallery, one example, lies above a massage parlor in a development named "Rome Garden" (plaster heads of Trajan grace the entrance).
Back on the highway to Pudong Airport, giant billboards exhort viewers to "bring China into the 21st century" -- a depressing reminder of how far official China must go before catching up with the 20th.
JONATHAN NAPACK is an American critic based in Hong Kong.